One degree of separation: Roger Rogerson and me

Yesterday, a 73-year-old former policeman with a bad hip was arrested and charged with the murder of a young drug dealer. Roger Rogerson has a long history of brushes with the law, and he has spent some years in prison, but the New South Wales courts have never yet succeeded in nailing him for murder.

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning describes Roger Rogerson as ‘the state’s most notorious former cop’. Perhaps a part of his notoriety always lay in his memorable name. A dodgy cop with an unmemorable moniker like – say – Terry Lewis might not enter the popular consciousness in the same way.

I know nothing personally about Roger Rogerson’s career, but in a funny sort of way, I’ve known about him for much of my life, because he and my husband went to school together, first at Bankstown Primary School, and later at Homebush Boys High.

Bankstown School

First Bankstown School, n.d. (Wikipedia)

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Bankstown was on the outskirts of Sydney, a new suburb full of poor families, many of them newly arrived immigrants. New Australians, as the term then was. When the Health Department tested all school children throughout New South Wales for tuberculosis, a large proportion of the children at Bankstown State School tested positive because, as displaced persons, they or their parents had been exposed to TB in post war European refugee camps.

Roger Rogerson and my husband were the brightest boys in their class, competing for top marks as they worked their way up through primary school and into a selective high school. In their final year in Bankstown, Roger was Dux of the school – and my husband has dined out for years on the fact that he was pipped at the post by ‘the notorious ex-detective’ Roger Rogerson.

Then their paths diverged. My husband was the only child of Jewish immigrant parents for whom education was a precious gift, generously provided by a beneficent government. They had missed out themselves, but they were determined that their son would succeed. He won a Commonwealth scholarship to university, and a further scholarship saw him through a postgraduate degree to take up an academic career.

These Commonwealth Scholarships were introduced by the Chifley Labor Government, building on an earlier scheme of Repatriation Scholarships made available to returned servicemen after World War II. When the Menzies Liberal Government was elected in 1949 it continued and expanded the scheme. The scholarships were means tested, and limited in number, but they gave an opportunity to poor but clever students to get to university.

People like my husband. People who may no longer consider tertiary education these days when scholarships have been replaced by ever-increasing payments and loans. Scholarship students could follow their passion – in his case it was mathematics – whereas nowadays students are more likely to choose a profitable career in law or medicine, because they must pay back those loans.

Roger Rogerson, on the other hand, dropped out of high school in his fourth year to join the police force. He was clever – he beat my clever husband to Dux of the school, after all – but the police force wasn’t interested in educational qualifications in the bad old days of the New South Wales Askin Government. Instead he directed his undoubted intelligence into another career path, which first brought him promotion and honours, but eventually led him into corruption and disgrace.

Who knows why two boys go in such different directions? Environment? Family dynamics? Greed? It’s the old, old story of nature versus nurture, and if philosophers and theologians can’t resolve it after thousands of years, who am I to come up with any answers?

But without the opportunity provided by that Commonwealth scholarship to university, my husband’s life would have been very different – and the absence of such government-backed support today is a personal tragedy for many children from poor families, and blights the wider prospect of social mobility within the community.

Scholarships for Prime Ministers’ daughters don’t count.

5 responses to “One degree of separation: Roger Rogerson and me

  1. Reblogged this on Historians are Past Caring and commented:

    Rogerson was finally found guilty today, so I’m reblogging this from 2014 (even though nobody will remember the significance of the last line,M which refers to Frances Abbott’s scholarship).

  2. Yes, I would term that last one a ‘scholarship’. I went to uni all those years ago on a Commonwealth scholarship – they must have gone to something like the top 20% of the matric year. But another form of learning has also been lost (except maybe in the Defence Forces) and that is cadetships. I had a mate do a Dip.Eng while being paid by the Vic govt roads dept (CRB) and lots of kids with middling marks or poor parents had paid positions while studying teaching.

  3. Yes, I went on a Commonwealth scholarship too – it gave kids the lusury of following their passion, rather than focusing on the degree that would allow them to pay off their HECS debt fastest.

    I hadn’t thought about cadetships, but you’re right – they were so important. A lot of kids in Queensland did a year or so, then finished their degree by correspondence while teaching, and the Main Roads Dept here had cadetships too.

  4. Great post! I haven’t forgotten the France’s Abbott scholarship – disgraceful that the whistleblower was charged.

  5. Thanks Nathan. We badly need better protection for whistleblowers!

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