Bill Warner goes by many names. Some, in his time of service, knew him as ‘Plum’. Others know him as Ivan, or simply Bill; but he’s known by all as one of Dandenong’s greatest living treasures.
1951 in Australia saw the first woman hanged in Victoria since 1896, compulsory military training for men over 19, and the invention of the Chiko roll. It was also the year Bill Warner joined the Police force at 25.
An engineering student, Bill worked as an apprentice and design draftsman before joining the force – something he says he thought he’d “never be very good at”.
After a night at the local Mechanicals Hall in South Melbourne, dancing with “whoever [he] could”, Bill met Bonnie and Lois, who would ask him to dinner the following night.
“I nearly died when I realised it was the Springvale Police Station,” he says.
“After eating, their father came back and asked me if I’d eaten his dinner. The girls were laughing their heads off, and I’d clearly been taken in.”
Come morning, Bonnie and Lois’ father was at Bill’s door, to ask if he’d ever considered joining the force. By a matter of months, he’d been prompted to front up to St Kilda Road with 150 other young rookies.
10 weeks of training later, Bill had his number: 11195. He’d quickly find his first job; washing out the cells of drunken crooks from the night before and taking their fingerprints, a posting that lasted 18 months.
“When the drunks had finally sobered up we had to fingerprint them,” he says.
“I was always sent out to do the dirtier jobs, like fingerprinting bodies from the river,” he says, “but it taught me humility.”
“Some of the lessons I’ve learnt about myself are from the challenges I faced when I was a junior member of the police force.”
After a stint at the Watchhouse, somewhere Bill says he got to know a number of notable criminals, he’d be sent out to Heyfield to begin a lifetime of community involvement.
Bill recounts it was part of a combined effort of the Police Department and the Housing Commission of Victoria to improve poverty conditions.
“At a basic level I started out just trying to get people to stop wrecking the place,” he says.
“When I walked down the street everybody would walk to the other side,” he says. “They were told that this copper, who was coming at 6 feet tall with axe handles across the shoulders, would shoot anyone who misbehaved.”
“So, it was a little quiet for a while.”
After several discussions with the Church of the Holy Rosary and the Preston Methodist Church, Bill began to tap into what he calls “part time social work” in the creation of a Sunday school; despite being initially unsuccessful.
“I spoke to the priest at the Holy Rosary and asked for help, but was told the community were sinners and couldn’t be helped,” he says.
“I told him they may well be, but they need as much help as we can give them”.
After 18 months in Heyfield, Bill was promoted to Sergeant and transferred to Russell St; but not before a final farewell from the community he’d helped fix.
“They said they were ever grateful for me,” he says, “just before the treasurer ran off with the money we raised”.
Bill describes his time in Victoria Police as somewhat ‘untraditional’. It was when Bill was sent out to a house in Brunswick to take fingerprints after a robbery that his creativity became apparent.
“After calming down the woman that had been burgled, I had her carefully repeat the event in her bedroom,” he says.
“She’d been grabbed from behind and pushed into a wardrobe.”
After realising he could find prints off the back of the fibrous plaster of the door with powder, Bill had done just that; but not without scepticism from his colleagues.
“I copped a mouth full of abuse from the senior members who called me a bloody liar. We went back out there and I showed him what I did. He said, ‘Plum, you’ve made history’.”
33 years from his first stint in the force, in 1983, Bill was ready to retire from policing – but not from his community. He’d retired with a chief commissioner’s certificate for sustained, outstanding and loyal service.
Bill’s time and effort as an administrator in the movement later saw him become District Commissioner for Springvale and receive the Silver Acorn award for Distinguished Service to the Scout Movement in 1984, until his retirement in 1987.
He was later elected a councillor for the City of Springvale in 1969, and was mayor three times, in 1972, 1975 and 1981. Come 1993, he was awarded Citizen of the Year for service to the historical movement and the community.
In 2005, Bill was made a ‘living treasure’ by the City of Greater Dandenong. In the same year, the Springvale Primary School Committee had “Warner House” created in his name.
He was a pivotal member to the Freemasons group, who raised several thousand dollars to purchase mobile low slung wheelchairs, to assist the disabled in riding out to sea. He’d later become President of the group for two years.
Bill, almost 96, now has time to reflect on his life; living with his partner Eleanora in Dandenong, where it all began. Bill has 3 children: Christine Anne, Jennifer Margaret, and Neil Lewis, whom he adopted from the Methodist Church with his first wife.
“What a busy time sharing our lives with an almost instant family,” he says.
Bill joined PVV at 95 and became the organisation’s oldest living veteran; a testament to his lifelong commitment of service and belonging.
“The best decisions of my life were simple: joining the Freemasons, joining the police force, and having a family.”
“I’m a great believer in ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’: if you don’t have a go, you’ll never find out.”
It’s now in the twilight of Bill’s life that he can sit back and reminisce on a life well lived.
“I’d like to say more. I’d like to reminisce more; to provide more reflections on my early life, parts of my career and my community involvement,” he says.
“But space and time are always limitations.”
“For now, this is my story,” he says, “and I leave this story for others as a part of my legacy, on a life lived as well as I have known how.”