Of course Susan Alberti was in the crowd to see Collingwood take on Carlton in the first-ever match in the new national AFL Women’s competion – there are few people who have worked harder to make the game a reality. “I was emotionally satisfied and so happy for our young footballers,” she says. “It has created such goodwill.”
On that auspicious Friday night, the woman widely regarded as the patron saint of the Western Bulldogs sat among the Collingwood supporters, who she says were “welcoming and gracious in defeat”. But nothing could have dimmed her beaming smile as she drank in the sheer size of the crowd and the overwhelming enthusiasm – sure signs, she says, of a bright future for woman’s football.
It was the culmination of an exciting few months for Susan. When we first meet for this interview, it’s just a few weeks after her beloved Bulldogs’ historic AFL premiership – their first in 62 years. The whiff of victory still hangs over the Whitten Oval; there’s a queue in the shop buying merchandise, and the cafe overlooking the oval is busy – families in for brunch, business meetings, teenagers in Bulldogs scarves. On the other side of the room, supporters are buying memberships.
The scene is just what Susan has been waiting to witness for more than half a century. And there she is at the membership desk, organising a Bulldogs jumper to personally deliver to a supporter she met at a recent school visit who has cancer.
This adds to the temptation to paint Susan, 69, as a selfless fairy godmother of football in the western suburbs, an ever-smiling, much-loved figure who has endured unspeakable tragedy and yet emerged from that as a life-force of action and positivity.
But thankfully there’s the flogger incident. As she tells it, as a kid she’d go each week to watch the Bulldogs. One day she was playing with matches and accidentally lit some “floggers”, huge balls of paper streamers attached to a stick that supporters back then would wave around behind the goals. “Got in so much trouble with dad,” she says. Dad was a cop, too.
Susan and I take a seat in the cafe. Amid the squeals of excited kids, Susan reflects on the day after the Bulldogs’ emotional win last September when she and her husband Colin flew to Europe for a cruise and to visit southern France. “Everywhere we went my husband kept pointing at the [red, white and blue] French flag and saying, ‘Even over here they know you’ve won the grand final.’”
But it wasn’t until she returned to Melbourne that the win hit home. “I still have to pinch myself and say, ‘This is real, this is true’. It’s made me extremely happy. It has been a lifetime of support, blood, sweat and tears. I’ve seen more downs than ups. I’ve seen people grow old and wish for that moment in time.
“It’s made a lot of people very happy. And not just Doggie supporters but the whole of Australia, to see the underdogs come up and take off the grand final.”
The Bulldogs’ victory – willed on by most of the country – capped an extraordinary year for Susan. In June the AFL Women’s league, which Susan had been central in initiating through financial support, encouragement and lobbying, was announced. In August the ABC’s Australian Story focused on the close relationship between Susan and Collingwood footballer Moana Hope, focusing on both women’s struggles and achievements. Susan has become a nationally known exemplar for dogged perseverance.
These qualities were already evident as a teenager growing up in a housing trust home, Ashwood, in Melbourne’s south-east. At 14, she had a weekend and school holiday job at McEwan’s hardware store in Chadstone. “I always said to myself, ‘I need to work hard if I want to be successful’.”
Susan was “never materialistic, never envious of anyone” but was blessed with a strong ambitious streak. “This is no reflection on my parents, but I wanted to do better than mum and dad had done,” she says. “They were wonderful people, they did the best they could, but I knew I could do better. I aspired to be successful in everything I tried. I’ve had failures, but I’ve learned from those failures.”
She played football as a kid with a mixed gender team, but was forced to stop at 15. “I had to give it up because I was battered around too much. I was giving as much as I got. My dad said enough is enough for a young woman.”
In her adult life Susan has lived through several tragedies. Her first husband Angelo, whom she met at a dance at the Hawthorn Town Hall, died in 1995 in a hit-and-run accident when he was knocked off his motorbike, leaving a devastated Susan to run their major construction business herself.
