Mr Guide Dog: Rotary’s role in illuminating a guiding light

Local man Hubert Morris became so popular in Townsville, Qld, the community rallied together and raised enough money for him to fly to Perth in 1960, where he acquired a remarkable new invention – a seeing-eye dog.

By Neil Andrews
Rotary Club of Mundingburra, Qld

It’s 1944. A 40-year-old man loses his sight. What is to become of him? That man, Hubert Vincent Morris, or Hubie as he affectionately became known, decides never to lose his sense of humour, his determination or sense of values. Instead, he chooses to work for others in Queensland with sight impairment or blindness. Dressed in all white with white cane in hand, Hubie made a difference in Townsville for more than 20 years by seeking out other blind or vision impaired people just to talk to them or entertain them with his harmonica.

PICTURED: When Hubie returned from Perth with his first dog, his picture made the front page of the Townsville Daily Bulletin – the town was fascinated by the idea of seeing-eye dogs.

While reflecting on Hubie’s achievements, his granddaughter recalled that her grandfather approached many local business leaders and persuaded them to help blind and vision impaired people. In no time at all, Hubie started clubs for blind or vision impaired people so they could enjoy themselves and learn how to fit into day-to-day life as a sight impaired or blind member of the community. By all accounts, many wonderful recreational events took place, even singalongs.

Unsurprisingly, Hubie’s work came to the attention of local community service clubs in and around the Townsville area. These clubs helped Hubie establish himself, but the support of one Rotary club in particular changed Hubie’s life dramatically.

In 1960, the Rotary Club of Mundingburra, coincidentally with its own motto of ‘Making a Difference’, raised and donated the funds necessary to send Hubie to the Guide Dog Centre in Western Australia to obtain his first seeing-eye dog. By doing so, Mundingburra Rotarians assisted Hubie to become the first person in Queensland to have a seeing-eye dog. On returning to Townsville with his new best friend, Halda, Hubie discovered that members of the Rotary Club Mundingburra had been busy erecting a fence around his home – just to give Halda a little extra protection.

PICTURED: Hubie with Guide Dog ‘Polar’ pictured shortly after receiving his OAM in 1979.

From that day on, Hubie, with Halda (and subsequently Rex and Polar) constantly by his side, travelled the region extensively seeking other people with sight impairments. He focussed his efforts on raising funds to support the training of more guide dogs.

Hubie’s tireless efforts resulted in the formation of a sub-branch of the Queensland Society of Blind Citizens and led to him earning the nickname of ‘Mr Guide Dog’. Over a period of more than 20 years, Hubie’s family estimate he raised more than $500,000. A wonderful achievement by any standard. For his commitment and dedicated work helping the blind and vision impaired Hubie received many accolades. Not only was his dedication formally recognised by a Townsville Mayor, Lions International presented him with their International Medal of Merit in 1977 and in 1979 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

PICTURED: Hubie with one of the new ‘trainee’ pups.

The experience of their initial engagement with and support of Hubie demonstrated the immense value of guide dogs to the Rotary Club of Mundingburra. This led to a long-term commitment by the club to support blind and vision impaired people in Townsville. For more than half a century an annual charity golf day took place, with the aim of raising funds for donation to Guide Dogs Queensland. These funds assisted with the provision of a wide variety of specialist items needed by people with impaired vision to improve their day-to-day lives. To this day, the Rotary Club of Mundingburra has a very strong partnership with Guide Dogs Queensland and assists in whatever way it can.

It is probably fair to say that back in 1960, little did either Hubie or members of the Rotary Club of Mundingburra realise the significance of their association. The often over quoted title of the Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ actually does apply very well in this instance. A small but generous gesture by Mundingburra Rotarians brought the first guide dog to Queensland. Then, through Hubie’s work and dedication to making the lives of vision impaired and blind people better, the organisation known today as Guide Dogs Queensland was established.

PICTURED: Hubie Morris’s grandson, Paul Birtles, and daughter, Yvonne Watkinson, hand over family albums and records to the Townsville Museum and Historical Society president Trish Cronin. (Photo: News Ltd/Newspix)

Sadly, Hubie passed away in 1995 at the age of 90 but in honour of and as a tribute to him, his daughter, Yvonne Watkinson, and grandson, Paul Birtles, recently donated a treasure trove of documents, newspaper articles, photographs, scrapbooks and other memorabilia lovingly compiled by Hubie’s wife to the Townsville Museum and Historical Society. While formally presenting the documents and photographs to the president of the Townsville Museum and Historical Society, Yvonne remarked that she felt the records belonged in Townsville, a place where her father made such a difference and left a lasting legacy.

At a recent Rotary Club of Mundingburra meeting Yvonne and Paul were honoured guests, together with Bernadette McKean from Guide Dogs Queensland. During the evening, both Yvonne and Bernadette acknowledged the key role played by the Rotary Club of Mundingburra in the arrival of the first guide dog in Queensland 63 years ago and congratulated the club on its long-term and ongoing assistance to vision impaired and blind people in Queensland.