A Local Legend
Text and Images: Elisabeth Anderson, Tom Dyster
Dragan Miljanovic (1922-1974), who was a well-known Stirling resident for more than three decades, is remembered as one of South Australia’s most colourful immigrants. In 1963 he received the Gertrude Kumm award for citizenship, presented annually to an immigrant who had made an outstanding contribution to the community.
Some recall Dragan as the man with the donkey, walking suburban beaches to collect money for surf life savers, others as the costumed, bell-ringing, ‘town crier’ at kindergarten fund-raising fetes in Stirling’s Druid Avenue and for running a local gallery of art, antiques and curios. But there was a great deal more to this man and nearly two decades after his passing local historian and author Tom Dyster documented his life in the 1992 book Dragan – a man to be remembered.
Dragan was born on 3rd September 1922 in Bunic, a small village in the Lika district of Croatia in Central Europe later known as Yugoslavia. His father was Serbian and his mother Croatian. He was the third of five children.
Growing up as a shepherd boy in the country’s mountainous region, Dragan had a great love of the animals he worked with and these included the donkeys on the family farm, little knowing that it was to be a donkey that would one day make him a legend in his adopted home in far off South Australia.
For much of his boyhood he was brought up by his grandmother while his parents worked in France. He joined them in 1939 at the age of 17, soon to be caught up in World War II, with Dragan being taken into slave labour in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region and living in harsh conditions under armed guard. After a remarkable escape to Munich, Dragan lived by his wits until becoming severely ill and being hospitalised with rheumatic fever. But the care and kindness from people he encountered saw him through until the end of the War, by which time he was 23.
His home for two years would then be a displaced persons camp in Munich. Always on the look-out for ways to supplement the basic existence there, Dragan became something of a legend for his passion to ‘find things’ – a skill for which he is also remembered by his Stirling friends.
Having opted for migration to Australia rather than returning to his now Communist occupied homeland, Dragan arrived in Sydney on 14th May 1948 on the former American troopship ‘General Sturgis’ along with about 1,500 European migrants, most straight out of displaced persons camps. From a holding camp in Bathurst he was transferred to Woodside’s Inverbrackie camp in the Adelaide Hills in June 1949. His driving skills were put to good use during his four years here and this was also where he and Rumanian born Tamara Kutschuk first met. They were married in the Mt Lofty Congregational Church in 1954 and made their home in Stirling. They had a daughter, Tina.
Dragan worked as a gardener and later as a monotype operator and a surveyor’s assistant. He became a formidable force behind numerous causes in his new community. One of these led to the formation of a Stirling branch of the Good Neighbour Council that would support migrant families in the local area for 13 years.
From January 1960 Dragan and his newly-acquired donkey Jack were familiar figures at local functions, raising money for charity with donkey rides. With his second donkey Pedro he walked the suburban beaches to collect money in support of the local life savers with quite some success. Dragan often dressed in a tasselled pillbox hat, red scarf, white shirt and riding breeches and sang folk-songs while accompanying himself on a shepherd’s lute, a tamboritza or a gusla. Sadly Pedro was killed on a roadside verge by an out of control car in 1962. The legendary Pedro had helped to raise over £1,000 for charity and carried hundreds of youngsters on his back.
In the year Dragan received the Gertrud Kumm Award in Canberra he also opened the Don Pedro Gallery in a nineteenth-century cottage which he had restored in Stirling, with the aim of assisting young artists. The gallery operated from 1963 till 1968, hosting a variety of exhibition. Well-known artists were among the exhibitors. This was followed by the equally well patronised Old Mill Gallery in Bridgewater.
Dragan packed a great deal into his life, but the rheumatic fever that had afflicted him back in those Munich days had weakened his heart and he died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital on 17th November 1974. One month later, as a token of gratitude and esteem, a Memorial Exhibition was held in the Old Mill Gallery. More than 40 artists and craftspeople donated pieces of their work. In 1975 a plaque in Dragan’s memory was unveiled at the Heart Foundation HQ in Adelaide.
He is listed in Volume 15 of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Dragan – a man to be remembered (ISBN 0 646 12383 1) 1992, by Tom Dyster, published by the Dragan Miljanovic Memorial Trust.
Do you have memories of Dragan or his many activities?
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop into the History Centre at the Coventry Library, 63 Mount Barker Road, Stirling.