For the past century Armidale has been known as northern NSW’s education centre. Now, Port Macquarie’s rivalling it as a coastal hub of learning excellence. Susie lunches with our most experienced educator.
Modern fiction honours inspirational teachers: Goodbye Mr Chips, Mr Holland’s Opus, Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society. Aristotle said teachers, even more than mothers, deserve to be revered. Mothers merely gave children life, he declared, if controversially: teachers delivered to them “the art of living well”. Now, as teachers in Port Macquarie return to work for the new school term, it’s the first time in 40 years that Jim O’Brien’s not among them. Many teachers’ careers eventually span 40 years; no other has spent that span entirely here in one spot. It was a remarkable tribute to O’Brien that, just five days before Christmas, 230 mothers and significant others set aside festive planning to gather to display their deep esteem and affection for, and farewell, him as he retired after a lifetime delivering “the art of living well”. More than for teaching, O’Brien’s respected for having grown a vital sector of our education system, prosperity and economy. More than a principal for an unbroken near 30 of those 40 years, he’s been Coordinating Principal, paterfamilias of the development of our remarkable Catholic secondary school system and the welfare of its students.
One of seven kids, he grew up on a dairy farm at Meerschaum Vale in the Richmond River Valley. With milking the family’s morning priority and the school bus stop 5km off, he was sent as a boarder to St John’s Woodlawn, 30km away. After a few years post-school exploring directions in life he settled on what would be his enduring vocation, enrolling in teacher training at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney. He came to Port in 1975 “as a beginner teacher” at St Joseph’s Regional High School, the lone Catholic secondary school, ranging only to Year 10. Fifteen months later he married Mary, also from a family of seven kids, whom he’d met in Sydney. In 1981 he became assistant principal and, in ’86, principal. Port had had a history of Catholic primary education since 1913 but “St Joseph’s was still a pretty small school then”, only six years old. Father Leo Donnelly, patriarch since 1970 and still now of the all the Catholic community here, had in mind “a different model of principal” and directed O’Brien to oversee the development of Port’s Catholic secondary education. “Father D was a visionary; he saw it was a major issue for this town,” O’Brien recalls. “We didn’t even have a TAFE then.” And so emerged: from 1979, St Joseph’s Vocational College, Years 11-12, now Neman Senior Technical College with 335 students; from 1989, traditional academic Years 11-12 established at a new MacKillop Senior College; with a 1990s enrolments surge, the creation of St Paul’s High School for Years 7-10; and in 2009 when MacKillop threatened to overflow, St Joseph’s Regional was expanded to Year 12 at Sovereign Hills (where the student population’s now reached 1100). Now, just this month, St Paul’s and MacKillop have amalgamated to become Mackillop College. And while O’Brien (and many others he pays tribute to) were engaged thus, the Catholic primary sector grew too: when St Joseph’s primary approached capacity, St Agnes primary was founded (1982) and then St Peter’s primary (1993). In future, Sovereign Hills can anticipate needing K-6 classes. And then there are hundreds more infants in Catholic pre-schools. At present, some 250 teachers and support staff cater to 2500 secondary Catholic school students and a further 90 of them to 1500 pupils in the church’s three primary schools.
Not all students are of the Catholic faith; O’Brien estimates more than 40% are from non-Catholic families. “We’re really well-served with government and non-government schools. We’ve got some great [state] primary and secondary schools plus we’ve got the Catholic schools, an Anglican school, a [Heritage] Christian school, a Seventh Day Adventist primary school. I don’t know of any community this size better served with such a range; it’s great for the community to have choice.”So with the tertiary sector revving up and now, it’s thought, over 10 per cent of our workforce sustained in all facets of and support for education, are we, I suggest, becoming a notable centre of learning excellence? “We are,” O’Brien agrees. “The one big gap was the physical presence of a university. We had Southern Cross here for a while but then they withdrew; we’ve had the Uni of NSW rural medical faculty, a great asset; Newcastle have got a pretty strong presence as well. But to have CSU with a greenfields site for a local campus, with student accommodation that’ll bring students here instead of everyone having to go away, is a tremendous development!” What we don’t have, as Armidale had, is boarding schools but these days the spread of local secondary schools in the regions means students don’t need to board as much and improved transport allows even those living, say, 50km away to travel to school daily.
Remarkably, all six of O’Brien’s siblings have worked in education in one aspect or other. And as much as he pays tribute to others, his long-time friend and fellow educator Pat McLoughlin says: “Jim’s highly regarded as a leader of great vision in education. With Father Donnelly he’s been instrumental in overseeing the development of an extraordinary school system, an extraordinary achievement. One of the traits I respect is he really cares about people and follows up on [their] situations.” I’ve noticed this: effortlessly over lunch O’Brien’s extracted information from me about me, drawing me out – out of interest more than curiosity.
Unsurprisingly, he’s noted for an ability to recall the talents and even hobbies and follow the successes and tribulations of thousands whose education he’s been part of: Mark “Baz” Luhrmann kept tropical fish and his older brother Brett had a nursery; James Magnussen, present at the retirement dinner, is a fellow Bulldogs fan; Karen Briscoe’s now a leading oncologist and “when I need a top tradesman or mechanic, I know who to go to!” he laughs. This year he’ll travel with Mary, improve his golf and be with daughter Allison and grandson Dominic James when her husband Cameron, a Qantas pilot flying internationally, is away. (Cameron and his two brothers, a doctor and an accountant in Sydney, all had first-borns, all sons, all within four days of each other!) As you read this, the O’Briens have just been celebrating the first birthdays of the three little cousins. You can take the man out of the school, but you can’t take him away from kids.
This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.