In 1982, her only child Danielle was diagnosed, aged 12, with type 1 diabetes. In 2001 the pair returned to Melbourne from the US so Susan, a compatible donor, could donate a kidney as Danielle’s was failing. On the flight, Danielle died in her mother’s arms from a massive heart attack due to diabetes-related complications.
“That really hit me very hard. I had a lot of work on at the time. I had some wonderful partners in a couple of ventures and they said, ‘You take your time’, which certainly helped. But I still had to stay focused on our business because I was it.”
Susan and Angelo had founded Dansu Constructions together and ran it side by side, with him as director and her as secretary. When Angelo died, Susan assumed responsibility for running the company.
“I was the only female registered builder in Victoria. That was quite an accomplishment. I had to go back to school to get my certificate.”
She wound down the construction arm of the business 11 years ago. “When my husband was killed, I had 300 employees. And they were all dependent on us for their income and mortgages. I was determined that if I was going to wind down I would ensure that each and every one of them had a job to go to, because my husband would have wanted me to do that.
“I had to make a lot of decisions on my own. It’s very tough at the top. You’ve really got no one you can talk to. Just yourself. And decisions you make rest with you.”
— Susan Alberti ?⚪? (@SusanAlberti1) January 25, 2017
In 2005 Susan married Colin North. Nine months later she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. “I had one year of chemotherapy and 34 consecutive days of radiation,” she says. “That knocked me around a bit but I kept working. What was I going to do? I’d go into work, and I’d lie on the couch for maybe an hour or two because I was feeling that nauseous.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘You can leave now, I’m used to looking after myself’. I didn’t want anyone looking after me because I was sick. I know that sounds ridiculous. He was horrified. And he was absolutely amazing. I could not have got through it without him. It was a rough journey.”
Then, four years ago, while having an echocardiogram (a type of ultrasound) Susan had a heart attack. “I had open-heart surgery with five blockages and was in intensive care for 10 days and in hospital for a month,” she says. “My kidneys failed and I was told I’d be on dialysis if I didn’t do something.”
She was told she had just 12 per cent kidney function and if she took no action in relation to her weight she would be dead in six months from a heart attack, or on dialysis. “I walked out of her office, went home, cried all night and then thought ‘Stop your tears, pull your finger out, do something’. The simplicity was ‘Cut in half what you’re eating’.” Susan lost 58 kilos, half her body weight.
“Unbelievable,” she says of the change in her life. “The energy. The inner happiness. The desire to stay well. I was told ‘Don’t worry about anything else, just walk’.”
In 2014, walking down some stairs soon after leaving hospital, she fell and broke her shoulder. She was in a sling for four months, but it didn’t stop her exercising. The exercise regimen was a revelation. “It gave me a zest for living like I’ve never had before. It made me realise life is so short, so precious, good health is so important. If I can encourage one person to turn their life around, well then I’ve done some good.”
When she joined the Bulldogs’ board in 2004, it was her task to fix the rundown Whitten Oval. “The job they gave me was to find $32 million,” she says. “They only give tough jobs to women.
“We had a rundown facility with rats running around, we had a CEO with an office in the fire escape, board meetings conducted in a room with no ventilation, not sitting on boxes but near enough. [Then-chief executive] Cam Rose and I had a dream that this could happen. It gives me so much pride to know this is a home for all the people in the west of Melbourne because before it was disgusting.”
Susan stepped down as vice president late last year. “It it was time to hand the baton on to somebody younger.”
Her passion now is the newly minted AFL women’s league. She is a director of the league’s advisory group and AFLW premiership cup ambassador. She’s also one of Australia’s pre-eminent philanthropists. “What good is having all that money in a cemetery?” she once said.
Her enduring desire is to find a cure for type 1 diabetes. “It’s my greatest wish in life – this is something I’ve been working towards for 35 years. I made a promise to my daughter … that I would never give up. That will keep me going until the day I die.”
- Celebrating Women in Australian Rules Football charity breakfast
- Friday, March 3, 6.45am
- Olympic Room, MCG.
- Tickets $90.
- Visit: susanalbertifoundation.org.au or ph 9560 1595