Norm Keast's book of 'tails'

The gentleman who entertained thousands with his dog shows

Life & Style
Norm Keast on his Tanunda property with four of his Coolies, says he is pleased to have written his life story to share with others. Photo: Michelle O'Rielly

Norm Keast on his Tanunda property with four of his Coolies, says he is pleased to have written his life story to share with others. Photo: Michelle O'Rielly

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Barossa's Norm Keast has documented his life to share with others.

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The image of a country gentleman under a large felt hat, driving a ute laden with his beloved dogs into Tanunda's main street, will forever be etched in the minds of those who best know Norm Keast.

While his days of showing his special breed of Coolies to Australia and the world from his Tanunda property only ended six years ago, the 96-year-old has not sat idle during that time.

This month he releases his self-published autobiography 'The Boy And His Black Dog'.

However, his book comes after suffering a heart attack in January this year, meaning a month's stint in hospital.

"It's the best holiday I've had in forty years," Norm laughed.

"The nurses were lovely; the food was great," he added.

Early days

Norm's optimistic view on life he says come from the hard lessons he learned as a boy growing up in the rural township of Riverton, as documented in his book.

Welcomed on April 16, 1923, he was the last child born in the town's "make-do hospital" and the last of the eight Keast children of five daughters and three sons.

His unfaltering memory begins by placing readers back to a time before his birth, when his parents left Riverton to pursue crop farming in Pinnaroo, with four children in tow, another on the way, and a journey lasting 14 days.

'After two years in that dry country my parents had enough - and who could blame them?' his book highlights.

Unfortunately, 1913-14 were drought years and he recalled his mother saying the crops at Pinnaroo the following year were as high as the fence, a bumper year.

Her account of the story taught Norm "life is a gamble which ever way you look at it".

School years

Returning to Riverton, the family continued farming the land and before long a young Norm was sent to the nearby school.

He is quick to declare his dislike of schooling, yet happily shares some of his fonder memories, not once failing to recall the teaching staff and students' names.

"I was a good writer and won awards each year," he said.

Norm also humours readers with his life events including returning for a school reunion in 2016 and unapologetically sharing how "it was possibly the most boring" event he ever attended. His reasons included no schoolmate to be found.

"I couldn't believe it, but then realised it was some 87 years since I started school. Do you sums Norm," he laughed.

Farming in Riverton

Yet his passion was for the land and his unique bond with his first dog Digger.

Unlike his father, who by the sound of his voice could direct a team of horses to plough a paddock, Norm much preferred to call on a dog to muster a flock of sheep.

Norm highlighted how he had worked on the family farm from the age of 15 for his keep to the age of 25.

"I took over farming from my father and he paid me 60 pounds to sow and reap his crop and continued to farm the land for the following nine years.

Proud of his book 'The Boy and his Black Dog'. Photo: Michelle O'Rielly

Proud of his book 'The Boy and his Black Dog'. Photo: Michelle O'Rielly

Move to Tanunda

By 1957, with a nine thousand pounds to his name, Norm travelled to Tanunda to inspect a property which would become his home and importantly, the centre stage for his beloved performing Coolie dogs.

After giving away cropping, the land was used to predominately graze sheep, with his trusted dogs by his side.

'You cannot handle sheep very well without a good dog,' he shares.

Norm's Coolies

In 1969 he had purchased Happy who he thought was desexed, yet this all changed in 1976 at a market in Loxton and Ben the Coolie was purchased and well as nature goes the two dogs produced two pups Tulip and Daffie.

Happy was to become the catalyst of the performances.

Norm's publication of course explains the origins of the unique dog breed.

Having found his dogs were good workers, by 1981 Norm said to himself there must be a better way of making a living instead of training dogs.

The rest is history for Norm and his performing dogs which at one stage included 36 coolies entertaining the bus loads of tourists from all over the globe.

Remarkably, Norm can name each dog in his performances.

Entertainment

With three shows held weekly, Norm made a good habit of getting out, attending ballroom dancing twice a week in Adelaide, saying this gave him relaxation as the concentration involved in handling his dogs was draining.

Locally, he attended Christmas parades with his dogs standing on the back of his classic Holden ute, with 'Holdem' boldly painted on the back, and the public delighted in his presence.

"These days were undoubtedly the highlight of my life," he said.

Norm is now content to bask in his life's accomplishments saying how it never ceases to amaze him how many people like to be on top. "I wasn't a fast runner but I always got there."

He thanks his daughter Kathleen Keast for the hours she put into typing his story and her understanding and willingness in getting the book ready for publication. He further thanks Bill Knight who used his expertise as a retired editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.

This story by Michelle O'Rielly first appeared in the Barossa Herald.

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