This Thursday, Carlton’s, Richmond’s and League football’s oldest surviving past player will quietly spend his 103rd birthday in a Mornington Peninsula nursing home.
With the cursed virus well and truly taking hold, it’s another day in lockdown for the Blues’ former centreman Keith Rae, whose long life has been bookended by the Spanish flu and now the Corona virus.
Keith was but a toddler when returning soldiers brought the flu ashore in 1919.
He was too young to comprehend then and too old to remember now - but the story goes that as thousands succumbed to its killer grip, his Mum and Dad took him north to the Queensland sun so that the little boy could overcome a worrying bout of bronchitis.
Born before the Armistice was signed, and hardened by the days of the Great Depression, Keith Stanley Rae is of that fast disappearing generation who also served his country through the Second World War (in his case as a leading seaman).
Between times, the boy from Williamstown chased the pigskin in the VFL through 15 games out of the centre for Carlton in 1939 and again in ’43, and in two more for the Tigers after the guns fell silent in ’46.
Keith was the oldest of five Rae siblings, with three sisters and a brother following.
Appropriately, Carlton’s 550th player to complete his senior debut was born in the Blue Room of his grandfather’s Stag’s Head Hotel in ‘Willy’ on July 30, 1917.
Keith carried his books to the local Williamstown state school, and later Footscray Technical College, despite his father’s best efforts.
“Dad wanted me to go to Scotch College and I said ‘Why go all the way out there?’”, he told me on the occasion of his 100th birthday three years ago.
Not long after finishing up at Footscray Tech, Keith took on a welder’s course at the Williamstown naval dockyards, “but in the end I joined the Navy because I was 16 and I couldn’t get a job”.
That move would later have significant ramifications.
Keith Rae proudly sports his old guernsey at a naval camp in Portsmouth in 1941.— Carlton History (@CarltonHistory) July 29, 2020
The jumper later went down with a ship in the Mediterranean... but its wearer survived.
Tomorrow, Rae - Carlton’s, Richmond’s and the AFL’s oldest surviving past player - turns 103. pic.twitter.com/1BoKRzw902
In Williamstown, Keith’s prowess as a midfielder soon came to the attention of the renowned Carlton talent scout Newton Septimus Weston Chandler.
“I reckon it was Newton who approached me at a game at Williamstown and said ‘Son, we think we could use you’,” Keith recalled. “In the end I went up to Carlton to practice and I remember breaking into the team and running down the race.”
Keith got the nod for his first game more than 80 years ago - against Footscray in the 15th round of the 1939 season – with the imprimatur of the then Carlton premiership captain-coach Brighton Diggins.
As he recalled: “He was quite a good bloke Diggins. He told me I was playing and I couldn’t wait to tell my father”.
Keith was named in the centre, between Jack Carney and Bob Green. He followed Diggins down the race with the likes of Baxter, Chitty, Crisp and Hale.
Together they contributed to Carlton’s 88-point annihilation of the visitors, with Paul Schmidt and Baxter booting nine and eight goals respectively, and 'Micky' Crisp putting another five over the goal umpire’s hat.
Omitted after the following match against Hawthorn, Keith’s ’39 season was done and dusted when Carlton failed to make the cut for September.
Then the war came . . . and Keith, already serving with the RAN Volunteer Reserve, was called upon by the navy.
The ensuing three years would see him fulfil various duties on a number of ships, amongst them the destroyer HMAS Nestor which, in June 1942, was amongst a convoy attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe, by U boats and by E boats.
Both engine rooms of the Nestor were flooded and four stokers were killed in that incident.
But Keith lived to tell the tale.
“The plane came over and dropped a bomb. The bomb hit the yard arm of the mast and deflected into the water,” he said.
“I’d just come off the wheel and wooden pieces of it came flying down, some of it hitting me in the leg. It’s why I’ve still got this crook leg, but I was lucky. I sat on top of the deck until a rescue ship came by.”
In 1943, Keith was posted back to Melbourne, and wasted little time resuming his playing career by Royal Parade, under the watch of Diggins’ successor as Carlton senior coach, Percy Bentley.
Sporting the No.23 now worn by Jacob Weitering, he got a call-up for the opening round match of the ’43 season - and in the lead-up stood with his teammates to observe a minute’s silence for his old teammate Jim Park, who had been killed in action in New Guinea.
After the lone bugler played The Last Post, the ball was bounced, and the Carlton players attacked it with sheer ferocity. Prominent amongst them was Jim Baird with 10 goals from full-forward, and Keith was acknowledged for his handy contributions on a wing.
Carlton ended the ’43 home and away season in fourth place, only to be bundled out of the finals by Fitzroy in the first semi. Keith, despite appearing in 13 of the 16 regular season matches, was omitted for the that Gorillas game and never again took to the field in dark navy.
The Navy called Keith back to the colours in 1944, and he was still on duty when World War II ended. Amongst those who could genuinely claim that they served ‘for the duration,’ Keith was finally discharged in May ’46 – and fronted up for two senior games at Richmond before calling it a day as a League footballer.
At Carlton, Keith is accredited with just two career goals – two too many as he dryly suggested.
“I remember one game there was a boundary throw-in, I got the football, swung around and kicked a goal, even though the centre half-forward Jack Wrout was calling for it,” Keith said.
“After that happened and the ball was being taken back to the centre, he (Wrout) came up to me and said: ‘I kick the goals’.”
Through his days as a League footballer, Keith was paid three pound a game for his troubles – with all proceeds passed on to his mother.
“Not that she needed it,” Keith said. “It was more that money never meant anything to me.”
Keith celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends on the Peninsula where he lived for many years in coastal tranquillity. The best wishes card from Her Maj had already founds its way to his modest home, as had a card from the PM, when he gave of his time for this interview.
He became the third former Carlton footballer known to have notched the three figures after his recruiter Newton Chandler, who died at the age of 103 years, six months and six days in 1997, and Mac Wilson, who lived for 103 years, one month and a day before he met his maker in August 2013.
As Keith’s daughter Julie observed: “Dad certainly is hardy considering the life he has led – elite sportsman, World War II veteran who overcame dysentery and malaria, and fisherman who was washed off the rocks many times”.
“The family is disappointed we can’t be with Dad on his birthday, but we know he is safe and well,” Julie said.
“Dad would be pleased about this tribute, as he absolutely enjoyed his time at Carlton. His only disappointment was that his football career was interrupted.”
In rounding out this story, it’s only fitting that Keith be given the last word.
On turning 100 three years ago, and insisting there were a few more birthdays left in him yet, the great man was drawn to say: “Have a look at me. I never smoked, I never had an argument, and when you live to be 100 it’s got to mean you’re happy”.
Keith Rae’s first senior game for Carlton, Round 15, Saturday, August 5, 1939, versus Footscray at Princes Park:
B: Don McIntyre, Frank Gill, Jim Park
HB: Bob Chitty, Jim Francis (vc), Frank Anderson
C: Jack Carney, Keith Rae, Bob Green
HF: Ron ‘Socks’ Cooper, Jack Wrout, Creswell Crisp
F: Harry Hollingshead, Ken Baxter, Paul Schmidt
FOLL: Brighton Diggins (cc), Rod McLean, Jack Hale
19th man: Jack Skinner