Welcome to VINCE COPLEY’s story. Vince was an Indigenous man and every step of the way in his life he found light in the darkness, the small moments that make the world go round, The Wonder of Little Things.
Read on as Vince begins his story.
Always remember you’re as good as anybody else,’ Vince’s mother, Kate, often told him. And he was, becoming a champion footballer and premiership-winning coach. But change was in the air, and Vince wanted to help make life better for his people too.
THE RED CAR
SOUTH AUSTRALIA, 1940s
We head down to the beach – me, my sisters Maureen and Josie, and my brother, Colin. I’m nearly four, big enough to reach the pedals of the red car. The others are running along beside me, and Colin drops back and pushes me every now and then. He’s six years older than me and a really fast runner. Our aunties call him Old Phar, after Phar Lap the racehorse.
He wears one of those jockey caps all the time too. Mum’s back at the house, and our oldest sister Winnie’s staying with our relatives at Point Pearce, forty miles down the coast road. Dad’s not around because he died when I was one. He was a fast runner too. Mum says Dad died of a broken heart.
We take a short cut where the road goes down to the bridge over the railway line. To get onto it you go down three steps, and once you’re across to the other side you go down some stairs to the ground. Colin pushes me in the red car all the way. My feet slip off the pedals, and they keep turning and hitting my legs. When we get to the bottom I’m crying because my shins and ankles are skinned raw. The others just laugh.
We keep on going along the road, and when we get to the jetty we walk out to the end and watch people fishing, and a ketch (a little sailing boat) loading up at the port to take the wheat and barley to Adelaide.
There’s a clipper (a fast sailing ship) there too with a load for England.
We come home the same way, and Colin carries the red car up the stairs and across the bridge and up the last few steps, then I get back in and he pushes me home.
When Mum finds out what happened she gives Colin a hiding. He’s meant to look after me.
Welcome to my story.
It’s a simple story of a simple person, who’s lived a long life.
Losing my dad when I was young is one of the sad parts of my story. But there have been a lot of happy parts and funny parts and enjoyable parts too.
Bad things have happened to me, like they happen to everyone. Being a black person living in these times meant I experienced some particular sorts of bad things, and I’ve done my best to turn that around for myself and my family, and for other black people too.
In this book I’ll tell you a bit about how I worked my way around racism, and how I made sure I kept on enjoying life. How I often just ignored people’s comments, or made crazy jokes about them with my friends and family. How if someone was trying to stop me from enjoying myself or from making a living just because of the colour of my skin, I’d just keep going until I found someone who treated me right. And how once one person treated me right, others soon did too.
I’ll tell you about how I worked behind the scenes with my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends to change the laws and policies that meant a lot of white people saw us only as the colour of our skin and not as people just like them.
I’ll tell you about some of the other struggle times in my life and what I learned as I went along. I didn’t learn a lot in school, not in the classroom anyway. But I learned a lot all through my life, and I’m grateful for the people who showed me things and taught me things and let me do the things I knew I was good at.
In this book you’ll meet Mr Vickery, my high school headmaster, who used to love watching me play football when I was a teenager. At the end of my matches he’d take up a collection from his mates and give it to me, to give me a taste of being a professional sportsman.
You’ll meet my friend Charlie Perkins, who I was at the boys’ home with. Charlie went on to be a bit famous for stirring things up so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could have the same rights as other Australians. I worked for him for a lot of years, and we travelled together a lot. I got to see what a good operator he was with people and how he was making the changes that needed to be made, especially at that time in history.
You’ll meet my Curramulka friends Frank and Pat Joraslafsky, who invited me to tea at their place when I was 17 years old and new to the white farming community they were part of. And you’ll see how that set the ball rolling for other people to do the same, and how I ended up living there for fourteen years, and how
I met Brenda and we fell in love. In Curry – that’s what everyone called Curramulka – people didn’t care about the colour of my skin, they just saw me and what I had to offer, and they enjoyed my company and I enjoyed theirs.
And you’ll meet my mum, a really strong woman who taught her kids to ‘always remember you’re as good as anybody else’. She died when I was 15, which is another one of the sad times in my life. But what she said to me when I was young has stayed with me all my life.
Anyway, I better not tell you everything that’s in the book!
How I’ve made my story into this book is by telling it to my friend Lea. I got to know Lea a few years ago when she came to my place to ask me about my Ngadjuri culture. We had a few cups of tea that day, and Brenda had made a big spread of her homemade scones and curried egg halves and sandwiches, like she always did for visitors.
Brenda was the daughter of farmers and well, countrystyle hospitality and catering was important to her.
I can’t know how you’ll feel when you get to the end of the book. What I’m hoping, though, is when you read it, it gives you a different impression of what life’s about.
It might make you conscious, in a small way, of the existence of other people in the world. I wouldn’t say it will change your life or other people’s lives. But it might give you a taste of a life that’s different to yours, and the same as yours in some ways too.
I hope you enjoy my story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vince Copley AM, a proud Ngadjuri man, was born on an Aboriginal mission in South Australia.
As a young boy he attended the now famous St Francis House in Adelaide, a home for First Nations boys that produced many future leaders, including civil rights activist Charles Perkins. A star footballer and cricketer, Vince later devoted his life to advancing the rights and improving the lives of First Nations people. He worked closely with Charlie, and with everyone from community leaders to premiers and prime ministers.
Along with other Ngadjuri people, Vince was also active in recovering and protecting Ngadjuri cultural heritage. Vince died in 2022.