Managing director of Dion’s Bus Service Les Dion wants to send me a copy of A Time and Place: The Dion Family in 20th Century Wollongong, the 2019 book delving into the family’s history – so of course, he sent it to me on a bus.
“I’ll let you know what time it will be at your station,” he said.
It’s probably not the sort of story that would surprise northern Illawarra commuters, given the Dion family’s long history of using their buses to connect the community – 100 years on Friday, 1 December, to be precise.
The company’s founder, Les’s uncle Thomas (Tom) Dion, would have been about 18 years old when his father, Thomas Sr, died. As the eldest of 13 children, Tom tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit to find a new income stream for the family.
“When they came to Wollongong, they started out running a market garden growing and selling fruit and vegetables. When my grandfather passed away, Uncle Tom took it upon himself to build up the family business to support his mother and siblings,” he said.
“He was a hard worker and an entrepreneur.”
Tom acquired permission from the local council to operate a bus service from Wollongong to Balgownie. On 1 December 1923, Dion’s Bus Service was born with one bus, and one driver – Thomas himself.
“Back then, not many people had cars, so the community really got on board – pardon the pun – because it was the only way to get around,” Les said.
“It was a big contribution to enhancing the strength of the CBD.”
Over the years through hard work, dedication and genuine care for the customers, both the family and the company became integral parts of the South Coast and Illawarra community.
You need only ask a local or search “Dion’s” on the Lost Wollongong Facebook page to glean its folklorish status in the community.
“Most people who’ve been here for a while will have a story about their mum or grandmother who has fond memories of catching a Dion’s bus. Some of the stories are quite extraordinary,” Les said.
“One of my favourites is from one woman named Ann Walter who told us that she was riding the bus driven by a member of the Dion family with her four young children when it started bucketing down. Her driver went off-route to drive her right up to her gate. He waited with them until the rain abated and then walked her and her children out. Then he went back on route and finished his rounds,” he added.
“I’ve heard of drivers giving local Indigenous children free lifts to the golf course and back so they could pick up golf balls and earn some cash, I’ve heard of them going off route to help community members who needed to pick up medication and so on.”
The unofficial motto of Dion’s is “no one left behind”, a motto earned during the war and depression when the family would give rides to people who didn’t have the fare to pay.
According to Les, the company nearly went “belly up” shortly after, and the buses were repossessed – but it wasn’t the end.
“A gentleman by the name of Brooky Ball wouldn’t let it happen. He bought the buses and leased them back to the family so they could continue to operate,” he said.
“He essentially bailed them out and after some time the family took the licences back and were able to stand on their own two feet. That kind of sums up what the company meant to the community. They nearly went under doing what was right, but in the end, they got it back in spades.
“Ask any elderly person who was around the area at the time and they’ll tell you: Dion’s never made you walk.”
Dion’s operates in a different age now. The way people travel has changed significantly, and deviation from the approved bus route is harder to get away with.
But even as industrial advancements shift the local landscape, the distinct blue Dion’s buses remain a constant, iconic fixture of the Illawarra – a legacy on wheels.
“There are a lot of regulations and rules we have to abide by nowadays, but I would say we do our best to uphold the good nature that the first generations of the family started with,” Les said.
“I think for that part, we can only be judged by our peers and customers.”
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Dion’s is sharing its story with the community through a documentary by Why Documentaries.