June 20th 2009
Vale Noel John O'Brien, 1942-2009
On Sunday 28 June at 3pm a memorial service will be held on Geoffrey Bay beach to remember Noel O'Brien who died on 17 May 2009. He was 66. In the following article we trace some of Noel's achievements as related to us by his partner of thirty years, Patricia McQueen.
“Thirty years was never long enough with him (Noel)” said Pat McQueen, at her cottage in leafy Arcadia. Her daughter Jodi was staying with her to help see her through the hard weeks following Noel's death from oesophageal cancer. But while Pat's sadness was still raw and palpable, her determination to see Noel's life and achievement's acknowledged was stronger - as was her appreciation of the support from the Magnetic Island community.
Noel was born in Townsville in the middle of World War II. He attended Christian Brothers College along with the likes of other local identities including Vern (Toad Races) Jack, star swim coach Laurie Lawrence as well as long-time Island resident, John "Scotchy" O'Neill.
Noel grew up in Garbutt and many of his play mates were the Aboriginal kids of that rather maligned Townsville suburb. Noel's mother suffered from multiple sclerosis so Noel was raised mostly by his father Paddy and Brother Joe. When the opportunity presented itself Noel would be among the mob escorted to the movies by "old Mrs Tallis" (football star Gorden Tallis's grandmother) on “shanks pony”, the only affordable transport.
Finishing school Noel soon became a sales manager with Townsville firm Cummins & Campbell and, later, a short stint in the Air Force.
It was in the late 1960s that Noel first travelled to Palm Island, a community he found to be reasonably stable and self sufficient and where he worked in various jobs over three years, becoming friends with the locals including Pina Geia, Harry Johnson, Cathy Gibson, Ralph Wilson and Owen Wyles who are now elders on Palm.
But Noel had developed a serious problem with alcohol and, after leaving Palm, he made his way to Sydney.
His life tracked lower and lower with the effects of the booze, so much so that on three occasions he was given the last rites.
But one day in 1979 Noel walked into the Annandale Hotel in Sydney where he met Patricia, who was working there as a barmaid. Pat was a single mum with three children but after laying eyes on Noel it was love at first sight. The strength of that bond can perhaps best be seen by what followed. The couple made a commitment that if they were to get together and if Noel was to become a dad to Pat's kids, Wayne, Darren and Jodi, he would put himself through detox. Pat would go on to be a nurse and, "The grog was history the day he moved in with me and the kids," said Pat with understandable pride. “It's absolutely amazing due to the problems he had. But he was never ashamed to talk about where he'd been.”
Noel was a member of the Grand (Masonic) Lodge and following his life-changing decision, he took a posting as Building Superintendent of the Masonic Centre of NSW, where he flourished and continued to work solidly for twelve years.
But Noel's personal quality of openness and his preparedness and ability to talk truthfully about his own journey were the keys to a future that would see him return to the north and become a highly valued councillor and mentor, particularly in gaols and particularly with Aboriginal offenders.
In 1993 Noel and Pat moved to Magnetic Island and Noel began work with Queensland Health's Mental Health Unit in what, for many, would have been a hellish task. It was the Pre and Post Release & Ending Offending Program at Stuart Prison, which he researched, wrote and delivered. Pat said, “Because of his rapport and ability to relate to indigenous people it soon became known among the prisoners as the 'Noel O'Brien program'”. And, as Noel's skills became apparent, the program began to pay dividends in what eventually resulted in a 75% reduction in reoffending.
Noel also ran the Serious Sexual Offenders Program which included domestic violence and alcohol & drug abuse in both male & female sectors of the prison. “Noel just hoped that he could have made a difference and show how their actions were very very wrong and totally unacceptable.” said Pat.
Perhaps appropriately, Noel was also involved in developing another program, known as the Peer Support Program, to help lower the rate of Aboriginal suicide in prisons. He developed the “buddy system” where each prisoner had another prisoner designated to them to whom they could go for help or support.
Noel was motivated, Pat believes, by the difference in the conditions he experienced on Palm Island from when he first visited in the late 60s to the “terrible” state they were in after his return there in the 1990s.
But, with what Pat described as, “A lack of support from the government,” and the “stymieing behaviour of bureaucrats,” Noel's work became increasingly marginalised. When a new Prison Manager took over, and much stricter protocols were enforced at Stuart Prison, Noel found it hard to continue his work. He could, according to Pat, no longer visit prisoners in their cells without a guard to accompany him and, after eight years the regimentation became too much.
Noel went to work with an agency based in Ayr which saw him negotiate post prison employment on Burdekin farms.
Later Noel returned to work inside gaols but this time he was developing culturally appropriate drug, alcohol and domestic violence material for prisoners at Lotus Glen at Mareeba. An example of this was Noel's adaption of the Alcoholic's Anonymous twelve point program into “Aboriginal English” and, to be more acceptable, replaced the word “God” for “Spirit”.
Noel's work took him to many parts of the north including Aurukun. Pat laughs when she recalls Noel escorting Aurukun locals to Townsville on shopping expeditions, after their release from prison before returning to their own communitities. Readers may be shocked to learn that these bush people were overwhelmed with nervousness by the size and splendour of Townsville's department stores. Noel would reassure them that they would soon be back home with their families.
With the help of local professionals writing grant submissions, Noel was, in his later years, able to operate many programs for Indigenous people. He was a powerful enabler for Aboriginal people, particularly on Palm Island. But Noel's great abilities were shaped from personal circumstances which would have destroyed most others. His legacy, it seems, was that he could pass on the skills and insights of his own hard journey so others could benefit. "The strength Noel needed to stay off the grog, all that time, then moving to the tropics where almost everyone drinks, says so much for the man" said Pat.
Local Aboriginal leaders, Jenny Prior and Gracelyn Smallwood were both moved by Noel's passing. In a message to Pat, Jenny Prior wrote, “...my brother was a great man, very committed in helping others especially our people. His heart was in the right place and he would give his last to anyone.”
As a post script, Pat repeated her thanks to the Magnetic Island community - “I just can't believe how good this community is that we live in, especially when the chips are down.” Pat also wished to acknowledge, particularly, the, “just amazing” help and support from Maureen Rosenhart and Jenny Stelling from Magnetic Island Community Care (MICC) and his fishing mates Chris McGuinn and Bob Lane.
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