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Tom Powell

Mark George, film producer, tells me that Tom Powell is the most interesting person he has met on the Coffs Coast. 



Parables from the Red Dust

Tom Powell looks like Buddha.  This is what I think when a very large Aboriginal man opens the door to his Coffs Harbour home.  Once I have listened spellbound to the story of his journey from the small regional town of Narromine to the development of the Red Dust Healing program, I feel the Buddha likeness goes beyond appearance.  Tom Powell is a spiritual teacher.  And even the story of his life provides us with parables – lessons on how to live better and stronger lives.  Enjoy and learn, dear reader.

There’s an I in Pride

I remember people saying “your old man paved the way for a lot of Aboriginal people in this community because of what he did.”  And he did it through just hard work.  He bought his first grader in 1973 and in 1975 he bought his second and by 1978 we had 3 graders, scrapers and a water cart.  At the end of that school year I went to work with Dad. 

From the beginning he instilled the concept of being proud of what you do.  On the grader he’d tell you to pick a tree or something at the other end, keep your head still and just stare straight ahead – it was all about pride in keeping it straight.  He’d say, “Your work is your advertisement.”

Dad won a large contract to work on the Gingie Gingie Aboriginal Reserve in Walgatt in far western NSW.  It was the largest contract ever given to an Aboriginal sole trader at that time.

Later that year Mum and Dad built a new house with 4 bedrooms beside the little place where we’d been living.  One night after the frame went up on the new house, I remember Mum and Dad dragged their mattress into what would be their new bedroom.  I lay on the trampoline in the back yard and listened to them make plans. Things were good. 

Then in 1983 things went bad.  Dad was hired to do a big road job in the Bourkeshire Council.  The contractor never paid us…it was something in the vicinity of $130,000.  We sued and while we waited for the court case to come up Dad refinanced the houses and the machinery. 

Dad being Dad he was too proud to ask for help. “I got us into this trouble, I’ll get us out of this.”  Having too much machinery, refinancing the house: the pressure was huge over the next two years.  It got to Dad, but he carried it all alone.

He almost never came to watch us play footie; he was always working.  But the night before the court case in 1985 he came and watched me play.  It was just great. 

Then at 9 that night Mum starts screaming and comes running from the bedroom.  I can still see it in my mind now: Dad just on the floor.  I started to give him mouth to mouth and my brother came running across from the little house and pressed down on his chest….but he was gone.  He smoked; a two packs a day man.  I can still taste that tar shit in my mouth to this day.

In Red Dust I teach that there’s an “I” in pride.  To this day I wish Dad had let us carry more of the load.

Spread Out and Stick Together

I grew up in Narromine.  My memories are of us all together – people didn’t seem to see colour.

I remember when Mum had to get her tubes tied.  I am the oldest, and then there were two boys, Noel Junior and Rick and two girls, Norelle and Tina. *  I didn’t know it at the time, but they had lost a child after Tina, so Mum went to Sydney to get her tubes tied.  The Bohm’s took in the three boys and the Thornhills took in the girls for a week while Mum was in hospital and Dad was working.  That community looked after us.

I played sport in Narromine and was lucky enough to captain some cricket teams and rugby league sides – leadership stuff.  I met Jill in Narromine.  We went to school together and now we’ve been together for over 30 years.  For me, Narromine was always about the people.  I can go back there now and there are still so many people I know.  The strength of that has shaped who I am. 

Spread out and stick together  (a line I stole from my mate George Clarke Jnr) – that’s the tag line for Red Dust Healing.  As you meet up with people you share a bit of one another’s hearts and take that bit with you when you go.  Family and friends go different ways but they still end up inside your heart.   Narromine is always in my heart.

* I also have an older brother Ronald but he didn’t grow up with us.

You Make a Lousy Somebody Else

Dad never did get to court and we were told there was nothing we could do – the court case was over. 

The pressure was on me.  People were telling me that I had to step up and run things.  Be a man. But I struggled.

I had always enjoyed a beer, but then I started wiping myself.  I felt like a part of me had died. 

My hero was my father…full stop.  I knew if I could become half the man my father was I would be okay.  But I didn’t know how to become that man.

Eventually my Mum got at me.  She said, “Son, your father would be so disappointed with you.  We raised you better than this.”  And it busted me.  So I tried to right my wrongs.  I went and apologized to those I had pushed away and hurt.

