Three of the best moments in Mark Hughes’ life have happened at City Hall.
In 1997 he joined his Knights teammates on the upstairs balcony celebrating Newcastle’s first rugby league premiership.
Seven years later he tied the knot with wife Kirralee in the Concert Hall, and on Friday he was back to receive Newcastle’s Australia Day Citizen of the Year award for his work raising funds to fight brain cancer.
Hughes, the tall, straight-running centre from the Knights’ 1997 and 2001 grand final-winning teams, paid tribute to the Mark Hughes Foundation’s volunteers and the Hunter community, the “heartbeat” of the organisation.
“It’s really special to live in a community jam-packed with amazing, great people,” he told the Newcastle Herald after receiving the award from lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes.
“Being nominated and singled out to receive this award on behalf of the foundation, the volunteers that help us and all the people who support us, it’s a really big honour and I’m very proud.
“There just so many great people who do so many great things in our community, so many volunteers, people who are in the school tuckshop, in the netball canteen, or they’re coaching the hockey team, they’re donating to charity so people can eat.
“There’s so many people out there doing it. Not everyone can be recognised for that, but I hope in some way they see that people acknowledge that it’s so important to our community.”
Hughes, who played three State of Origin games for NSW in 2001, was regarded as one of the nice guys of professional rugby league during his career and a favourite with Knights fans.
The 41-year-old father-of-three’s diagnosis with brain cancer in July 2013 rocked the club and community, but he fought through surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
He and Kirralee set up the Mark Hughes Foundation two weeks after he finished his last round of chemo in mid-2014.
The charity has raised more than $5 million for research and a brain cancer support nurse at the John Hunter Hospital, largely through its annual Beanie For Brain Cancer promotion.
Hughes paid tribute to his wife for supporting him through his treatment and in setting up the charity.
“I really feel like this is our award because we’re a team and everything I’ve done is because of her,” he said.
He said he was becoming recognised as much for the foundation as for his football exploits.
And that was just fine with him.
“We were in Townsville and we got in a taxi and this big fella in the front turned around and sort of looked at me and straight away went, ‘You’re the beanie man.’
“So we’re making an impact, and it’s so good to be making it with family.
“I’ve got Kirralee by my side, we’ve got her sister, I’ve got my best friends, and I’ve got to say that blokes like Paul Harragon, Danny Buderus and Bill Peden, they’re volunteers as well.
“It’s just our life now. Everywhere we go we’re talking cancer. That’s what we’ve signed up to do.”
Long-time Newcastle community advocate Alma Tate, 94, was the other finalist for the citizen of the year honour.
University of Newcastle student Irini Kassis was named the city’s Young Citizen of the Year after representing Australia at the International Model United Nation in London, leading the UN Equity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women committee.
For six months of last year she lived in Vietnam working with the UN as an intern.
“She is an international thought leader amongst young people when considering topics of social justice, women’s empowerment and equality,” Cr Nelmes said.
“Irini’s international leadership is exceptional, particularly for a 20-year-old with a non-English-speaking background who emigrated to Australia at the age of 16.”
NOVA for Women and Children was named community group of the year for its work with women at risk of homelessness.