The right stuff

Born and bred in our steel city, John Gralton is a proud Novocastrian with a lifelong commitment to social justice.

In a decorated 32-year policing career he holds the resurgence of Newcastle City close to his heart. 

Held in high regard by his peers and the community, Mr Gralton was recently awarded the Australian Police Medal in the Queen’s Birthday honours. Ever humble, he said it was not a personal award, but the result of a massive team effort.

  1. What Catholic school/s did you attend? Do you know why your parents chose a Catholic education for you?

I attended Holy Cross Primary School, Glendale and St Pius X High School, Adamstown. My grandfather was a devout Catholic as was my grandmother. My grandfather actually had a book published entitled My fairest child with the intended target being secondary students. It was his way to send a message to Australian kids regarding on how to lead a good life. The book itself was a pretty hard read — chronically Catholic and a bit of slog to get through — but there were some good messages within. My mum lived Christian values, she was a beautiful soul, but was not Catholic. But my dad used to take us to Mass pretty religiously as young kids — 7am Mass at Holy Cross Glendale with Father Lavery.  My brother and I were both altar boys.  Father Lavery was a good man and probably the reason why I have followed the mighty Richmond Tigers since I was about seven years old.  I think going to a Catholic school was a given, considering the strong faith my grandparents had and my father had continued with the diligent Mass attendance.  All my cousins on my dad’s side went to Catholic schools. My dad was actually a state high school teacher who ended up as a principal in the public school system, but I think we were always destined for a Catholic school due to the family’s religious lines.

  1. You attended St Pius X Adamstown, and now your daughter attends there also. Why did you decide to send her to St Pius X and how have you seen the school change over the years?

That’s a tough question in some ways and I don’t want to be hugely controversial, however … In my day at St Pius there were some wonderful teachers – but it was also the case that there were others who were the cause of what was to become the school’s disgrace for that period.  We all know now a number of priests and/or teachers were mistreating and sexually abusing students and this will go down in my mind, and in history, as an absolute travesty, an abuse of power and an abuse of children.  I will not dwell on this period in the school’s history, but I feel it is something that should not go unrecognised, particularly out of respect for victims of predators who “preyed on them, not prayed with them”. This was an awful period in the school’s history, but St Pius has recovered, dramatically recovered I think, and very successfully. We have very close friends whose kids went to St Pius who are now young adults. They spoke very highly of the school (and the teachers) and so did their kids. The kids are great kids and are transitioning to adult life very successfully.  We did our research, talked to many parents, teachers and essentially satisfied ourselves that the school was very much changed from the one I went to some 35-odd years earlier.  When I walked into the school during an orientation for my daughter, I could physically feel and see the changes — just in the attitudes of the students and the care exhibited by the teachers. There’s a really good feel there now. Things have changed so much at St Pius and I have full confidence in the teaching cohort — not only to deliver quality education — but to also nurture and develop the character of young people who attend the school.  I think the school has come full circle — it goes without saying that our daughter wouldn’t be there if that was not the case.  I reiterate that there were some wonderful teachers during my time at Pius — just the experience was soured by the minority of others who were party to the abuse of children.  All of my five kids have attended Catholic schools and have had wonderful educations and nurturing school lives.  My eldest daughter (third child of the five) is actually a Catholic primary school teacher and absolutely loves the rich environment in which she works.

  1. What drew you to work for NSW Police? What’s been the most memorable or rewarding moment in your career?

I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of social justice. Some of the teachers at Pius who taught me would probably attest to that. However, I was not a role-model student by any stretch of the imagination and some of “those other” teachers who I spoke about in the previous question were probably the impetus for my rebellion and poor attitude towards them. But, I would always have the strength of character to stand up for myself or others who were getting a raw deal.  It sounds a little cliched, but I just like helping people and keeping a sense of social order. I also thought that I would like to ride one of those nice BMW police motorcycles, but that never materialised and my career went in other directions. 

Memorable moments come pretty thick and fast in the cops, particularly after a career of more than 32 years.  Memorable moments range from the difficulty in delivering a death message to an elderly mother on the side of the road who’d turned up to the crash where her 30-year-old son (and father of two) had just been killed on a motorcycle.  Or picking up a two-year-old girl out of her cot at 2am and carrying her out of her house because her mother had just committed suicide and her father was still at work awaiting the horrific news.  Or, on a more positive side, the pride of receiving an Australian Police Medal last year during the Queen’s Birthday Honours. But that is not a personal award in my mind. It is for all those I have worked with, and those I love and live with. Policing is a massive team effort, and no one can do it successfully alone or without family support.  I think the most rewarding of all though is having been a part of resurgence of Newcastle City during a period of great change where I believe police had a significant impact on changing the culture from once being known as a “bloodbath” to a city now with cranes across the skyline, cruise ships coming into the harbour and attracting the likes of V8 Supercars (albeit a controversial issue for some residents).  One Sydney newspaper a few years ago said something along the lines of “… Newcastle the steel city — once known as a bloodbath, now a consummate cosmopolitan city of cool”.  I read it out aloud to the my cops during morning briefings because I firmly believe that we had a fair bit to do with assisting the council, government and the community to turn the city around and change the culture for the better.