I’ve come to realise that I could never be my father.  I’m different but I’m still okay.  At Red Dust I try to teach people to just be themselves.  You make a lousy somebody else, but you can be the best you you can be.

Love and Respect

Mum always used to say don't ever think of yourself as better than anyone else but know you’re as good as them. And I live my life by that.  I’m black and proud because my parents instilled old-fashioned values about right and wrong, love and respect.

A couple of years after Dad died the creditors came in and we had to sell everything. 

Mum had her two suitcases.  I was locking the door and just kept saying, “I’m sorry we lost the house.  I’m sorry we lost the business.”. 

Well, she picked up those suitcases and looked me right in the eye and said, “Son, these are just materials.  The love and respect will be with us forever.  We’ll be alright.”  She walked away and never looked back.

That was the strength of my mother.  And I go back to that strength with Red Dust.  People are forever searching for love and respect.  Acceptance begins with you, not with someone else’s approval – that’s where we get lost sometimes.

Sometimes Humour Deals With Things For You

I had always wanted to help my people.  So I put myself through a community welfare course at Dubbo TAFE and before I’d finished I got a job in Taree with Juvenile Justice as an APSO, Aboriginal Program Support Officer.

Starting in Juvenile Justice was a real eye-opener for me.  There was blatant racism in Taree.  Jill and I would be walking down the street holding hands and people would stare.  

I remember the first time I walked into the local golf club.  I felt like I was a gunslinger walking into a saloon in some old western.  Everyone just stopped. I could hear them saying, “Who’s that big black fella walking into the room.” 

This light skinned fella who was working with me, Johnny Higgins, was sitting at the bar.  So I looked over at him and the first thing that came out of my mouth was a line from the movie Blazing Saddles.  “Where are all the white women at?”

Higgins had a mouthful of beer at the time, and he spit that beer plus his front teeth clear across the bar.  He looked up at me and said with a lisp, “Powelly, I can’t believe you said that.” 

Well, everyone cracked up and I just went round and introduced myself.  Won them over.

I always say that humour has a way of dealing with things for you.

Follow Me, I’m Right Behind You

I spent 13 years with Juvenile Justice and moved to Coffs Harbour with them.  But after awhile I felt they started managing a system and stopped looking after our kids.  I got out and started Red Dust Healing. 

I knew Randal Ross from Juvenile Justice – a gentleman and a scholar – and he joined with me facilitating the Red Dust program.

We wanted to give our people the tools to overcome the hurt, rejection and grief in their lives. I don’t really know where those tools came from.   Some are things I’ve learned through this life, some ideas just come to me and I don’t even try to work out where from.  But all the tools have an Aboriginal perspective.

It’s all about that feeling of being unwanted and unloved…. that rejection that’s come from colonization and a lack of opportunity.  I set out to give people an understanding of rejection…. the causes of it, the results of it. 

I remember one woman in Far North Queensland.  She said, “I was so angry with my mother because she never said she loved me ‘til she was on her deathbed.”  That woman was still angry, but I asked her to have a look at her mother’s life.  When we looked at her growing up it was obvious that all her mother knew about love came with violence.  So I asked that woman, “How could your mother show that she loved you when she didn’t know what love was herself?”  I busted her.

Then I asked that woman to consider what she did in her own life.  Had she shown love to her own kids?  And it started to hit home…that trail of rejection.

All we are doing is giving people tools to help them deal with the hurt and rejection in their lives.  But at the end of the day it’s up to them.

I often say to people “Follow me, I’m right behind you.”  That’s about sharing, not teaching.  We give people the tools and then stand behind to support them.


One of my old Juvenile Justice colleagues once said to me, “You may look like Buddha, but you can’t save them all.”  And I said, “No, but I can give them hope.”  That’s all we try to do is to give people hope.


Check out the Red Dust website!

Read some more words from Tom


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Reader Comments (5)

I knew and respected your DAD.My brother Charlie and I now live in Coffs, but hailed from Warren. Warren and Narromine were sporting rivals in the old days. Good luck mate, Don Saunders

August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDon Saunders

My buddy Tom. A person worthy of admiration. A wise man and a true friend.

November 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMargy

Read this with tears welling up. Huge blessings upon you Tom. Your Dad would be very proud of you. As a childhood friend I certainly am

July 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Ballhausen

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