A tribute to...

Ottavio Gherdevich

Published: 10/7/2019

"It was a good life, a happy life, a Darwin life and a life to be proud of."

- Ottavio's loving wife

OTTAVIO Gherdevich died on April 20 this year - Easter Saturday, aged 82 years old. He died at home with his family by his side.

To us, his family, he was the world. To the world, he was simply known as OTTO THE PLUMBER.

Otto started his working life in Trieste Italy as an apprentice "Pastice" (a pastry chef) on 19/12/50 aged 14. This was the first and last time he ever cooked…EVER!

He started a new apprenticeship as a plumber on 17/9/51 and continued on until 23/2/58 when he left Trieste to emigrate to Australia. He was 21 when he arrived in Sydney with one small suitcase, his work record and reference (see picture below).

In Sydney at Randwick Tech, he requalified as a plumber and drainer for Australia and, despite having no English, he was offered work at the Snowy Mountain Scheme (declined) or grape picking.

He opted instead to travel onto Melbourne where his older brother and two sisters had settled.

He worked briefly at Humes Pipes with his brother but left because the work was too dangerous. His brother, who had family, stayed and the accident Otto had foreseen happened. A ribbon steel wire under tension snapped and amputated Claudio's foot.

Otto arrived in Darwin at the latter end of 1959 where he immediately commenced work for Boscainni and Lovato.

The population was approximately 5000 and there was still barbed wire across Smith Street where a bomb had demolished the Post Office during WWII.


Ottavio's work record
Ottavio's work record

Accommodation was at a premium and Lovato allowed a couple of his workers (Otto included) to sleep in the back of the work shed. Eventually a place became available at Poppy and Evo's Boarding House in Woods St.

Otto called his first two years in Australia 'the Dark Ages'. He learned English by reading newspapers with an English/Italian dictionary beside him. Thus, while having a very precise understanding of the English language - his accent was appalling and remained so, till his dying day.

How to summarise his 50+ years as a plumber in Darwin?

With Angelo Maddalozzo he was the plumber for Moonta House, the Supreme Court building, the two Government office blocks and the Mandorah Inn. Angelo offered him a block at Mandorah which Otto declined but spent many a Sunday going to Mandorah with the boys on the "Mandorah Queen". Angelo in his holey blue singlet driving the boat.

There was the Asti Motel with Freddy Tomassi of Inter-construction Enterprises, the Scatturchio buildings in Katherine, plus the courthouse.

There was the clean water supply and sewerage systems on Aboriginal communities and the Dolly Pot Inn at Tennant Creek with Moretti. The Bark Hut Inn with Steve Baldwin, The Italian Club, the new ablution and toilet block at Wangi Falls in Litchfield.

He worked on jobs in Alice Springs, Timber Creek and Elcho Island.

He spent two-and-a-half years at Gove (Nabalco) as a Leading Hand for half a dozen plumbers constructing a whole township, as well as a mine site - and was at Jabiru for six months also, in the set-up stage, installing demountables for the workers. His wife (I) demanded he leave there because the children were fretting too much in his absence.

Work in Darwin had ground to a halt after the Cyclone - repair phase. No new building until the new cyclone code A came out and new building construction could recommence.

As the years went by, Otto worked for Randazzo of North West Constructions on buildings in Palmerston and Katherine. He worked for Leo Venturin as well. He did small jobs for Allan Garraway and Warren Low Choy (a lecturer at the Uni, who worked with Chris) and many other friends.

Otto the Plumber
Otto the Plumber

The first was in the plumbing subcontract for the civic centre (yes, he did that building too). An interstate company was the contractor - they went broke and left Darwin without paying the subbies.

The second disaster was not long after Cyclone Tracy.

Otto was subcontracted for 20 housing commission houses at Casuarina. They were essentially completed and the housing commission paid the contract out in full to the contractors - but they nicked off without paying out the subbies once again. Otto still survived with good humour and no bitterness…

Otto was not only a master plumber, he was certified for Hydraulic Engineering, Plumber & Drainer (Design), Plumber & Drainer (unrestricted) and Plumber & Drainer (Residential). All this was for buildings of up to three storeys high.

He was also a Gasfitter (a rarity in the early years) and was happy to go to Charlie Cagnetti's "Olympic" restaurant to fix the gas stoves and ovens in return for a free feed for the whole family. Yum! Who can forget Charlie's!

Otto could not refuse any job request even when he was over 75 - a friend with a leaking roof (very rare nowadays with the lousy wet seasons), a toilet that wouldn't stop running or a dripping tap. I (his wife) threw away his work boots and he handed in his plumbing licence, but there were always jobs to do and he enjoyed doing them.

He returned to Italy for five to six weeks every two years until three years ago when he was too sick to travel.

His five sisters in Trieste always greeted him with love and joy and a list of little jobs to do. The last little job he did here before he passed, was to fix the palliative care bed he was in. The control had exposed wires so with insulation tape, he slowly wound it round and round and round the cord until he couldn't reach under the bed.

I cannot finish this without mentioning Otto's partners through the years. Gino De Luca who phoned Easter Sunday from Perth, saying he had funny feeling at lunchtime the day before - the hour when Otto passed away. Gino we remember you.

Also Angelo Buffon, who was recruited for Lovato from Bonegilla Migrant Camp by Otto. He was a partner to Otto in later years and George Magriplis, who is still alive and kicking and came to Otto's funeral service/wake.

In the last two years, Otto still took the dog for a walk down the Nightcliff Beach in the mornings, then, when he was able, he would drive into town to have a coffee and yarn with his Italian friends at the Sorrento in the Mall.

Sometimes there were funerals to attend and sometimes he just stayed at home to look after our little treasure Olivia, our ninth grandchild, aged two. It was a good life, a happy life, a Darwin life and a life to be proud of.

RIP Otto - the Plumber!

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