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A travelling man

Wednesday, 21st June, 2017

Gary Cook at his work at the TAFE College. Gary Cook at his work at the TAFE College.

Gary Cook has only lived in Broken Hill for three years, but he’s fallen in love with the city and the ‘oodles to do’.

He works part time as a counsellor at the TAFE in Argent Street and spends his spare time strumming a ukulele, studying for a degree in Aboriginal Studies, or working with the Broken Hill Art Exchange.

It’s a far cry from his previous life, working full time on the east coast, or teaching English in Japan, but he wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Gary started his career as a psychiatric nurse at Gladesville Psychiatric Hospital, in Sydney, more than 30 years ago.

“I finished uni and really didn’t feel ready to face the general public. I felt that uni was great for theory, but it wasn’t really good for practical skills, so I went and did nursing at Gladesville,” he said.

“I actually met my wife there. We were both doing nursing and learning how to make hospital beds and it went from there - very romantic.

“After three years doing nursing I got a job there as a psychologist, which was my original training.”

Gary said people often ask him the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists. He described as being the difference between doctors and gym instructors; one treats mental illness, the other teaches mental health.

He helped develop a program while at Gladesville which taught people in the wards life skills.

“When I started at Gladesville in the early 70s they’d only just stopped using straitjackets, and they were starting to open up between the wards so the men and women could mix. They’d started letting people go outside the hospital,” Gary said.

“It was fairly revolutionary in those days because the patients were expected to live out their lives in the hospital and never be released, whereas we were aiming at teaching them skills so they could be reintegrated into society, which had mixed success.

“This was in the early days of de-institutionalisation, and I have mixed feelings about how that went. Some were simply ejected from the hospitals and forced to live on the streets.”

By 1979 Gary had spent six years at Gladesville Psychiatric Hospital, three as a psychiatric nurse and three as a psychologist, so he decided on a change and ended up teaching English to executives in Kyoto, Japan.

He didn’t know any Japanese when he started but luckily for him the Japanese learn English in school and had a base to work from.

“The school I was hired by said ‘can you speak like an American?’ and I said ‘can you speak Japanese like someone from Hokkaido (a different island)? and they said no, and I said likewise, I’m Australian and proud of it.

“Living there I had to question everything I’d learnt about what Australians accept as normal. Many things were turned upside down in Japan.

“Then when I came back I had to relearn what was going on here. After getting used to the Japanese I had to get used to being Australian again.”

Gary and his wife went back to Japan to teach English again a little over a decade later, this time with two children in tow.

Unlike the first time, now he was teaching English to students, some as young as one year old, which he said was quite a different experience.

“They were so young they didn’t even speak Japanese. I was teaching them colours and numbers and stuff like that and they were sitting on the floor wetting their nappies!” Gary said.

“Our own kids were going to school three days a week, and three days a week homeschooling, and by the end of the year, 1992, they were completely fluent in Japanese,” he said.

“Mum and dad wouldn’t know how to say something, so the six-year-old daughter would take over.”

After teaching Japanese, Gary moved to Coffs Harbour to take up psychology and counselling once again.

However, towards the end of the 1990s the health system was beginning to be privatised, and he was disheartened by the process.

“We had to do more with less, and less, and less,” Gary said.

“I believe the government has a responsibility to care for people, and I saw this privatisation and economic rationalism and I completely oppose it,” he said.

“I became more and more disheartened with the politics and towards the end they were asking me to dismantle what I’d had set up for years.”

It was time for Gary to get out, and he found a position at TAFE as a counsellor.

It was a good move, because a few years into that position his son, now living in Broken Hill, rang up and told about a TAFE position opening up in town.

“I was bored with the east coast and I thought ‘yeah, that sounds like a good adventure’ and I can hardly believe I’ve been here for three years,” Gary said.

“I love Broken Hill. My friends have said that I fit Broken Hill, and Broken Hill fits me.

“I love the scenery, the wide open spaces. I love the work I can do here, and I love the people, particularly the volunteers and my co-workers. They’re amazing people.”

When not working at the TAFE, Gary can be found at the Broken Hill Art Exchange, which he has been president of since November last year, helping out and planning the big biennial event, which is tentatively set for 2020, or playing his ukulele with the Village Strummers, a group of ukulele enthusiasts who meet every Saturday morning.

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