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- Published: Thursday, 31 March 2011 07:36
BARRY O'FARRELL AT ST JOHN'S
Mr O'Farrell looks like his mother but takes much of his nature from his late father and his grandfather Bill O'Farrell, who was a country cop.
Flamboyance does not seem to be in the man's DNA. Brother Greg McCann at Darwin's St John's College's calls O'Farrell a "grey man".
"He was a quiet thinker. He would think and you wouldn't quite know what he was thinking. He was quite an academic person in his own way," Brother McCann said.
"There's a thing in the army, they call it the grey men. When they are putting them through their paces there are people who stand out as leaders and go forth, and then the others the leaders have to keep pulling along. And then there's the people in the middle who they don't hear much of but they do everything and don't make a fuss. He's a grey man. In the army, they're the people they're looking for."
When Mr O'Farrell appeared in Brother McCann's class he said he saw an overweight student and later he put that bulk to use in a new rugby union competition. He drafted him into the second row but then discovered "he wasn't a great sportsman. Barry did his best but his size was his great advantage."
In class, Mr O'Farrell showed some flair for innovation. He and other students made a single ungainly vehicle out of two 1939 Bedford bus chassis.
And that leads us to something else we didn't know about Barry O'Farrell - an abiding respect for indigenous Australians.
Brother McCann took his students to Aboriginal towns like Daly River in the old Bedford that had survived Cyclone Tracy's wrath better than any of the school buildings.
He also made canoes and young Barry and the students would swim in Darwin Harbour.
"Barry and all the gang would all get out there and paddle around. You couldn't do it these days because there are too many crocs," he said.
The school trips reinforced a deep respect for Aborigines.
His friends at St John's would become some of the most inspiring indigenous political and sporting leaders of their generation. They were born to parents who were members of the Stolen Generation.
Emmanuel Rioli, brother of Richmond star Maurice Rioli who died on Christmas Day last year, remembers Mr O'Farrell telling him what he would do if he was their prime minister.
"He saw a lot of our wants and needs and the fact that we weren't given the full privileges and rights of every other Australian, you know?" he said. "And the fact that it was all around him. It made him see that some things needed to be put right, he wasn't happy with the way things were."
Emmanuel spoke to The Daily Telegraph on a brief visit to Darwin from his Melville Island home, where he is a councillor and former president. "Barry was always a scholar. A lot of us knew he was going places, maybe the public service, but we didn't think he would go that far," he said of Mr O'Farrell's political trajectory.
"He doesn't have a mean bone in his body, he didn't get into trouble. We called him the brainy mob."
Mr O'Farrell said the brothers at St John's taught each student a sense of equality and social justice.
He said his Aboriginal friends "added a whole dimension to my childhood and growing up that I will always remember".
"We would go on school excursions and you would end up in Daly River and at night you'd go out spotlighting and you'd suddenly see this big smile of pearly teeth would emerge from the darkness and they'd be hanging on to a goanna. Not to kill them but just to show it to us."
Maurice Rioli was two years above Mr O'Farrell.
He was elected to the NT Parliament in the seat of Arafura after retiring from football.
Arafura had already been occupied by a former St John's boy and one of Mr O'Farrell's school friends.
Stanley Tipiloura became one of the first Aboriginal MPs. He died at just 35 from kidney failure.
Mr O'Farrell fell into the Liberal Party almost by accident.
After school he moved to Ursula College at Australian National University where he studied politics and Aboriginal affairs.
Greg McCann MSC