The Founding Chair of St Columba Anglican School, the Rev. Canon Dr John Barrett OAM, has announced his retirement from the School Council after 17 years of faithful service. John was the visionary and the driving force behind the establishment of St Columba Anglican School. John has also played a significant role in the wider Port Macquarie-Hastings community as a pharmacist and business owner, Councillor, Mayor of Port Macquarie-Hastings Council (1991 – 92), Clerical Canon of the Anglican Diocese, Corporate Trustee of the Anglican Diocese of Grafton, and current board member of the Mid North Coast Local Health District.
John is married to Valmai, and they have four children and eight grandchildren.
People have described you as a visionary. How would you describe yourself?
I’d hopefully be thought of as a Christian, first and foremost. A follower of Jesus. I think when one reads through the Bible we read of men and women with dreams and visions. And certainly for the school, I had a vision back in the 1990s.
I’d like to think I have made a contribution to St Columba. But I’d also have to recognise the number of people I’ve worked with in a collegial manner. We’ve had many gifts and many skills in those people.
How did your initial vision become bricks and mortar?
When I came to Port Macquarie in 1979, as a pharmacist in those days, I was engaged with St Thomas Anglican Church, which is the fifth oldest church in Australia. As I researched the history of the church, I realised that all the education in Port Macquarie between 1825 and 1865 was done at the church. And then the public education system came in the 1860s and the Anglicans got out of education here.
Then in 1990 I was elected as the Chairman of Committees for the Anglican Diocese. I had noted that other Anglican schools had begun to emerge in Tweed Heads, Coffs Harbour and the Clarence Valley. It started to twig. Well, why don’t we have one?
And so I thought I would speak to the Bishop of the day, Bishop Philip Huggins. In 1999, Bishop Phillip, following the presentation of our Feasibility Study, gave us the go ahead to start looking for land. So that was the beginning of the dream realised.
When St Columba Anglican School opened in 2002, we had 72 students. We now have around 1,150, so there’s been outstanding growth.
John, you’ve got a love of history. How do we look to the future but hold to what we’ve learnt in history?
I think my own background may be helpful. I was educated at The Kings School in Parramatta. That was established in 1831, and it’s got a long history. My primary degree is from Sydney University, established in the 1850s. Both places have great traditions.
St Columba is still a relatively young school, but we can sow the seeds now that will provide for our students long into the future. So I had a vision again of forming a Foundation for St Columba that will provide scholarships, buildings and a whole range of other things. It will also concentrate on the Alumni of the school. We are the first Anglican school in the Diocese to have a Foundation. So we’re preserving the past, looking for exemplary education in the present and looking forward to the future.
You were an amateur boxer in your younger days. What life lessons did that teach you?
When I went to school, boxing was compulsory. I was a big lad, but we boxed by weight and not by age, so I was boxing boys much older than myself. And that taught me a lesson for life that you do get knocked over. Life is not a bed of roses all the time. It’s almost a bit of a hurdle race in some respects. Failure can be helpful; it’s how you deal with it. As Winston Churchill stated: “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm”.
You’ve been married to Valmai for over 50 years. What part has she played in your journey?
Valmai has played an enormous part in my journey since we were married in 1965. We met briefly during my early pharmacy career, and then Valmai underwent four years training/study at St Luke’s Hospital, Sydney, graduating as a nursing sister. Valmai also holds a Diploma of Hospital Chaplaincy and has played a vital role in our Christian journey together.
Our four children were born in Sydney, Kylie 1967, Rebecca 1970, Huon 1972 and Connor 1977. Valmai bore the brunt of the upbringing of the children and our young family, whilst I worked long hours in the pharmacy and studied further at Sydney Uni and later Macquarie Uni.
We moved as a family to Port Macquarie in 1979, where we had purchased the Port Pharmacy in Horton St. and established the Flynns Beach pharmacy. Valmai played a vital role in leading and encouraging a large staff, whilst I managed the dispensary side of the businesses.
In 1984, having sold the two pharmacies in Port, we purchased three pharmacies in the Camden Haven, at Lake Cathie and Laurieton. Again, Valmai made a very significant contribution to the success of these businesses. Her untiring and encouraging nature assisted me greatly.
During my 16 years in Local Govt. as Councillor, Deputy Mayor and Mayor, Valmai again was of invaluable assistance. Valmai played a significant role as lady Mayoress in the early 1990s.
Throughout our marriage of almost 53 years Valmai has been the foundation of our successes, as parents, grandparents, civic leaders, and Christian endeavours. As the Bible states in the Book of Proverbs,” A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies”. How fortunate and blessed I have been.
Looking back at the past 17 years, what has made your role as Chair of St Columba worthwhile?
This year my wife, Valmai and I have been married 53 years. We have four children (all with Master of Arts degrees) and eight grandchildren, and we are fortunate that they have all had marvellous educational opportunities.
There’s been a sense that it would be good to use whatever expertise I have to help develop education here in Port Macquarie. Columba Cottage Early Learning Centre was another vision. I think education is the answer, when we look around the world at the deficits.
It’s interesting; I played a number of representative sports, cricket, rugby, athletics, rifle shooting and golf, so I’ve come from a fairly strong sporting background. And yet to me, education has become important.
Has it been difficult to step away from something you have championed for so long?
One of the things in life, whether it’s in sport, in politics or in education is that it’s wonderful to go out when you’re on top. And there’s a time and a place. I’ll be eighty next year, and I feel that I’ve made my strongest contribution. I’ve had a fortunate life. I’m happy to go and I’m leaving the school in great hands.
I’m handing on to Dr Gordon Burch, who has been a very good friend of mine for many years and as Deputy Chair has done a wonderful job. And we’ve got a dedicated, and enthusiastic School Council in operation.
Our greatest resource in life is the people we engage. We have been enormously fortunate to engage some of the most outstanding teachers that I’ve come across. The fact that we’ve been in the top 100 academic schools in the state for the last few years, I think, is testimony to the staff, to the Principal and the executive of St Columba.
I am humble; I’m proud of course, but I am humbled by what has been achieved. Not so much by me, but by others.