Vale Larry James
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 127 No 3, 14 April 2022, page no. 6
QTU life member Larry James was laid to rest after a vibrant Torres Strait Islander funeral service in Cairns on 25 March.
Larry graduated as a teacher from the University of Queensland in 1974 and taught in Gin Gin, Gayndah and Maryborough before he arrived on Waiben (Thursday Island) in 1976. He stayed there teaching until he retired in 2013. He was awarded QTU Life Membership in 2015.
His cousin, Dan Emerson, claimed credit for attracting him to TI by sending him 8mm films of life and teaching there. I suspect Larry stayed because he married into the Saibai Koedal clan by marrying Audrey Gainau Isua, a daughter of the clan chief and elder.
Larry became School Union Rep in 1978 and remained a Union Rep for the remainder of his career. When he first became a Union Rep, the nearest QTU office was in Townsville. You can only guess how much communications in the Torres Strait have developed since 1978, but you know Larry had to be very self-reliant. There are active Union members around the state whom Larry mentored as teachers and unionists. As someone said about him, for 35 years Larry and the QTU were synonymous in that part of the world.
He became the Torres Strait Island Branch Representative to the QTU State Council in 1984 and held that position until he retired - 30 years of helping to make decisions about the policies and directions of the Union from a unique perspective.
He spoke sparingly, but he carried a big stick. One day Council was talking about standardised testing and NAPLAN. It was early on and we already hated it. Larry stood up and said something like: “It is even worse than you know. Up in the Torres Strait, when we test those eight or nine-year-olds in year 3, we are testing them in perhaps their third language. Their first language is that of their island. The second is the creole of the Torres Strait, and English is third. And after we test them after just two years in school, we are labelling these kids as under-achieving because they don’t meet the white standard in their third language.”
Those who were there can still remember the emotion, the anger, the frustration of what he said that day in defence of Torres Strait (and Cape York) students and their teachers.
Larry campaigned for teacher accommodation, for remote incentives, for Gonski, and above all for the needs and aspirations of the students of the Torres Strait. Separately, he helped to found Cathedral College, a residential boarding college for students from the outer islands to attend high school on Waiben, and was a house parent, a committee member and president for many years.
His last Organiser, Maureen Duffy, said: “What struck me most was how humble Larry was about his extraordinary dedication and effort over so many years.”
There were echoes of that generosity in every speech at his funeral, including those of the teachers who had once been his students. His sparring partner, the Federal Member for Leichardt, Warren Entsch, wrote with a message of respect transcending political difference.
Age and ill-health eventually forced Larry off Muralag (Prince of Wales Island) to Cairns. But there was a group of students from Tagai who formed a guard of honour for him at his funeral. I think he would have liked that – though I’m not sure that he would have liked the spotlight. Rest in peace, bala.
By Graham Moloney, QTU Life Member and former General Secretary