For many celebrating their 100th lap around the sun, a letter from the Queen is something to cherish.
But Uncle Wes Marne, never short of a quip, says she should be sending a bottle of “that nice wine she drinks” to honour his centenary, according to an old friend of his.
Uncle Wes is a Biduginbul elder who has lived through World War II, the Stolen Generations and last Monday celebrated his 100th birthday with friends and family at Plumpton Park in Western Sydney.
It is a remarkable feat for anyone, but especially so for Uncle Wes who has lived nearly 30 years beyond the life expectancy for Indigenous men.
His life has been one of great adversity; from being unwelcome in the education system and being moved from his home to more recently shaking off a bout of COVID.
But through that adversity it has also been a life of great reward not just for himself, but for the thousands of people he has lifted up along the way.
Happy 100th Birthday to our dear Senior Elder Uncle Wes! 🎉 Thank you for enriching the lives of so many with your leadership, kindness and tenacity.
— Blake Smith-Tatafu (@BlaykeTatafu) April 25, 2022
Today Uncle Wes is one of the most respected figures in Sydney in equal parts due to the rich life he has lead and the remarkable work he has done for Aboriginal education and cultural advancement.
Long-time friend Greg Simms, who turns 73 on Monday, was the one who shared Uncle Wes’ joke about the Queen’s wine.
“He is always in good spirits and is easy to get on with,” he said.
“He’s a good man, A real good man – all ages looks up to him.
“I hope he has many, many more birthdays.”
Uncle Wes has for decades been a champion of Aboriginal culture, often attending schools to share his passion for storytelling, a trait passed down by his own elders.
In 2011 he was bestowed the University of Western Sydney’s first Nanga Mai Love of Learning award recognising is efforts to promote Aboriginal education in NSW schools.
Outside of schools Uncle Wes has been a pillar of strength for the Mount Druitt community, often taking at-risk youth under his wing and treating them as his own family.
He is also a long-serving member of the Mount Druitt and Districts Reconciliation Group, organising annual reconciliation walks for the community.
Jie Pittman, who is related to Uncle Wes through marriage, said his generation owed the lifestyles they led to elders like Uncle Wes.
“He has been strengthening me for over 20 years now to be the man that I am working with kids and working in community and working with culture,” he said.
Happy 100th birthday to Uncle Wes, the only man I’ll tolerate today pic.twitter.com/eZMxzb3lVR
— evelyn araluen (@evelynaraluen) April 25, 2022
“We’ve got people that are from country today that are so much stronger for longer because of people like Uncle Wes who have come from another community or another country to this community and… bring back his dreaming.
“It’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing that… he still has his his smarts about him still has his heart about him.”
“He’s just a reminder of the magic of the way of our lifestyle of being black fellas.”
Uncle Wes grew up in southern Queensland in a riverside tribal setting, a place he told the ABC in 2013 was “my happiest times… when I lived on the river in the old tin camp”.
As was the case with many tribal residents in the mid-1900s, Uncle Wes was moved onto a reserve in NSW aged 10 and soon after began work carrying water.
His colourful life saw him pursue careers as a boxer, a tobacco picker and in tannery and chicken factories.
Having little formal education himself, Uncle Wes then moved to Sydney where he committed himself to ensuring his children and grandchildren were better off.
100-yr-old Uncle Wes at Baabayn Aborginal Corporation's Get up! Stand up! Show up! event on #Darug land in @blacktowncc. We are blessed to be home to the oldest continuously living culture(s) in the world and Uncle Wes is a national treasure.#AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe pic.twitter.com/4CBdH3yBLC
— Caritas Australia (@CaritasAust) April 26, 2022
Mr Pittman said Uncle Wes’ life provided a window into his own family’s upbringing.
It’s always so beautiful to spend the time that I do with uncle Wes because it also gives me that connection to, not just my mother’s generation, not just my grandfather’s generation, but almost close to my great grandfather’s generation,” he said.
“He will always be the mayor of people for what he’s done over the years.”
In a sign of just how respected he is, Uncle Wes was handed the keys to the city to mark his 100th birthday.