  1. What makes you proud to be a Novocastrian?

You won’t find too many people more parochial about Newcastle than me.  I’m proud of everything from the people, to the beautiful surroundings, of course our beaches (that view from the top of the Anzac Walk down across Bar Beach to Merewether is world class), access to the lake and vineyards — all the way to the culture of a city that is prepared to roll up her sleeves and get in and get the job done.  There is a real “can-do” attitude in Newcastle.  I recall reading once that, per head of population, Newcastle City is one of the most generous where it comes to donating for a cause where someone has fallen on tough times.  We have national sporting teams, a thriving harbour, top-notch education facilities, great hospitals —the list goes on.  I love the fact that Newcastle has everything that anyone would ever need but still has that “everyone knows everyone” feel.  But please stop telling people now. It’s becoming busy and we even have real traffic peak hours.  By the way, I am a “real” Novocastrian too, born at the Western Suburbs Hospital (no longer exists). I’m not one of these blow-ins who has only been here for 20 years or so.  

  1. Christmas is a happy time for many, however for some it is one of the hardest times of year. For police officers we understand it is a very busy period as they get a lot of callouts to assist with matters around mental health, alcohol-related violence and family disputes. What advice would you have for those who find this season particularly difficult?

I think it’s important for people to adopt a “kindness” mentality. I heard someone talking on the radio earlier this year (it might’ve been Garth Russell on 1233) saying that his NYE resolution was to just try to be more “kind”.  What does that mean?  I think it means being more generous, tolerant and caring to those around you, not just those you know, but anyone you bump into.  Remember that you don’t know what might be going on in people’s lives. They may be carrying significant pain and suffering that you are unaware of.  Police need to make sure they are also aware of vicarious trauma that can cause issues for them too – being presented with death and violence on almost a shift-by-shift basis is traumatic.  I try to ensure that where police are dealing with emotionally disturbed people they try to listen more and speak less, de-escalating the situation wherever possible, because when emotions are high critical thinking is low.  But when we can keep emotions under control, critical thinking is high, and situations lend themselves to resolution more easily.  I do think Christmas is a difficult time for a lot of people if their life is not going too well. It is a time that people reflect on the year that has been.  Whilst everyone has “stuff” going on in their lives, we all just need to make sure we are being considerate of others around us who might not have had the same opportunities in life.

  1. You have been involved in the Hunter White Ribbon Day Breakfast committee for a number of years now. Why do you believe it is important that students, including those from our Catholic schools, attend the annual event?

We need, as police, but also as a community to try to work more on the prevention aspect of domestic and family violence — rather than wait and react to the violence that has already occurred.  I encourage everyone (particularly the men and boys reading this interview) to challenge themselves to get engaged to tackle violence so that it does not occur in the first place.  There are too many people (predominantly women victims >95%) who are victim to various forms of domestic violence.  General attitudes toward women by men need to change in our culture.  Not all men are violent, but most violence is committed by men.  Men need to challenge other men in relation to derogative comments towards, or about women because this is where it all starts.  Respectful behaviours are learnt first in the home, but as a community we can help shape the lives of young men and women to ensure that they are strong, respectful and confident people to grow a positive future and culture for our society.  It is important that young people come along to the breakfast to be exposed to some of the thought-provoking discussion and increase their awareness. Domestic violence is an insidious crime and we need to prevent it wherever possible.

  1. Is faith a big part of your life? If yes, how has it helped?

My faith has been rocked a little by what occurred during my time at St Pius and the revelations during the royal commission, but I think that they were people who “chose not” to live by Jesus’s message.  I do have faith, but I haven’t been to Mass for a while. I’ve lost faith in some aspects of the Catholic Church as an entity and the manner in which it handled the whole situation — particularly earlier on in the piece, but I have not necessarily lost my faith per se.  I just hope the church continues to evolve and grow, tries to rid itself of some of the draconian thinking and gets with 2020 and beyond.  Bishop Bill is trying hard to fix the wrongs, but sometimes a few small steps can go a long way to assisting in that regard.  It might be as simple as modernising some of the words used in Mass and having a few female priests saying them.  I think we missed an opportunity a few years ago in that regard, but why not keep pushing for change?

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Brittany Gonzalez Image
Brittany Gonzalez

Brittany Gonzalez is Communications Co-ordinator in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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