A Life Of Service A Tribute To Kevin Byrne

A Life Of Service
A Tribute To Kevin Byrne
(25th March 1949 – 21st Sept 2023)

Words by Danae Jones

On 21st September 2023, the people of Cairns were swept into a sea of mourning as they lost a local legend, a “larger than life character” and a fierce advocate for the city of Cairns in former Mayor and Executive Officer of Enterprise North, Kevin Byrne. The team at CityLife lost a loyal supporter, a dear friend and a dedicated contributor to our magazine since inception. We never knew that the last column he would write for us, or for any media outlet for that matter, would have been in our Q3 Spring Edition 2023. No matter how under the weather he was towards the end of his life as he battled his Cancer, Kevin never missed a deadline. He took great care in crafting his opinion pieces for our magazine each and every edition. His humour, his wise counsel and loyal friendship will be sorely missed in our office. But more importantly the pages of CityLife which were formally dedicated to his contributions about what he fondly called “the village” (the city of Cairns), are today dedicated to celebrating the life of KB and honouring him for all that he brought to this region.

Kevin Byrne’s contributions to this magazine were sometimes polarising, other times they were met with overwhelming applause. But one thing you could always count on with him was a staunch view point and a willingness to share it, regardless of the nay sayers. That was what we loved about him – he stood for something, whether you agreed with it or not, didn’t really matter. He was respected and admired for his conviction and strength of spirit in leading the charge on all he held dear. His commitment to CityLife Magazine across the past almost three decades has been enormous.

His daughter Isabel Byrne says her father was “a man who devoted his entire life to service. Above all, Dad loved this city. From the time he sailed out of here en route to Vietnam, Cairns evoked his best childhood memories on Manus Island, and he vowed to return. And how fortunate we are that he did, and made this community his home.

“Kevin was never better than when he was Mayor. Dad was Mayor from 1992 to 1995, and was re-elected in 2000 when I was two years old, and remained so for the most formative years of my childhood. I grew up with a steadfast and unrelenting example of values and conviction. As he shaped a city, he shaped me. And to me he was Dad.

“His legacy surrounds us. I am proud of my father, in awe of his vision, and inspired by his commitment to progress.”
Fred White, close friend and former CEO of Sea Swift recalls the many traits and strengths of character he possessed.

“Once meeting we formed an instant friendship based on shared values and a pragmatic approach to business, leadership and advocacy for Cairns and the region.

“The use of the term ‘digger’ has extensive roots in Kevin’s military history, but more than that, it was one of his terms of endearment.

“If you’ve been called a digger by Kevin, then you should consider yourself one of his true mates. And someone he would be happy to get in the trenches with either physically or metaphorically. If you haven’t, then you should probably ask yourself why not? Or what strength of character he held high, that you didn’t quite measure up to. And I mean none of this as criticism to others, but rather to simply point out the very high standards Kevin held himself to. If you met these, then he was happy to apply the term in an endearing way.”

Former Cairns Mayor Bob Manning reflects on a long and enduring relationship with Kevin Byrne both personally and professionally.

“Kevin and I had some unique things in common, from our roles as Mayor of this city, as well as both having served as Officers in the Australian Army.

“While his views were known to attract controversy from time to time, I don’t think anybody would contest his conviction and deep passion for this city.

“Kevin was passionate about this city and it is hard to overstate how instrumental his role was in totally transforming this city into what it is today,” Mr Manning said.

“One thing about Kevin, he always spoke with conviction, and you never had to guess where he was coming from.

“He played a major role in turning Cairns into the premier international destination it is today.

“For most people, he will be remembered as the man who got the Esplanade Lagoon built, despite some heated and vocal opposition.

“But his conviction in forging ahead with its construction has been vindicated; today the Esplanade Lagoon is one of the city’s most iconic destinations.

“However, Kevin was also at the helm during the implementation of some of Council’s biggest projects, such as Cleaner Seas, which dramatically improved the quality of wastewater being released into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, and upgrades of Barlow Park to turn it into one of the State’s premier multi-sports venues.

“His legacy will also live on through the redevelopment of the Botanic Gardens and his City in a Garden vision, a concept to use tree plantings and attractive streetscaping to reflect the city’s tropical environment – a model that remains active today.

“He also worked closely with the Port Authority on the City Port and with the Airport on aviation matters.”

Kevin’s younger sister Maureen Pilcher recalls their early childhood days in Papua New Guinea during a more simplistic time.

“We had the most fabulous life. Our days were filled with swimming, fishing, all manner of creative pursuits. They were beautiful fun filled days. No television, no texting, no Instagram and I’m blessed that we had that upbringing.”

She says the words “extremely tough” were insufficient to describe the last few years of his life and what he had to endure, but he never complained.
This quote from his time in active service sits enshrined in the Australian War Museum in Canberra:
“I’ve got this platoon out here and if I don’t do my job we’ll all get bloody well killed.” – Lt Kevin Byrne
“It’s a quote I am sure resonates with many who knew Kevin well. It was matter of fact, it was to the point and it also contains that sense of duty and responsibility that Kevin carried with him and portrayed for the rest of his life,” said Fred White.
After a long fought battle with Cancer, Kevin Byrne was farewelled at a packed service held at Saint Monica’s Cathedral on 29th September 2023. The bagpipes, which he loved were playing, and he was escorted via police and military guard to his final resting place.

About Kevin Byrne:
• Born in Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1949. Kevin Byrne was the eldest of three children. His primary education was on Manus Island and he attended Nudgee College in Brisbane from 1963 to 1967.
• A former Australian Army officer, in graduating from the Officer Cadet School in Portsea, Victoria, in 1969, he was awarded the academy’s top honour, the Sword of Honour for Leadership.
• Mr Byrne’s 17-year military career included overseas postings to Malaya, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Rhodesia and South Vietnam, including postings throughout Australia.
• He was Mentioned in Dispatches for gallantry as a young Infantry Platoon Commander in South Vietnam in 1971.
• Following his discharge from the army, Mr Byrne was appointed as Regional Manager, Office of Northern and Regional Development, in Cairns.
• He held this appointment for three years until 1990 when he became Regional Manager of the Queensland Confederation of Industry, the State’s largest employer organisation.
• Mayor of Cairns for a total of 11 years; from 1992 to 1995 and again from 2000 to 2008.
Immediately following the 1995 election, he was recruited to direct the administrative effort of a giant oil spill clean-up operation in the Kolva Basin, Northern Russia. The Pechora River tributaries were remediated, and 146,000 tonnes of oil were recovered.
• Recipient of the Papua New Guinea Independence Medal in 2000 for services to Aviation and Tourism.
• Awarded the Australian Centenary in 2003 for services to Local Government and the City of Cairns.
• Chairman of the Cairns Regional Gallery Foundation for 15 years (2001-2016).
• He was founder and board member of Advance Cairns for eight years from 2000-2008, and was the organisation’s CEO from 2016-2017.
• Founded advocacy group Enterprise North in 2018