Frank’s Story

If you’d met Frank Vig, you might have described him as a gentle, diminutive, softly spoken and hard of hearing grandfather.

You might also have known him as the co-founder of the Queensland Renal Association (now Kidney Support Network(KSN) or the man on the cover of the October 2009 KSN magazine – being celebrated at the World Transplant Games as Australia’s oldest living transplant recipient.  He was 93.

What many of you may not know, was that he grew up in the railway yards of Budapest, arrived in Brisbane as a refugee following World War II with his wife and 2 young children, was a champion gymnast in Hungary and Australia, is known as Queensland’s Father of Gymnastics, had the reputation as the Nation’s top gymnastics coach, received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) and passed away peacefully on 29 December 2009, three weeks after his 94th birthday with his donor kidney of 35 years still going strong.

Frank Vig had a remarkable life. He was an inspiration to those of us fortunate enough to have met him. He never gave up hope, never stopped helping others or stopped giving thanks for his blessed life. Here is just a little about this amazing man, ever humble about his achievements.

Ferenc (Frank) Vig was born in Hungary in 1917. A refugee in his own country after World War I his family lived in a cattle wagon in the Budapest rail yards for 18 months before a railway house became available. A friend introduced Frank to gymnastics and he was trained by Bela Erody, Hungary’s gymnastic representative at the first modern Olympics in Athens. This began Frank on a lifetime involvement in gymnastics winning numerous local and national Hungarian gymnastics championships until the war interrupted.

After finishing school, Frank worked in various jobs before working at the Budapest International Radio Centre as a communications officer. He was called up by the Army in February 1944 and sent to the front in Poland as a telegraph operator losing contact with his family for almost a year. When he heard where his family had fled to during the bombing of Budapest, on his word of honour that he would return to his unit, he went to them, and, through an extraordinary and perilous journey, saved them by pushbike and by refloating, bailing and paddling a skiff 5km across Lake Balaton (the largest freshwater lake in Europe) away from the advancing Russian tanks. On the other side, by a miracle, a Red Cross train pulled in with wounded soldiers and Frank sent his family on while he went to find and rejoin his unit.

Frank didn’t see his family again until after the war when they lived as refugees upstairs in a barn in Bavaria. Due to the harsh conditions he buried a second daughter, another dying while he was in Poland.

Frank suffered an insect bite during their four years in Bavaria. This caused facial and upper body paralysis and, while the heavy medication administered cured him after 18 months, the side effect of the medication was nephritis later causing total kidney failure.

Frank and his family chose to emigrate to Australia in 1949. Within 10 days of their arrival in Newcastle he took up the offer of work in Brisbane, leaving his family temporarily in a refugee camp at Maitland. To fulfil the compulsory two years of manual labour under the Immigration contract, he worked for the City Council Electricity Department as an assembly-line worker and as a roof painter.

On his first weekend in Brisbane, while trying to find accommodation for his family (they eventually settled in a vacant garage at Morningside) he also went looking for a gymnasium and found the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

In 1950 and 1951 Frank was the Queensland Gymnastic Champion and was 4th in the First Australian Championship and runner-up the following year winning Rings and Horizontal Bar. Because of these results he was asked by the YMCA to take over as Director of Physical Education.

Frank introduced new training and coaching methods to Queensland gymnastics and his Queensland Teams dominated the Australian championships 1954-57. He also trained and coached Australian gymnasts for the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games. He introduced Womens’ Gymnastics to Queensland, formed the Queensland Amateur Trampoline Association and, from 1956-1961, lectured part time at the University of Queensland Physical Education Department. Franks’ only private transportation was his trusty push bike until, in his late fifties, he obtained his driver’s licence and first car, giving up his licence finally at 91.

At the age of 56 his kidneys failed forcing him to resign from the YMCA and begin dialysis. Nonetheless, Frank finished an accountancy course which he’d been taking part-time, and was employed by a Chartered Accountancy firm retiring from there at 65. Kidney transplantation had only begun in Queensland in 1969 and initially Frank was precluded from the Kidney transplant waiting list because of his age. However, with the support of former schoolboy gymnasts, now doctors in the kidney transplant team, he received a transplant in 1974. He was the ninety-second kidney transplant recipient in Queensland, and with the success rate then at only 50-60% compared to 90% today, it attests to his strict adherence to treatment, medications, diet and exercise which saw his kidney last 35 years. Up until his death he had Queenslands’ fourth longest surviving donor kidney. Each year he sent a cake and card to the Princess Alexandra Hospital transplant unit in appreciation for another year’s life.

In 1981 he co-founded the Queensland Renal Association and was its first President for two years and Committee member for many more. Among his other passions, he was a strong advocate for registering for organ donation. Frank was also active in Community and Ethnic Affairs, and served for eight years as Secretary of the Hungarian Cultural and Welfare Association. He established a Frank Vig Sportsmanship Trophy awarded to the most deserving Queensland gymnast and, as part of the Hungarian national junior gymnastics championships, the Dr Krasznai Perpetual trophy in memory of his team mate and well-known coach.

Franks’ achievements have not gone unnoticed. His many awards and honours include the Order of Australia Medal in 1996 for sporting and community affairs, the Australian Silver Sports Medal in 2001 and, he received in 2006, the Silver Meritorious Cross of the Hungarian Knightly Order of ‘Vitez’ for 20 years service to the Brisbane Hungarian Community. He was an Honorary Life Member of the Brisbane YMCA with the Brisbane Y-West gymnasium stadium named the ‘Frank Vig Gymnastic Stadium’ in his honour. He was also made an Honorary Life Member of the Qld Renal, Qld Gymnastics, Qld Trampoline, and the Hungarian Cultural and Welfare Associations. Frank’s passing is a great loss to those of us who knew him, and a loss to the community who benefited in so many ways from his boundless energy and enthusiasm. Frank Vig is survived by 4 children, 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. He will be sadly missed.

Written by Janelle Colquhoun