How to reach the top: Promoter of achievers dies

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Closing the Gap started decades ago for Father Percy Smith MBE, founding Anglican rector of Alice Springs and his family, launching Aboriginal boys from The Centre on some of the most illustrious careers in Australia’s public life, and promotion of Indigenous rights.

Luminaries such as Charlie Perkins, John Moriarty, Gordon Briscoe, Bill Espie, Malcom Cooper, Brian Butler and Sonny Morey were St Francis House boys, (google them in the Alice Sprigs News) were sent to Adelaide by their mothers to get an education under the guidance of Fr Smith and his wife Isabel E Smith OAM.

John P McD Smith was chair of the St Francis’s House Project, a dedicated chronicler of its history, a prolific writer about the boys from St Francis House, Central Australian history and also wrote his father’s biography The Flower in the Desert published in 1999.

He died in Adelaide on November 15, aged 75.

On November 7 he attended the launch, also attended by Minister Kyam Maher, of the autobiography, co-written by Lea McInerney, of Vincent Copley, a St Francis boy who died in January.

It was John P McD Smith’s last public function. His funeral will be in Adelaide on Saturday at 9am (Alice Springs time) and will be live streamed.

In the last week of his life he was part-way through writing this story. It was completed by his friend Terry Cleary.

Here it is.

The biography of respected Ngadjuri Elder Vincent Copley AM, The Wonder of Little Things, was launched at Glanville Hall in Semaphore South in Adelaide.

Glanville Hall was the site for St Francis House, a home for Aboriginal boys established by Fr Percy Smith when he brought six boys from Central Australia to Adelaide in 1946 with the consent of their mothers. So it was significant that former St Francis House boys Brian Butler OAM and Sonny Morey were able to attend the launch.

Vincent’s origins were in South Australia but it was when he was living in Alice Springs that he first met some of the St Francis House boys during the long Christmas break.

Vincent asked his mother if he could return to Adelaide with the other boys to live at St Francis House.

Fr Percy Smith was able to make this happen and in early 1948, Vincent flew to Adelaide with his mother to board at St Francis House.

He went to Ethelton Primary School and Le Fevre Boys Technical High School which gave him a basic grounding, which at this time was not available to most Aboriginal children. 

Vincent had natural sporting ability and he excelled at sport playing in the school football team.

He went on to play with the Port Adelaide Football Club winning the SANFL Tompkins Medal for the fairest player in the Senior Colts (under 19) competition.

At the age of 11 Vincent was holidaying in Ardrossan when he was stricken with terrible abdominal pain. 

His Uncle Cliff rushed him to the Ardrossan Hospital. 

A staff member said, “We don’t want your kind here. You are not welcome.” 

Uncle Cliff rushed Vincent across to the Maitland Hospital where he was also rejected! 

The poor lad was now screaming in pain.  His uncle rushed Vincent 60km to the Wallaroo Hospital where he was accepted with emergency surgery being performed for acute appendicitis. 

In 1954 Vincent became involved in The Curramulka community on Yorke Peninsula in South Australia where he soon made many friends given his sporting prowess and his outgoing friendly personality. 

He excelled in the Curramulka Football Club eventually becoming the coach. 

In 1957 he won the Southern Yorke Peninsula League Medal.  He also played a season in Melbourne with VFL side Fitzroy where he trained with Bill Stephens and lived with Sir Douglas Nicholls who later became Governor of South Australia.

During his time at Curramulka, Vincent got to know Brenda Thomas who came from a farming family at Port Julia.  Brenda said that she had her eye on Vincent for quite a long time.

They were married at St Christopher’s Anglican Church, Curramulka, by Father Percy Smith in 1971.

Vincent was becoming more involved in the Aboriginal rights movement.  He became a member of the Aboriginal Progress Association in Adelaide.

In 1965 he joined Charlie Perkins on the 15-day bus journey, the Freedom Ride, through New South Wales to highlight the terrible conditions in which many Aboriginal people lived. 

Vincent and Brenda moved to Canberra where he worked with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and was able to have more of an impact on matters to do with Indigenous people. 

Later he worked as manager of Aboriginal Hostels Ltd in South Australia. 

