It is always a challenge to describe succinctly the influence a complex and passionate person has had on the many people who have had the good fortune to cross his path. In the case of Ken Palmer, the influence is best expressed as "inspiring".
Palmer was a man of many parts: a scholar, sportsman, family man, and an educator and activist. The common thread was a finely honed sense of balance that allowed him to convert idealistic aspirations into defined actions and achievements.
He loved open discourse on any topic, from great literature, politics and sport to the arts. It was all part of his journey of discovery.
Kenneth William Palmer was born on February 1, 1938 at Ashfield, the eldest child of Bill Palmer and his wife, Elsie (nee Ebert). The family moved from Ashfield when Ken was 9 and settled in Concord West. His early education was at Croydon Public School, Summer Hill Opportunity School and Fort St Boys' High School. A two year arts degree at the University of Sydney, followed by 12 months at Teachers College, was the starting point for an outstanding career as an educationist. He later completed a Bachelor of Arts at New England University.
His first appointment was to Warialda Central School in 1958. In 1957 he had met a young nurse, Jan Coles, and they were married in 1958. Shortly after this, they moved to Mudgee when Palmer accepted appointment to the teaching staff at Mudgee High School.
In 1963 the family returned to Sydney when Palmer moved to Cronulla High School. He was then appointed head teacher (English and history) at Arncliffe Girls' High, and later head teacher (history) at Blakehurst High and Kirrawee High. He suspended his school teaching for a couple of years in 1975 to accept a post lecturing in History Method on the University of NSW Diploma of Education program.
Palmer was then appointed deputy principal at Kingsgrove North and Port Hacking high schools, and became principal at Marrickville High in 1986.
As an educator, Palmer supported special school learning programs such as the successful "Write it right" initiative. English learning received particular emphasis, and Marrickville students scored well in the oral Shakespeare competitions. "Learning to learn" was another of Palmer's passions, and he gave heart to many pupils who had been poor achievers.
As a manager, his people skills were outstanding. His staff pulled together and a positive atmosphere pervaded the school. In the broader school environment he was able to diffuse any potentially difficult situations with good humour and a few well chosen words.
Educators know that it is through education that disadvantage can be overcome. It was Palmer's deep commitment to social justice that reinforced in him the belief that education was not only the means of overcoming social and economic disadvantage, or the injustice that bad luck and circumstance can hand out, but was also the path to addressing differences that can so dangerously divide society.
It was his achievements as principal at Marrickville that brought him to the attention of the then Director of Metropolitan East Region, and in 1992 he was appointed as Cluster Director, Botany Cluster.
It was typical of Palmer's humility that when first approached about leaving his beloved Marrickville High he expressed worries that his lack of experience in primary schools could be an impediment. He was quickly assured that it was not the type of school he taught in that had brought him to notice.
Rather it was his thorough understanding of teaching and learning coupled with his personal qualities of building relationships and getting the best out of people, regardless of their position or role. Palmer retired from teaching in 1994.
Throughout his teaching career, Palmer still found time to participate in many community activities. His experience in country NSW gave him significant insight into the issues confronting indigenous people. He was also actively involved in the Reconciliation and Native Title movements. The Palmer house was one of generosity and a place of welcoming support and refuge. Many indigenous people were regularly welcomed there, sometimes simply to have a yarn or share a meal, at other times to live with the family for a while. The Palmer family was also a Host Family for visiting Colombo Plan students from 1970.
Ken and Jan become part of the team that established Kirinari Hostel at Sylvania Heights, to provide accommodation for young indigenous people from country districts to complete their studies in an environment that would help them reach their goals.
From Kirinari's inception in 1967, Palmer was often called upon by the Aboriginal Houseparents and Kirinari Management Committee to give advice on a variety of issues. He was also passionate about human rights and he held an open and unqualified welcome for refugees.
He and Jan felt deeply the injustice of the policy of lengthy incarceration, and were regular visitors to Villawood Detention Centre. They undertook the hard nuts and bolts work of assisting incarcerated refugees with their freedom applications, health and other personal issues.
Politics was also an important part of Palmer's life. He was a life member of the ALP, president of Caringbah Branch for many years, secretary at times and held many other positions on state and federal electoral councils. He was often a delegate to State Annual Conference as well.
He worked tirelessly during election campaigns assembling and erecting signage, letterboxing and working the booths on polling day. Whatever was needed to be done he was there to help. His garage was always a hive of activity at election time where many a political poster was affixed to a stake.
Throughout this complex and challenging life as an educator and activist ran another thread: a physical, blokey, even "boys own" thread. Palmer treasured playing rugby league and coaching the kids – watching them develop and rounding out their experiences. He boxed quite a bit as an amateur and even had a few bouts as a professional. He kept fit, regularly running on the sand at Cronulla. He ran in athletics carnivals and marathons, kayaked, and rowed his Peterborough Canadian canoe in many a Murray Marathon and Hawkesbury Classic.
His bike was an integral part of Palmer's life. He rode it thousands of kilometres, including in many Roads and Traffic Authority-organised rides in NSW and Victoria. It was another way of enjoying his love of country.
Palmer's busy career was never at the expense of family. He spent much valued time with them bushwalking, running marathons, holidaying in the wilds of Tasmania and remote Australia, driving the support vehicle on a fundraising mission by bicycle from Perth to Sydney in the year 2000, and so it went on.
Ken Palmer is survived by Jan, children Karen, Michael, Naomi, Anthony and their spouses, 11 grandchildren, and his siblings Bill and June.
- Chris Raper and the Palmer family