B A (Bob) Santamaria rejected, at various times, high honours offered by the Commonwealth of Australia and the Vatican. Yet Santamaria was a legendary figure in both church and state — symbolised by his state funeral in March 1998 attended by prime minister John Howard and archbishop Franco Brambilla, the Pope’s representative in Australia.

I was born about 30 years after Santamaria (the centenary of his birth occurs next month) and was a colleague between 1965 and 1975. I worked part time for him at the National Civic Council in 1970 and 1971 and wrote the editorials for the NCC’s magazine News Weekly in 1973.

I never felt I should address Santamaria as Bob. However, I also felt too acquainted to refer to him as Mr Santamaria. So I managed to avoid salutations when talking to him until 1975, after which we never spoke again.

It’s rare for anyone in a democratic society to create and sustain a political organisation. Santamaria established what was called the Movement in the late 1930s-early 40s. It was an organisation predominantly of Catholic men who united to oppose communism in general and the Communist Party of Australia in particular, especially in the Australian Labor Party and the trade union movement.

I met Santamaria when I was a student at Melbourne University in 1965. By then the Labor split, which led to the formation of the breakaway Democratic Labor Party, was a decade old. The Movement, along with the essentially secular anti-communist industrial groups, had succeeded in diminishing communist influence in the Australian trade union movement in the late 40s and early 50s. However, the Movement lived on, changing its name to National Civic Council in late 1957.

For a young man of Catholic and anti-communist background in the mid-60s, Santamaria was a charismatic figure. He was intellectually courageous, focused on Australia’s role in the Asian region and opposed to the White Australia policy. Yet, as I got to know Santamaria better, I came to understand that he was not fond of disagreement with those he deemed to be his political allies.

In the early 70s, I was sitting with John McConnell in Santamaria’s office in Melbourne. Santamaria, who was invariably secretive during phone conversations, took a call from a friend. I believe it was poet James McAuley, then professor of English at the University of Tasmania. The discussion turned on a mutual colleague, Ray Evans (1939-2014). The caller wanted Evans to be appointed to a position within one of the many front organisations the NCC ran. But Santamaria was hesitant, remarking: “You can’t really trust Ray, he’s only 95 per cent on side.”

To those who met him, Santamaria was invariably polite. Geraldine Doogue, a Catholic who was not a supporter of the Movement, interviewed Santamaria for an ABC documentary in 1993. She found him enormously charming. But Doogue was never close to Santamaria.

In the 60s and 70s, Santamaria was heard to refer to Jim Cairns, the Labor parliamentarian who was the effective leader of the Australian Left, as “my friend Jim”. Santamaria did not like it when I reminded him that Cairns stood for virtually everything the Movement opposed.

Towards the end of his life Santamaria formed a friendship with one-time communist Bernie Taft (1918-2013). Santamaria did not appreciate it when I commented that, if the Communist Party had come to power in the 40s or 50s, Santamaria and his band of anti-communist brothers would have been executed or incarcerated by the likes of comrade Taft. The problem was that Santamaria was more forgiving of his enemies than his friends.

Every organisation with which he was associated experienced a significant split. Namely, the Catholic Worker in the 30s, the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action in 1954, the Movement between 1954 and 1957, and even the NCC itself in the late 70s and early 80s. Santamaria was not responsible for all these divisions but he should have been able to hold the NCC together in the final decades of his life.

Santamaria was a very kind man who gave generously of his time when friends, staff or even strangers came to him for help and advice.

Yet he did not like criticism from within, even when dispatched with courtesy and professionalism.

I was the first person to hold a position on the Movement’s national executive and national council to have similar academic qualifications to Santamaria. I learnt that Santamaria did not enjoy irreverent comments directed towards him, and objections to his tendency to exaggerate, by someone with a comparable educational background.

This came to a head when I was invited to deliver a critique of the Movement at an NCC conference in Melbourne in October 1974. Greg Sheridan attended the function as a young secondary school student. In his memoir When We Were Young and Foolish (Allen & Unwin, 2015), Sheridan documents the occasion and records the critical reaction to my reasoned comments. After this, I was never again invited to an NCC event.

It did not matter much because I would have resigned in any event. But it was an example of how Santamaria ran an organisation. He expressed his position on one occasion in the following terms: “Those who agree are welcome to stay and those who disagree are free to leave.”

Without question, I learnt some tactics from Santamaria. He advised me how to meet exacting deadlines and taught me how to read widely and do research rapidly and thoroughly — something that most of my academic teachers knew little about. Moreover, at times, working with the Movement was fun occasionally.

As an academic at La Trobe University in the early 70s, I experienced the plight of being intellectually unfashionable along with the reality of left-wing violence. For example, my office was ransacked and the bolts were loosened on one tyre of my car, nearly causing a serious accident.

Santamaria’s supporters and opponents alike have tended to overstate his influence. Moreover, many of Santamaria’s fan base have overlooked the fact, like all of us, he had strengths and weaknesses. Yet Santamaria was a key figure in 20th-century Australia in both church and state.