Robert (Bob) Dansie was born in 1923 and grew up in the Atherton Tablelands. He served in the Australian Army in New Guinea during World War II and later trained as a high school teacher. He was the founding principal of the Centenary Heights High School in Toowoomba which first enrolled students in 1968. This is his story:
“I spent the first 13 years of my life on the dairy farm at Millaa Millaa on the Atherton Tablelands and then went away to school and spent time in a number of places – four years at Townsville Grammar School, except for holidays; one year in Brisbane at the Teachers’ Training College and then after six months of teaching, four years in the AIF. I went to the Teachers’ College on Turbot Street in Brisbane. I was trained as a primary teacher because they didn’t train secondary teachers in those days. Men and women were trained separately. But the training was excellent and in that year, I met three men whom I still admire as people who should have been and were looked up to as first class teachers in the best sense of the word.”
Bob finished teacher training at the end of 1941 and returned home. The Japanese came into the War then and altered everything. He returned to South Johnstone in January 1942 and found the coast in tremendous turmoil. In mid-June when he was about a week over 18½ he got a call-up to join the militia. He sent a letter to his father and said “I’m joining the AIF. I’m not going to be a chocko” and so he joined the AIF and trained as an anti-aircraft gunner. He had a lot of practice and early in 1943, was sent to Port Moresby. He returned to Australia towards the end of 1944. The Australian Army was being reorganised and they were forming a new corps called 2Aust Corps, the Second Australian Corps, under the command of General Lavarack.
“So it got around to July 1945 and we were ready to go. All the rumours said we were going on to the China coast. They sent us all home on pre-embarkation leave and told us we weren’t coming back to camp. When we came back we were to be ready to go on the ship. So I had to take my rifle and all my gear back up to the Tablelands, have three weeks’ leave and while we were on the way back, in Townsville, the War ended. I was discharged from that unit almost exactly four years after I enlisted, in the middle of June 1946 and I went home. I had some pre-embarkation leave. I went home and enjoyed some leave.
Bob commenced his studies at the University of Queensland in 1947.
“I had done three Arts subjects while I was in the Army – English, History and Philosophy and I thought I was going to do an Arts degree. But my Principal said to me “Oh, don’t do that.” He said Arts teachers are two bob a dozen. He said “Do a Science degree and you can be sure you’ll get a reasonable job.” So I did a Science degree. I did three years. I studied pure and applied Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics, did four years of Maths, three years of Chemistry, two years of Physics, never got less than a credit the whole time. And then at the end of 1949, I told the Education Department that I was finished and I was ready to come back. So they told me to come down and see them. There was an old Scotsman who was the personnel officer. He met me with the statement “Where would you like to go, laddie?” I thought gee this is good, I can make a choice. I was just thinking about it and he said “Well, it’s one of two places, it’s Cairns or Bundaberg.” I thought, I hadn’t been to either of those, it would be good, so I was still thinking and he said “Well, it’s Bundaberg.” So I never really had any choice at all. It’s a sort of Clayton’s thing. So I went off to Bundaberg.
“I got to Bundaberg in January 1950. I’d never taught any science in my life. I hadn’t done junior physics. At the end of that year, I married a lovely lass who is still my wife, although she’s very very ill, at Bundaberg Methodist Church. We were married in December 1950. I was in Bundaberg for 12 years.
“From Bundaberg, I went to Sandgate to be Deputy Principal. I was Deputy Principal for six years and effectively I was Principal for six years, because, for a number of reasons which I won’t go into. One of them was that the Grade 8s were brought over there into high school and Sandgate went from a school of 900 to a school of 1600 while the boss was away. He came back and he had 29 new teachers and it was just too much for him. I just kept on running the school. He ran quite a bit, but I did a lot of the day-to-day work. Eventually in 1967, Centenary Heights was advertised and I applied for Centenary Heights and I got it. We had already arranged to take the kids on a holiday into New South Wales and we came up and had a look.
“There were three buildings and a fourth one being built. Two classroom blocks, B and E, I think it was and then the manual arts block and part of another block which I think became G block after. They were in that paddock where they are now. The grass was 30 inches high, it was kikuyu. There were a couple of old and dead trees. There were a number of good trees. There was a barbed wire fence along the front. They were just building it. So I said to Jean, well it’s going to be a job, but we’ll just go and have a holiday. So we did. I came back a week before the school started. They’d mowed the grass, and they finished off the buildings. Jean and I between us enrolled 150 Grade 8 children.
