Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Friday, 19 March 2021

Inspirational People (2) - Dr Geoffrey Swan OAM


Image courtesy Northern Star

This tribute is to Geoffrey Swan. 

Geoff had a distinguished career in Special Education, and I was one of many whom he inspired to make a career of this work.

He was truly a pioneer in the field, and pre-eminent in the education of children with cerebral palsy in Australia. He was awarded an OAM in 1987 for services to children with special needs.

My parents knew Geoff before I did. He was appointed (from Teachers' College, I think), to the small school at Carmila West in Central Queensland in the early fifties. Geoff was a young single man living in fairly isolated circumstances, so my parents, both teachers at Carmila about 7 kilometres to the East, took a supportive interest in him. Geoff at that time had no car (and could not drive).

He was a frequent guest on Sunday evening dinners at our place, and my father would collect him from his lodgings (he boarded with a woman he called "the merry widow") and return him, down a very rough gravel road in our Austin A40, at the end of the evening.

Apparently, he used to put me on his shoulders and carry me around, but at age three or four at the time, I have no memory of this. 

My first memory of Geoff is of a visit I made as a student teacher in the late sixties to what was then called the State School for Spastic Children at New Farm Brisbane. Our visit coincided with Geoff's return to the school as principal from a visit to the UK as part of his award of a Churchill fellowship. Our bus pulled up just as he arrived, and every single child who could (many were in wheelchairs) rushed to greet him. He was obviously loved and respected by the children, and this memory has stayed with me.

In the ten months I spent in Vietnam in 1970, my father used to mail me copies of the Education Office Gazette, which contained notices of vacancies in various schools all over Queensland. In December, I saw an advertisement for teachers in special education and I made a general application. My motive was not driven by any interest in teaching children with disabilities, but by an understanding that special schools were generally located in the cities, and I did not want to follow my father's career path which had seen him transferred all over the backblocks of Queensland before he became senior enough to land a big school in an urban environment.

Whilst it never became explicit, I'm pretty sure that my appointment as a teacher to the State School for Spastic Children was largely on a recommendation from Geoff. Apparently, there was a shortage of males in the field at that time.

I was thrown in at the deep end of teaching students with disabilities, but Geoff was an enormously supportive principal. I remember not receiving a paycheck after the first two weeks in the job, which put me in a spot of bother. The department had somehow mislaid my file during my two years in the army. I had bought a car, placed a bond on a flat, and bought clothes, etc to set myself up for my new career. I was broke.

Geoff hounded pay section in George Street, which led to a payroll clerk driving from the Treasury building to the school at New Farm, and presenting me with a manual cheque, something unheard of at the time. Geoff had the happy knack of bulldozing bureaucracy.

He used this knack to improve the quality of life, initially of the children at his school, and later as an Inspector working statewide with students with disabilities. The school at New Farm had toilets on the verandahs which resembled refrigerators in the colder months. Geoff had, for some time, unsuccessfully pestered the then Public Works Department to install wall heaters in the cubicles. Eventually, he became so exasperated on a particularly cold day in August when the westerlies were blowing, that he invited the local works superintendent to the school. This bloke was surprised to be invited to remove his trousers and sit on one of the toilet pedestals for ten minutes. The heaters were installed the following week.

As I moved around the state as a principal, Geoff was always there in his role as Inspector. He showed no fear nor favour, and if I stuffed up, he would tell me in no uncertain terms. In discussion with my colleagues through the years, I learned that he operated this way with everyone.

He retired in 1987 but continued to maintain a strong interest in the field, completing his PhD on the history of Special Education in Queensland (from Segregation to Integration) in 1996.

A few years before he died, the local Special Education Association held an annual dinner. As a previous office-bearer in the association, I suggested to the organisers that we invite Geoff to the dinner as a guest speaker. Unbeknownst to me, the comedian Jamie Dunn was engaged to provide light relief.

I collected Geoff from his home in Bardon and drove him to the dinner. Jamie Dunn did his gig, and shortly after Geoff rose to speak. He had everybody in stitches by the end of his address. He got more laughs than Jamie Dunn, who is a very funny man.

Geoff died a few years ago, predeceased by his wife Doris, who was one of the most charming and gentle people I have ever known. As my mother used to say "As God made them He matched them".

Geoff Swan made a tremendous contribution to the lives of children with disabilities in Queensland, and he was an enormously positive influence in my life. Thousands of other young and now not-so-young teachers would say the same.

He was indeed inspirational.

Comments closed.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic story.
Although I'm surprised you got anything in about Swan given the vast swathes of me me me me me me.
John Grey

Anonymous said...

I knew this man.
You are right. He was brilliant, and a very funny after-dinner speaker.

Anonymous said...

If Swan was so inspirational, why did that kindly, generous man inspire you to be so bitter about life?
John Grey.

Anonymous said...

"New farm Brisbane"
Hey teach - that should be a capital F for farm.
Or to put it another way, the serial pedant gets an F for fail.
John Grey

Anonymous said...

Compare "I did not want to follow my father's career path which had seen him transferred all over the backblocks of Queensland"
"As I moved around the state as a principal"

Well that didn't work I see.
John Grey

Anonymous said...

"My motive was not driven by any interest in teaching children with disabilities"
Well I hope that changed over time.
But probably not given today's constant demonstrations of bitterness.
Fancy being in a job you don't like for all of your career.
John Grey.

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