Uncle Vic recognised for lifetime of enlightening

The first Aboriginal public school principal in NSW, Uncle Vic Chapman, has been recognised on the Queen’s Birthday honours list for a lifetime of working to improve opportunities for our First Peoples.

Uncle Vic, who was born at Currawillinghi sheep station on the NSW/Queensland border and began teaching in 1952, was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the Indigenous community, to tertiary education, and to the visual arts.

“I loved going to work and I wanted to bend the twig,” he told the ABC after receiving the news. “Education can change the lives of people.

“It changed my life and I think it is the vehicle that will take Indigenous people out of poverty and disadvantage, I firmly believe that.”

A Yuwaalaraay man, who features in Federation’s centenary documentary naa muru gurung, he told a Friday Night Forum before the 2017 Aboriginal Members Conference of his theory of the “fourth phase”.

“I believe we are in the fourth phase of our shared history,” he said. “Phase 1, we were spoken about; phase 2, we were spoken for; phase 3, when they wanted us we were spoken to and now phase 4, we must speak for ourselves.

“I believe that process is already underway, and we have great representation in the arts and in education and in the law and now we need to be seen in other areas … all other areas that white fellas are represented in.”

Uncle Vic, who was appointed as principal at Gwynneville Public School in 1976, wanted to use the opportunity of the honour to thank his parents, his teacher and his beloved wife.

“To my unschooled parents who made great sacrifices so that I could realise my dream of becoming a teacher, to Mr McKinnon, my 1945 school teacher who showed us the way and to my late wife Ruth who gave me encouragement and confidence to do what I could not have done without her,” he said.

It was Mr McKinnon, counter to the racist attitudes of the time, who had a deep influence on his young charge and, recognising potential in the Chapman boy, pointed him to a state bursary to attend high school.

“For me and my siblings, education stopped at the village school in Goodooga. I thought surely a high school must be a school up on stilts,” he said, recalling his “scary” introduction to high school in Dubbo.

Now retired, Uncle Vic is elder in residence in the Art and design Department of the University of NSW where has was conferred an Honorary Fellowship in November last year.