by Rachel Koopmans

The warble of native birds, the rustling of nature, the sigh of a light breeze… these are the sounds that brush my ears when at last I make contact with Margaret Curnow.

She’s on Queensland’s Moreton Island with her grandchildren, whose unfledged voices sweep and wheel into our conversation and away again, like the cormorants who dot the bay. It’s fitting that I’ve found her in nature, a bird of paradise perfectly at home in the wild.

Margaret’s a hard woman to catch; possibly more so since a distant King formally acknowledged what her loved ones already know about her: a life of service, given passionately and given freely. ‘We were raised to be carers, workers, servants; steeped in Lutheran tradition’, she confirms. Tenets that seem at odds with her free-spirited nature but aren’t.

The Order of Australia recognises and celebrates people for distinguished and conspicuous service. Notably, the majority of recipients in the General Division this year were women, a first since the award was established in 1975.

Margaret is from that generation of women who were forced to resign from work once they married, but she married a visionary man of faith who encouraged her in her teaching vocation – her late husband Bill also had an AM, awarded for service to the construction industry, support of collaborative research and as an educator in 2010. Margaret’s OAM is for service to Special Education, and to the community.

Born in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to missionary parents, she preferred the freedom of the jungle to the rigours of homeschooling, running wild on the island of Umboi where her father, Vic Neumann, was plantation manager at Gizarum and master of the mission vessel Umboi 2.

Margaret describes her childhood as ‘idyllic’, the kind one reads about in the Enid Blyton-style stories of old; a dream that perhaps no longer exists. When she moved with her family to Australia at age 11, she could neither read nor write and spoke Pidgin with a smattering of English.

She was badly behaved.

‘They put me in a Prep class with the babies – I was very naughty, I didn’t want to know what they were teaching, and I was teased for being a dunce’, Margaret shares. The transition was tough, with a lot of tears. ‘I cried every night for a long time’, she confesses.

While primary school was tough, Margaret eventually went to St Peters Lutheran College at Indooroopilly in suburban Brisbane on a scholarship, where she flourished. A teaching degree was the affordable option; she excelled at practical teaching. Despite the work ban caused by her marriage to Bill, Margaret found her way into Special Education, teaching at the State School for Spastic Children New Farm, and later at Inala Special School (as they were known then) – both in the Brisbane suburbs. Her own schooling challenges informed her work. ‘I know what it is to struggle to understand’, she explains. ‘I could relate to those children.’

At Inala, she worked with teens who were unable to participate in a standard curriculum, teaching them to read and communicate using phonetics. A stint in Victoria included time as assistant to the Master at Geelong Grammar, caring for children with disabilities and learning difficulties.

In between her work and raising a family, the love and care shown Margaret by St Peters was also returned in spades: she and Bill reinvested that love via service to the old scholar’s association for 44 years. In 2008 the college’s Curnow House was named in their honour. Bill was appointed patron for a time, a position Margaret assumed when he died in 2022.

His passing has been tough. ‘We were a team – we worked perfectly together. After 58 years of marriage, I’m not used to being alone’, she shares.

These days Margaret lives in Toowoomba, in Queensland’s Darling Downs, in a house Bill designed. She attends Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. ‘I’m a firm believer that if everyone followed the Ten Commandments, the world really would be a better place’, she asserts.

Her colourful dress, glasses and accessories are an outward expression of a vivacious and joy-filled passion for life. ‘I guess I’m colourful because of PNG’, Margaret explains. Colourful and still a little wild, infused with the liberation of those early years.

It was in PNG that Margaret first learned to understand herself as a lovingly created child of God, set free to serve others. Perhaps that’s why there’s been such joy in her vocation because she knows that real freedom comes from both understanding and being understood.

Rachel Koopmans serves as Communications Advisor for the LCANZ’s Queensland District. This story first appeared under the title ‘In from the Wild: Margaret Curnow Makes the King’s Birthday Honours List’ in the Queensland eNews.

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