CESARE Bonacini loves Main Ridge. It’s his spiritual bowls home, his palace.
This diminutive, always affable Italian migrant, affectionately know by all in the Peninsula bowls community as “Caesar”, is indeed hailed by all who have been fortunate to know him on the greens or off.
And so it is that on August 19 this year we salute a unique and beautiful human being on his 100thbirthday.
The epitome of humility and a man of few words, Caesar’s actions do all the talking.
Since arriving at Main Ridge via Aberfeldie Bowls Club as a retired motor mechanic around a quarter of a century ago, Caesar simply got better at the game he loves as he got older.
At age 71 , in the 2003-4 pennant season, Caesar won the first of his five men’s singles club championships. The others quickly followed in 2005-6, 2007-8, 2011-12 and 2012-13.
He also teamed with colourful teammate Andy Alexandrou in 2009-10 to secure the club’s pair’s title and feat he achieved again in 2020-21 with Lee Mellett at the tender age of 98.
And remarkably last season as a 99 year-old, he was beaten by a single shot in the pairs final.
Everyone in Peninsula bowls reveres and admiresthis little man who was as unwaveringly dignified as he was brilliant in pennant competition. His opponents have long lauded – and feared – his level of skill as a lawn bowler.
Caesar’s path to Main Ridge is as colourful as it is unlikely.
He was born in the northern Italian town of Modena, some 40 km north-west of Bologna the same year as Benito Mussolini came to power and started a 21-year fascist reign of Italy.
The youngest of three boys, Caesar lost his mother at an early age before his father moved the family to France for a period to escape the Mussolini dictatorship.
He returned to his native Italy to complete his schooling and then by the time he turned 17, the world was at war.
Caesar recounts a time after Germany had invaded Italy he narrowly avoided being taken by the Germans while on a train heading to the south of the country. His slight built, short stature and fresh face led to an assumption he was under age and they therefore passed him by.
In fact Caesar was drafted into the armed services where he drove a tanks and supported the air regiment. He emerged from WW11 an unscathed 23 year-old in search of adventure and a better life.
He arrived in Australia at the port of Melbourne on the ship the Castel Felice only to discover that his name was not on the roll call of emigrants as it should have been. Speaking little English and technically being an illegal immigrant, his personal papers were enough to sort out technicalities and allow him proceed to the School of Infantry in Seymour where he would acclimatise in a migrant camp.
Caesar was great with his hands and a skilful mechanic which paved the way for him to secure a job in a garage on the sleepy Victorian town of Alexandria.
In the meantime, back in the bustling city of Modena was Marisa, Caesar’s finance who was patiently awaiting the call to come and join him in Australia.
A migrant getting a single girl into Australia some 70 years ago wasn’t all that simple.
So it was that when a friend at the same boarding house in Alexandria asked Caesar why he was sitting with his head in his hands looking so forlorn he replied simply: “I am getting married today.”
Caesar’s brother Roberto stood in for him in Italy as he and Marisa were married by proxy.
Back 70 years ago Modena wasn’t the bustling city of 185,000 people that is today but it was still a city, so Alexandria in rural Victoria was an initial culture shock for the new Mrs Bonacini.
Not long after Caesar secured a mechanic’s job in a Holden dealership in Nunawading, he then became a partner in a service station in Moonee Ponds before rounding off his working life by running in partnership for 24 years J & C Motors, a panel beating business in Essendon.
Along the journey came his son Michael and daughter Tania, the former living and working in Melbourne, the latter a school teacher in Canberra.
Over 20 years ago Caesar and Marisa retired to Dromana, which meant he had to find a new bowls club. Dromana Bowls Club was closer to home but he chose the glorious surrounds of Main Ridge as the place to continue his bowls passion.
The rest, as they say, is history. His other achievements aside, he gloried in two pennant premiership sides in 2017-18 and another the following year. Witnessing the absolute joy on Caesar’s face when he had a premiership medal hung around his 97-year-old neck is a moment this author will never forget
Sadly, Marisa passed away in 2020..
On Caesar’s 97th his teammates took him out to an Italian restaurant in Dromana called Zero 95 and in a keeping with the occasion he was prompted to make a speech - something he was neither accustomed nor really keen to do.
It was brief, but ever so succinct.
“A long time ago I made two great decisions,” he said in his soft tone, the unmistakeable accent of a European migrant still strong.
“The first was to migrate to Australia ….. and the second was to join Main Ridge. I am thankful for that.”
No Caesar, we thank you