From there, Vincent became Chair of Tandanya, the Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.  During this time as well, Vincent flew to Kuala Lumpur with Charlie Perkins to meet with Muhammed Ali. 

They discussed with the famous boxer his willingness to support Aboriginal youth initiatives.

Vincent’s involvement in Indigenous sport was an important part of his life.

Whilst living on the Yorke Peninsula he also played cricket with the Curramulka Cricket Club and made around ten hundreds with a highest score in the 120s. In his later life, he played a central role in bringing about the 1988 tour of England which commemorated the first Aboriginal Australia tour in 1868. 

It was while working on this project that he came to know Ashley Mallett with whom he became good friends and later worked together with to write The Boys from St Francis published in 2018. 

In 2000 Vincent was appointed Chairman of the Cricket Australia’s National Indigenous Advisory Committee from where he was able to organise key Indigenous cricket programmes.

In his latter years Vincent was involved in exploring the country of his paternal grandfather, Barney Warrior, and worked closely with several anthropologists, linguists and historians to recognise the Ngadjuri people and their culture in the mid North region of South Australia.

Vincent Copley was always there for you. People would say: “Go and see Vince Copley.  He’ll help you.” 

In 2014 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in recognition of his service to justice to Aboriginal people and for his  contribution to improving the quality of life for many Australians.

Vince would be heartened that the book launch was held in the same week that Minister Maher released a draft bill to establish a First Nations Voice to State Parliament.

“The Government recognises and respects Aboriginal people as the State’s first peoples as well as their collective wisdom, which is needed to help make decisions that are in their best interests,” Maher said.

“For too long, decisions have been made for Aboriginal people, and not by Aboriginal people.”

A curtain raiser to the referendum on a national voice, the SA voice will be able to address Parliament on particular legislation of interest to Aboriginal people, make an annual address to Parliament, provide reports to Parliament on matters of interest and engage Ministers and chief executives about department budgets and priorities in annual meetings.

The Wonder of Little Things is published by Harper Collins for ABC Books.

PHOTOS (supplied): John P McD Smith (at left) with Vincent Copley AM • With Eileen Perkins, widow of Charlie Perkins, and former Le Fevre High School Principal Rob Shepherd.

4 COMMENTS

  1. You might also look at the history of Harold Thomas. IF ITS THE SAME PERSON, there was one Harold Thomas who was raised by the Anglican rector Don and Betty Wallace at Willunga in SA in the early 1960s.
    Harold was a gifted athlete, and good scholar. I taught him there in 1963 when he was in year 9, from memory. He also excelled at football and I coached him in the same colts league in the Southern Football league at about the same time as Grahame Cornes played for Reynella.
    It’s way past time the high achievers in the Indigenous community got the recognition that they so rightly deserve. And the people and methods used to get there. Let’s look at the positives.

  2. I honour the late Smiths – Father Percy founder of St Francis House, and son John P McD. And I honour all associated with the running of St Francis House.
    Regrettably, I didn’t know the Smiths personally, but I did know many of the men they prepared for the world.
    The achievements of those men say all that needs to be said.

  3. Father Percy deserves appropriate recognition for the magnificent work he did, providing a safe venue for those immensely talented young First Australian men.
    I worked with a few of them over the years in various capacities, principally the Aboriginal Sports Foundation.
    What achievers they were: Charlie Perkins and John Moriarty at soccer, Vince Copley at footy and cricket and perhaps the biggest star, Wally McArthur from Borroloola, one of the greatest ever Rugby League players in England, after being recognised as a champion sprinter when he won the Bay Sheff at Glenelg.
    It’s good to note the special mention of Vince Copley – “Cop” as we called him. Cop was always so perceptive about life in general. He was a great mate, a thought ahead of most people at all times. Valé.

  4. On behalf of the Smith Family I would like to offer our sincere and heartfelt thanks for all of the kind messages of condolence on the passing of our beloved John P McD Smith.
    Right to the end he was putting others first – promoting the life and work of the late Uncle Vincent Copley AM.
    Thanks to Erwin Chlanda and the Alice Springs News for publishing this story and for offering a platform to promote the achievement of Indigenous people and those who helped them.

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