By Barry York – originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald
When the migrant boat ‘Sydney’ entered Sydney Harbour in December 1954, Lino Vella was in awe at the sight of the magnificent steel bridge. On disembarking, the first thing he wanted to do was walk across it, he told me in an oral history interview thirty years ago.
The eighteen-year-old had travelled 16,000 kilometres from Malta, out of a “spirit of adventure”, expecting to remain for a couple of years and then return home. Like many thousands of Maltese migrants after World War 11, when one sixth of the island’s population migrated to Australia, he was a hard worker and a good saver. But he did not imagine he would settle permanently in Sydney and one day become a journalist, an editor, and an iconic figure in the Maltese community.
Lino was born at Rahal Gdid, Malta, on 22 September 1936, the eldest of five boys and three girls. He was a child of the War; in fact, his parents’ house was destroyed by Axis bombing. Malta, strategically placed as a British naval base in the Mediterranean, suffered three thousand bombing raids and starved for two years under enemy blockade. In 1942, the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross for civilian gallantry during ‘the great siege’. However, after the War, Lino was content in Malta, residing with his parents and enjoying his passion for soccer. He was financially secure, having employment with the NAAFI, a central canteen that provided supplies to British military personnel.
His adventurous spirit was sparked when a friend, Tony Gambin, told him he was going to Australia and invited him to come along. He hadn’t thought much about emigration and his decision came “out of the blue”.
In Sydney, he worked in several typical migrant jobs, starting as a trench digger with the Board of Works and later at the Olympic Tyre Company.
In 1957, he married an English migrant, Barbara Platel, at St Mary’s Cathedral. They purchased a home in South Wentworthville in 1959 and soon had two children. Lino spoke highly of Australia’s “freedom and opportunities”.
His formal education had been disrupted by the war but his early writing skills were developed by crafting long, descriptive, letters to his parents.
Lino’s passion for soccer led him to play football for Sydney’s Melita Eagles. He was involved with the club from 1955 until his death and was a foundation member, past president, coach, secretary and celebrated goal-keeper. Soccer led him into the field of journalism when, in 1957, he took up an opportunity provided by his close friend and journalist, Lawrence Dimech, to help produce a short-lived magazine called Soccer Light. Lino also assisted as sports editor with Malta News, a pioneering post-war migrant magazine.
In 1961, migrants Lawrence Dimech, Nick Bonello and Vince Pisani felt that the 55,000 Maltese in Australia needed a newspaper to keep them informed of events in Malta and to assist their integration into Australian society.
Thus The Maltese Herald came into being, with Lino as sports’ editor and columnist and, ten years later, he became the general editor.
The bilingual newspaper grew from an eight-page monthly to a twenty-page weekly, with thousands of readers around Australia and throughout the Maltese diaspora in the UK, Canada, and America. In 1972, when Lawrence Dimech became Malta’s Consul in New South Wales, Lino took over as editor – a position he held for forty-two years.
Like his predecessor, Lino saw the Maltese Herald as belonging to the migrants, to be used as they saw fit. The paper promoted many community organisations and activities, including the Maltese Welfare Group of which he was a founding member, and the Maltese Community Council. The Maltese Herald’s office, in Merrylands, was a beehive of activity, with Maltese and non-Maltese dropping in for advice and information. Lino’s wife Barbara was an important force in the office as accountant and a director.
The paper fought for the rights of Maltese migrants on issues such as dual citizenship and also published news and sports reports, human interest stories, poetry, recipes, and opinion pieces by its readers. The letters section was dynamic, to put it mildly.
Lino was a strong supporter of historical research and the paper did much to uncover the history of the Maltese in modern Australia, a story which dates back to convict times. The paper encapsulated the diversity within the community. Appeals from Maltese priests in poor countries were supported as was the campaign for the release from prison of Maltese-Australian conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, John Zarb.
The Maltese Herald ran for fifty-two years with its final edition in 2013: an extraordinary record for a post-war migrant publication.
Passionate about Australia as well as Malta, Lino served on the National Australia Day Committee and, in 1999, was appointed to the Order of Australia as a Member. In 2011 he received Malta’s equivalent, Ġieħ ir-Repubblika.
Following Lino’s death on 15 January, condolences were expressed in the NSW state parliament by Mark Buttigieg MLC. He described Lino as a “monumental leader of the Maltese community… kind and joyful… a dedicated family man”. Condolences were also expressed by Malta’s Foreign Minister.
Lino was a man with genuine interest in others and great enthusiasm for life, a man who loved and served his community.
He is predeceased by his wife Barbara and survived by son Paul and daughter Annette.