“There were seven staff at that time. The Science teacher was a man Mr Schmidtchen. The senior teacher was a man called Mr Bron. There was a manual arts teacher, Mr Yeo. Elsie Mackie was the Home Economics teacher. There was a Miss Layt and another girl whose name I’ve lost at the moment. I was the boss, so I was number seven. We had 150 kids.
“I came up at the end of 1967 and of course the paper found out I’d got the school and they got on to me and, about plans and that sort of thing. I’d been around the other schools and I was disgusted because they all had blue shirts and they still have, blue shirts, you know Grammar, Mount Lofty, Harristown and the Catholic schools and so on. I said “I’ll tell you one thing, we’re not going to have. We’re not going to have blue.” And of course that made the headlines. They said “What are you going to have?” I said “Well, that’s up to the parents.” But I said “It’s not going to be blue.” So anyway we had a meeting of the parents down at Regents on the lake and we decided that they would be three colours – green, grey and gold. Then they got stuck into me because green and gold were Australian colours. I said “That doesn’t matter. They’re my colours too.” So we got green, grey and gold and the boys got grey shirts.
“I think one of the things that you have to do when you open a new school. There are some things that you impose on it. I imposed on this school, its badge. You can see the green and gold. Two quarters were gold, that was green and the ring around the outside was grey. I’m a great believer in still keeping Latin tags, Per ardua ad alta, this means “hard work till the heights” so it’s a little bit of a pun. Not many people wake up to it, but we adopted that. Then we paid respect to Toowoomba. In the centre there was an open book. I got into trouble incidentally for having a Christian cross in there. I had Jehovah’s witnesses who said they weren’t going to wear it. I said “That’s your privilege. You don’t have to wear it. But you’re going to a Christian school in a Christian country and you should respect its religion.” That was, that one there had a musical lyre in it because it was, a tribute to the fact that Toowoomba was noted for its music and its arts. This is a gear wheel, for the industries. This was a pair of ears of wheat, because of the agriculture and that’s the Toowoomba violet, which is the city’s flower. And that was the badge.
“Well, again for sports’ houses, I laid down certain principles. They were to be named after people who had achieved fame and glory in various vocations. So we had, at that time Mr Swartz was still alive. He was a colonel I think, he might have been a general. It was not long after the Second World War so there was a Swartz House. Then Sister Kenny was an obvious one who should be honoured. So there was a Kenny House. The other woman was Elizabeth Curran. Now at that time Elizabeth Curran had almost been forgotten in Toowoomba, but Elizabeth Curran was for many years a leading lady in the Literary Society. And then the fourth one was Thompson because at that time Thompson was a much admired rugby football man. So we had a sportsman, an army man, a nurse and a literary lady.
“We were told initially that the school would be officially opened at the end of 1968. We were prepared for it. That was the first year. It didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen the next year. And then all of a sudden, we were told that it would be open when it was in its senior year. So we didn’t have an opening until 1972, five years after we started. And I think it’s the only school where it’s ever happened. It’s not my prerogative to say when the school opens. My job’s to run it. If the Education Department doesn’t want to open it for five years, good. I’ll turn it into a place that you’d be happy to open. And that’s what we did.
“We opened at a time when there was all the controversy over girls and boys, which I think is a lot of nonsense. So we decided we were going to have, half men, half women for the houses. And boys and girls were going to have equal status in the school. The second thing that I got very definite about was that there will be no prefects. By the time a boy or a girl has got to senior, he or she’s been in the school for five years, they’re in their fifth year. They are the hierarchy. They are the leaders and so you make them the leaders. You challenge them and so at the the beginning of 1972 we had the first Parents and Citizens’ meeting of the year and the President said to me “What are you doing about prefects?” Ray Mullins and I knew what we were going to do. We’d had a long talk about it. I said “There aren’t going to be any.” Now to say that in a town where tradition said that you had prefects, was asking for trouble. You could hear all the jaws drop. “What are you going to do?” I said “Mr Mullins and I have a plan.” I said “There is going to be a leadership camp. All of the seniors (who were then only just coming in to senior), all of the seniors will be invited at camp. Mr Mullins is running it.” Because I handed it over to Mr Mullins. I couldn’t do it because I had to be at the school. But Mr Mullins ran that. At the end of the week when they had the camp, we put a challenge to them. I haven’t got a copy of that challenge and it’s probably been rewritten several times. But we asked them whether they would accept that challenge. Again, there was no compulsion. But if they wanted to wear a leadership badge, that they signed that declaration, and if at any time during the year, if they hadn’t already signed it, if they felt they were ready, they could sign. They could also have it withdrawn from them if they misbehaved. And so everyone who accepted, became a leader. We had a leadership badge made, green and gold.
