End Of An Era After 65 Years

Greg, Billie, George, Nina

After 65 years of serving the community at Rothnies Pharmacy in Innisfail in Far North Queensland, George Kotzas finally decided to call it a day. I was once again privileged to learn about the history of a pharmacy I had sold. This story is just not about the history of the pharmacy, though, it’s about the Kotzas family as well.

Of Greek heritage, it came as a big surprise to me when George told me he was actually born in Innisfail and lived there all his life. As a matter of fact, George’s wife, Anna (then Vamvakaris), also of Greek heritage, was born in Innisfail as well. George and Anna were married in 1966. Anna’s father, Jack, along with three other locals, the Kypriotos brothers, bought the Blue Bird Cafe on Rankin Street in the late 1920’s. In 1929 they nearly lost the cafe when the picture theatre next door caught fire. But the men saved the day. They sprang into action, climbed onto the roof, formed a bucket brigade and extinguished the flames. While the café is no longer, the art deco façade is still there as part of Innisfail’s built heritage and community landscape.

Greg, Anna, George

I wanted to meet George and Anna personally, so, in mid-July, just prior to settlement, I flew up north and paid them a visit at the pharmacy. The sale of their business and freehold was complex and difficult, to put it mildly. It seemed we encountered hurdles at every turn during the eight months it took to finalise the sale. This was the main reason for my visit. I wanted to meet these lovely people, who just did whatever I needed of them to keep the wheels turning, and also to thank them personally. And what I envisaged when I visited was as expected. At the pharmacy it was like being in the midst of a big family. A “community pharmacy” in the true sense of the words. I could instantly tell the “family” connection between George, his assistants, (Rosa, Connie, Nina, Billie, some having been there forever) and the customers. I watched as one lady showed Anna photos and videos of her grandchild. It really was a pleasure and a privilege to see just a little bit of the daily interactions at the pharmacy.

When George bought the pharmacy from Mike Rothnie in 1978, purchasing a pharmacy back then was a lot different to how it’s done today. George said the finance was done with a call to his local bank manager and the rest just fell into place. It was a bit of a shock to the system for George and Anna on how different things are today. And everything is digital in this fast-changing world. A huge change compared to when everything was recorded manually in books.

Buying a pharmacy today is, of course, a very different story. The banks now have dedicated health lending departments with a very strict application process in place. The buyer is not dealing with one particular decision maker. The application passes through different departments and must be ticked off at every stage. Then there are all the other aspects of purchasing a business; due diligence, valuations etc etc with mounds and mounds of data required during the process. Living in a digital world does make it easier though, if you’re across it. Almost everything is now at your fingertips and can be communicated instantly; messages, data, photos, videos, you name it. Even the settlement was done digitally.

But back to Rothnies. George recalls that in the very early days, before he was born, Charlie Duffin owned a pharmacy on Rankin Street in Innisfail in the early 1930’s. In 1934 Charlie rented a small shop on Edith Street and opened another pharmacy right where Rothnies Pharmacy still stands today. The building was originally timber but was flattened in 1918 when a cyclone ripped through the far north. It was then rebuilt with bricks and mortar. Charlie had enticed pharmacist Gordon Rothnie, who lived in Townsville, to come and work for him and run the branch. When George was cleaning out the pharmacy for the new buyer, he found records dating back to 1934. Some were in good condition but many were water damaged and ended up in the dumpster. (see photos)

In 1957, while studying for his pharmacy degree, George applied for a position as a trainee pharmacist at the Edith Street pharmacy and got the job. He graduated in 1960. Gordon had by then purchased the pharmacy from Charlie but, Gordon sadly passed away in 1962. Gordon’s wife, Jessica, asked George to remain on and manage the pharmacy while her son, Michael (Mike), studied for his pharmacy degree. Apparently, the accountants in charge of the finances and the running of the pharmacy expected a drop in sales. However, the opposite happened. George, increased trade, proving the young man had what it takes to run a business.

Mike Rothnie graduated around 1965. As a fully qualified pharmacist Mike was now in the position to own the pharmacy. To thank George for his loyalty, Jessica made him a partner in the business. In 1978 Mike decided he wanted to move on and sold his share to George.

