Tenacity and hard work made a humble miner’s son a successful and generous businessman.
The passing of Henry Donohue ends a life of unrivalled achievement in the South Gippsland community. A modest man from humble beginnings, through sheer tenacity and hard work he became the most successful businessman in the history of Wonthaggi.
Henry was the eighth of 10 children born to Mary and Cornelius Donohue. His father worked in the local coal mines and the family knew tough times.
With regular strikes in the Wonthaggi mines lasting as long as five months and meagre or often no income, the family caught rabbits and eels and grew vegetables in their backyard to survive. At the age of 10, Henry was billeted out to live on a farm distant from home.
He attended school in the farming community and was awarded a bursary to attend Xavier College in Melbourne. Henry represented the college in running and 1st-18 football and won the lightweight boxing title.
On completion of year 10 he returned to Wonthaggi in an era when work was almost impossible to find. Ever determined, he took to woodcutting and loading and unloading trucks by hand. He then worked for three years as a herd tester, servicing dairy farms. His transport was by a horse no longer capable of working down the mines, pulling the cheapest open cart he could buy.
His next venture was to buy an old truck. He and his brother Bill supplied sand and red stone which they hand loaded with shovels.
Henry had four loves in his life: his family, his sport, his church and his work.
His marriage of 62 years to Iris resulted in four children, 13 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. It was rare to have a discussion with Henry where his family was not mentioned.
Besides his sporting achievements at Xavier, he played 1st-18 football locally, won best and fairest three times and was league runner-up. He was a champion table tennis player and Wonthaggi lawn bowls champion 10 times.
Henry loved challenges and working hard. He had a fierce work ethic and determination. Following the purchase of his gravel truck, he bought a local house- removal business which for many years involved Henry in dangerous work and long hours, cutting up buildings to be relocated to new sites and put together again.
Henry did much for his community which is not widely known. Using his house removal business and workers, he provided and renovated substantial buildings which were used to house the table tennis club and other sporting bodies on the Wonthaggi recreation reserve and also a major building which for decades was the home of the local theatrical group.
He transported these buildings at no charge to the community.
Following some years in the house removal business, he struck on the idea of building new homes in a factory and transporting them to their new site. Henry approached legendary local builder Bill Collins, who agreed to join with him to create a new company to be called Coldon Homes.
These young men obtained a large site on the outskirts of Wonthaggi and bought the former Olympic dining rooms facility used in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. They demolished the building by hand and transported the sections to Wonthaggi on Henry’s house-moving truck. Following their reassembly and extensive modification as a factory, Coldon Homes produced their first factory-built home in June 1966.
The success of this business was phenomenal. Within 20 years it had become the largest builder of homes in regional Victoria and one of the nation’s leading volume builders. To this day, Coldon Homes is one of Victoria’s largest builders.
Henry’s success in business was not limited to home building and over a 25-year period he established a chain of hardware stores throughout South Gippsland and a major frame, truss, window and joinery factory in Wonthaggi. His enterprises were among the largest stockists and consumers of hardware products in Victoria and in some cases nationally.
His success in business is unrivalled locally and is all the more praiseworthy considering his humble start.
Despite his great achievements, Henry lived a humble, quiet family life and never exhibited the trappings of success. Many of the tradies he employed built themselves much bigger houses and drove prestige cars. He always drove a modest car.
Henry loved his local church and what he did for the Wonthaggi Catholic Parish over several decades is a major story in itself. For many years he was chairman of the Parish Council.
In the 1970s a visionary young Irish priest, Father Matthew White, was appointed to the Wonthaggi Parish and soon saw the old buildings comprising the church and school complex were in need of either major upgrades or replacement. Working with Henry, Bill Collins and a committee, they set about implementing what many saw as an impossible dream of establishing a vast, new parish and school complex. The trio worked tirelessly over almost three decades to build one of the greatest Catholic complexes in Victoria.
The architecture and stunning design of the church, which seats 450, sets it apart as one of the finest built in Australia in the modern era. It was fitting that the funeral service for Henry was carried out in this wonderful church.
In the five decades since the establishment of Henry’s building and hardware enterprises thousands of people have owed their livelihood to him. The community owes much to Henry Donohue, and the employment opportunities he leaves for future generations mean his unrivalled legacy will live on.