“The thing that gave me greatest joy, was that within 18 months, every other school in Toowoomba had leadership badges. It was something that was just waiting to happen. They also kept prefects, which I think is ridiculous, but every other school had a leadership badge. Centenary Heights has still got them.
“I wanted my students to leave school with self-esteem and confidence. You can’t get self-esteem if you keep tramping on them. Other schools were always looking to see what Mount Lofty was doing. Sometimes my students would say to me “Well, they do so and so at Mount Lofty.” And I would retort “Well, that’s a very good reason why we shouldn’t.” Because they’re probably doing the wrong thing.
“When we started of course it was the curriculum for Grade 8. One of the things I did was, I insisted that it be the full curriculum. Now of those six other teachers, not one was an Art teacher, or wanted to take art. So I taught art. I was the foundation art teacher. I enjoyed myself. I loved drawing and painting and I don’t know what the Education Department thought about it. Our curriculum was complete from the start. We put out our first musical in Year 10. It was “Oklahoma”. We didn’t do the full “Oklahoma” and we did it under very very rough conditions. We didn’t have a hall. We didn’t even have a stage. We practised in two rooms where the door which could open up into one big room. We went to Harristown to put the thing on as they had not long built its hall, so we went into their hall. And I don’t think they have missed a year since doing a musical.
“We discovered some amazing talent. And I think it was the second or third, might have been the third one we did. We wrote our own script. Mr Mullins and I decided that we were going to use this girl who was a born comedian. I’m still hurt that she hasn’t kept it up for some reason. But her part. She did Annie in “Oklahoma” and she was Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun”. So the third time, we still had her at school, I said to Ray Mullins “Look, let’s write our own musical” and we did. And what we decided to do was, we wanted to do eventually, I don’t think we ever did it, we wanted to do “My Fair Lady”. The abbreviated form of “My Fair Lady”. But what we did was, we imagined that, what’s his name the man in “My Fair Lady”, the lady’s father. We started off, by imagining that he was going to get married the next day and they were having a big party in the pub which we called the Spangled Sparrow and that enabled us to take all kinds of music, all kinds of things and put them together in a celebration for his impending marriage. So we had songs like “Waiting at the Church” and all sorts of things like that, funny ones and sentimental ones and the first act ended with the singing “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”. Well then the second Act, he said – now I’m not going to bed. So they wandered around all over the streets for the rest of the second act. And they got up to all kinds of things. We pinched bits out of Gilbert & Sullivan, a “Policemen’s Life is Not a Happy One”, you know, we had that in it. Also came across a policeman who was a bit disgusted with things and he told them why. And we put that together.
“The present Library was built after my time. We had a library on the last three rooms of the first block that was built, B Block. I had a wonderful librarian, an excellent man, Mr Ford. He was a “big” Ford. There were two Fords, and he was the “big” Ford at the top of the hill. He did some things, with my permission, that I’m sure the Education Department didn’t like. He opened at night-time and I gave him afternoons off so he could open at night-time. But I could see the reason for it. I could see the need for it. I did a lot of things that I shouldn’t have done, probably. I should have got into trouble for it, if they’d have found out. But what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them. If you’re not doing any harm.
Bob tells us about the playing fields at Centenary Heights High School and how they were developed:
“The Works Department gave a contract to the wrong bloke. He didn’t save the topsoil. He came in there and he just bulldozed out that big platform. It was very steep and I worried about how they were going to put a playing field in there. They couldn’t get grass to grow on it. It was a desert. In fact Mount Lofty used to be rude and call it “Dansie’s Desert” so I used to call, I always called Mount Lofty the “Tick Hill” because it was – Tick Hill. Where it is, that mountain, all the folks around the place when I was here – that wasn’t Mount Lofty, that’s Tick Hill, so it’s Tick Hill High School. So I used to tell the kids because they used to say “Mount Lofty’s calling our football field, Dansie’s Desert.” I said “Well you tell them “It’s better to be on Dansie’s Desert than on Tick Hill.”
“We managed to get grass growing on it a couple years before I left and Mr Mullins did that. We got into terrible trouble because he used something from Wetalla that they reckoned was odourless sewage and it was everything but. There was a terrible smell around the place for a long time and in the beginning of summer, but it did help and they managed to get grass to grow. But the man who built it was an absolute idiot. He showed off to the kids with his big bulldozer and all that sort of thing.
