The story of Garry O'Dwyer: Order of Australia Medallist
A STRANGER clung to Garry O'Dwyer unable to hold back her tears of gratitude. He held on for a minute before he too broke down sobbing.
This was a moment that would stay with the now-71-year-old new Hervey Bay resident for the rest of his life.
His voice broke only slightly as he remembered post-Christmas in 2011 when Emerald in Queensland's Central Highlands district was cleaning up the worst flood the mining township had ever experienced.
Twelve hundred residents registered as evacuees and almost 80 per cent of the town was flooded.
"I had been stripping and washing houses and I was on my way home filthy and covered in mud," Garry recalled.
"I got a call from someone on the committee for flood relief and she said to me there was a couple who had been in Melbourne for Christmas. They came home and everything was ruined and they had swept and cleaned it all out but they were sleeping on their clothes on the concrete floor."
Garry phoned his friend who ran a homewares store and returned to the young family's house with a queen mattress and two child's mattresses strapped to the back of his ute just in time for bedtime.
"And she is there hugging and crying and I couldn't get away from her and I was just bawling my eyes out," he said.
"Things like that, you can't buy those things. It's just the way I am, I will always be that way inclined.
"I do it because I want to do it. I want to help people in the community.
"My wife said any stray dog I'd take on board."
This selfless attitude has seen Garry remembered in our country's history books after he was awarded one of Australia Day's highest honours at the weekend.
The former underground miner was not expecting to receive a Medal of the Order of Australia when his wife, Maxine, showed him an official email stating he was one of this year's 755 people recognised for their contributions to the nation.
In secret, Garry's sister and wife had compiled his long list of community contributions, from his work as a Lions Club member, rural firefighter and Returned Servicemen's League member, which spanned three regions.
Garry worked rock mining in the sewage tunnels in Sydney in 1969 before transitioning into coal mining.
At 21 he was conscripted into the national army service for two years and was sent on a peacekeeping mission to New Guinea.
Back on Australian soil, Garry returned to the mining industry and spent 25 years in Queensland's Central Highlands.
"You know the song I've Been Everywhere, Man? Well, that's me," he said.
"I went where the work was to Blackwater, Emerald, Moranbah, Middlemount and Dysart. I've always been involved in the community, which is why I joined the Lions.
"Why? I dunno. One bloke said to me at work if you did what you did in the community then you would retire a millionaire.
"When I retired and left Emerald, the Lions Club named their meeting place shed after me and that was the biggest buzz I've ever had up until now."
Garry's achievements flit from starting an athletics club for children in Blackwater by renting the oval for $1 a year to popping around to elderly people's houses and fixing everything from toilets to cupboards.
When Garry and Maxine retired to Pottsville near Tweed almost five years ago, Garry started training as a member of the rural fire brigade.
"We had the highest call-out rate on the Northern Rivers," he said.
"We had the M1 right alongside of us and two to three times a week we would get called out to crashes because we were the closest."
When Garry relocated to Hervey Bay his crew gave him a book filled with pictures of the team's rescues and community volunteering.
The pages were filled with tales of battling blazes as well as horrific car and truck crash rescues, the training for which Garry, like all volunteers, completed in his own time.
Garry and Maxine visited Urangan to see friends and discovered the perfect house two streets over and moved last year.
The couple have two daughters, an "adopted son" and four grandchildren.
"I have enjoyed what I have done and haven't worried about anything else and got on with it," Garry said.
"I've had great support from my wife, Maxine, who has always been there behind me."