I actually met Mike in 2020 when I listed his Ormiston Family Pharmacy in east Brisbane. The pharmacy was originally located in in Ormiston Shopping Village across from its current location. In 1997, the owner at the time, Keith Reynolds, and a local doctor, Alan Dudgeon, purchased a block of land near the railway station and built a surgery and the pharmacy. Mike Rothnie purchased the pharmacy in 2003. At the time, I had little idea of his connection with George Kotzas.

Back to George. George has a couple of passions. Both in the Arts – acting/directing and collecting artwork. In the early years he started acting in plays and later become a director, winning the 1973 Director’s Award in Townsville at the Far North Queensland Drama Festival. Best Actor and Actress was also given for the play that George had directed. He recalls he absolutely loved acting. But one day, out of the blue, he walked on stage and felt nothing. He said there were no pre-performance butterflies, no excitement, no anxiety. No Nothing! He said he knew then it was time to give it away. No nerves means no passion. (Something I can relate to as I have a passion in entertainment and suffer from nerves big time pre-performance.) But he still loved the atmosphere and the vibe of it all, so he turned to directing and went on to direct many plays. He also wanted to share his love and his knowledge of the arts. In the ensuing years he was Treasurer of the Young Performers Society (21 years) and Ballet Dance Society (20 years) and was also involved in the Arts Council Australia, Innisfail branch and Arts Society (local branch), to name just a few. He was also involved in Rotary, Apex, Junior Farmers Group and the Greek Community of Innisfail as Treasurer for 51 years. One memorable moment for George and Anna was putting on a performance at Paronella Park in 1963, the heritage listed Spanish-style castle in Far North Queensland, when the castle was still in its heyday and in full swing. The hall and the ballroom were popular with locals for Saturday night outings whether it was a party, a dance, a wedding or a play. Many rehearsals were held there prior to the performance.

I take my hat off to George. And Anna. George led such an incredibly active life while still owning and running a business AND being a family man. There must have been some incredible juggling going on between the two of them.

And through all of this, George was an art collector. He has a passion for Traditional and Modern Artworks. Some of his collection are by James Gleeson, Sali Herman, Margaret Olley, Ray Crooke, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and Thancoupie, the Potter. George also liked a particular painting that Kevin Grealy, whom George knew, had painted. Kevin ended up selling George the painting for five pounds in 1963. At the age of 18, George got to know Tom McCauley, a local artist who saw George’s interest in artwork and sold George a number of his paintings.

I knew about George’s love for acting and plays but I didn’t know that he was a collector as well. The Sydney buyers of George and Anna’s business, Andrew Tran and Dan Chi Nguyen, pharmacy owners in Haberfield, had had dinner at George and Anna’s place when they inspected the pharmacy earlier in the year. They mentioned his fascinating art collection to me. I had promised George and Anna that my wife, Jacky, and I would visit again after settlement. I wanted to spend more time with them in a much more relaxed atmosphere and get to know them a bit better. So, earlier this month Jacky and I flew up to visit them at their home in Innisfail. When we walked into the place we were absolutely blown away. Every room was filled with paintings, sculptures, pieces of furniture, figurines you name it! It was like walking into a very heavily stocked gallery of everything. There were even pieces in the kitchen! We honestly were astounded.  Anna put on a delicious spread that we could not jump over. What else would you expect when you have a large family of sons, daughters, grandkids, great grandkids and Greek heritage to boot! She is ever the gracious hostess. When we had some serious issues during the sale, she never seemed to get rattled. I guess when you’re matriarch of a big family, even if you’d like to blow up, you have to keep your cool. That’s Anna. Anyway, we basically rolled out of their home when we left. We’ve never eaten as much in a long time.

George has a great sense of humour and is always pleasant to the people around him. He and Anna are the genuine thing. Born in a country town, their demeaner is that of belonging in a caring, tight community. Along with his humour I also found George to be very philosophical. In 1998 he had a heart attack. 9 months later he was diagnosed with cancer. Most people would have fallen in a heap. I’m guessing George didn’t do that because he told me his star sign is Leo and his Chinese Zodiac sign is the tiger.  Both signs being cats, he reckons that gave him 9 lives apiece, a total of 18, so he still has 16 left. What a hoot! He is such a character.

As for retiring after 65 years? That was yesterday apparently. Every day is a brand-new day. Don’t dwell on the past. Live for today. A page we should all take out of that book! What a champ! Happy Retirement!