“We put a variety of trees in. In1975, we planted a red cedar and Jack Thistlethwaite came and planted it and we gave the job to, not the top class of the school but one of the industrial classes. They helped Jack Thistlethwaite plant that red cedar. I had a good groundsman too. I had Mr Beardmore. Mr Beardmore was in his 60s when he took the job. He didn’t want to be made to resign when he was 66. I think he was nearly 70 before they woke up that he was over the age. But, you know, I’ve got no time for bureaucrats. I have absolutely no, particularly the bureaucrats who sit in their offices and say “Under regulation XYZ of PNQ you can’t do that.” And you go away and do it, but you don’t tell them.
“There were a lot of memorable students. I always remember the fellow from the training college used to give us advice, quite often. And he’d come in and he’d say “Men” and you knew when he said “Men” he wanted you to pay attention. “I’m going go tell you something. When you go to your class of your school, remember 15% of those students are cleverer than you. You don’t have to teach them. They’ll learn by themselves, but you’ve got to challenge them and you’ve got to ensure that they’ve got work to do.” I’ve never forgotten that. I see all that rubbish that comes out of the paper about OP1s and all that. That’s not because of the school. That’s because of the students. What is important, is how many of those students left school satisfied that they’d done their best and that they were given their best. So I have never worried about how many OP1s or OP2s or OP whatever’s, but I always worried about developing potential.
“A good teacher must have respect for other persons. He has to be a people’s person. Most of the teachers who fail, and a good many of them do, fail because they want to follow certain lesson plans and – here’s the syllabus, you go from A to Z through that. And you do it always in the same order. One of the hardest things in teaching is to find out why a student doesn’t understand. There’s a temptation that I’ve seen too many teachers do it, that say – look, there must be something wrong with you if you don’t understand that. It’s amazing how many teachers will say that. They’re failing because it’s just something they can’t understand, particularly girls as they’re easily intimidated. What happens with the boys is often just as bad. The boys say – well I’m not even going to try any more.
“So I think empathy is important. You have to put yourself in their position. You have to think to yourself – well you know, if I didn’t have difficulty with that, I was lucky. I know I’ve been lucky as I have a natural aptitude for doing mathematics. That doesn’t make me superior to them. It makes it my responsibility to find a way that suits them. I think you’ve got to be prepared to accept that everybody has good points and everybody has faults. And you suppress the faults and improve the good points.”
“I think you’ve got to think about my contribution to the school in two ways. There are material things and that was the continuous, but slow improvement of the grounds and the surroundings. But the thing that probably is most important was development of this idea of personal worth. The ideas I used to say to the parents, teachers and students – everybody has talents. Don’t tell me that you have no talents, you have. Everybody has talents. Everybody has things that they can do. They don’t even know that they do, they can till they’re challenged some time. Part of the work of the school is to say to the students – look, there are things that you can do for your fellow students and for other people that you probably don’t even realise at the moment, but think about it and when you think you can do it, do it.
“Every student should be aware of his own self-worth or her own self-worth. If you can’t instil self-worth in the students while they’re at school, they’ve got very little hope of doing anything outside. I hope that’s still is a prime aim of the school. Unfortunately, schools have changed and it’s not the students’ fault. It’s the Education Department’s fault and we’ve got far too many bureaucrats. Once you get bureaucrats running the schools or doing anything in schools, you’re in trouble because they don’t understand.
Bob’s time as Headmaster came to an end suddenly when he was asked to be an inspector. He did this reluctantly and saw that he was needed.
“I still maintain an interest in Centenary Heights State High School. I think it’s become what it should be. One of the terms that’s used, I haven’t seen it used in Australia, but over in Fiji and places like that, they have what they call “lighthouse schools” because they show the way and that’s what I hope that school is becoming, a “lighthouse school”. It’s having a difficult time because education is having a difficult time. Education in Queensland is in a mess. And unfortunately, it’s in a mess in the subjects where it’s very difficult to have good teachers, Maths and Science. The reason is that there is no leadership. Now leadership in science and maths, in Queensland anyway, is a very tenuous and difficult thing. So far Centenary Heights is going well. There are some things that are wrong but they’re beyond the school itself. They are problems which are common through education generally. I think the headmistress, Miss Walsh, is doing a marvellous job.
(Bob Dansie was interviewed in April 2008)