STEPHEN Powles was 17, working as a records clerk with Tamworth Police. The year was 1967. He had left Taree High at the age of 15 in search of work and a steady income. But by his own admission Stephen wasn't doing a good job in his role with the police.
A chance meeting with Taree mayor Bill Kennedy, who was in Tamworth, changed his life.
"One of my tasks each day was to prepare the post and deliver it to the post office in the Tamworth main street,'' the now Professor Stephen Powles recalls in his recently released memoir, Poor to Prof - My Fortunate Career.
"Walking into the post office on a particular day I was surprised to encounter Mr Kennedy. He was the most prominent citizen of Taree, the mayor, a large dairy farmer and the owner of a thriving produce mill. This kind and generous man was in Tamworth for a meeting of country town mayors and offered me a lift back to Taree for the weekend. I would have gone anywhere with him as he had a Mercedes Benz.''
It was on the trip back to Taree that Mr Kennedy offered Stephen a job as a clerk in his produce store in Taree, named Permewans.
"Five minutes either way and my life would have gone in a different trajectory and not likely upwards,'' he wrote.
Now 70 and living in Western Australia, Professor Powles is one of the world's most highly cited plant scientists. His expertise ranges from the fundamental science on the evolution and molecular basis of herbicide resistance, through to applied agronomic research and management.
Professor Powles has strongly influenced Australian and international thinking on sustainable herbicide usage by reducing herbicide reliance and increasing diversity in agro-ecosystems. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering and received the Australian Centenary Medal for his service to plant production.
The memoir charts Professor Powles' life from his childhood, starting in Brisbane before the family moved to a rented house on a dairy farm near Hannam Vale.
Prof Powles was one of five children - with siblings Susan, Annette, John and Robert. In 1954, when Stephen was aged four, his father, Kildare, left his wife, Jacqueline and family, to find work in Sydney, where he gained employment in a factory. He was due home one weekend, but never showed. Nothing has been heard of him since.
"He disappeared and to this day we do not know what happened,'' Stephen writes.
"In adult life I undertook some investigation but to no avail. I speculate that he found life too hard with a wife, five children and no money or prospects and the easy way out was to desert and start life afresh.''
As such, life was tough for his mum as she raised her children, with the assistance of her mother, Ethel. Stephen started school at Johns River, where Earl Kidd was the sole teacher. However, in 1958 the family moved to Latham Avenue in Chatham, when allocated a NSW Government Housing Commission house.
"I remember thinking of Taree as a megalopolis, when in reality it had a total population of around 8000.''
In 1959 he started school at Chatham Primary - 'a good school with committed teachers.'
His best mates were all promising hockey players, Kevin Haigh, John Hurrell, Ray Geary and John Surtees, whose family ran the corner store at Cowper Street.
Stephen spent his spare time playing sport - mainly hockey, while also doing odd jobs in a time when money was scarce for the family, despite the heroic efforts of his mother and grandmother. He worked at Woolworths in Taree and as a caddy at Taree Golf Club.
At 15 and describing himself as a 'high school dropout,' Stephen left Taree High and moved to Sydney after successfully applying for the NSW public service. This led to his posting to Tamworth and the fortuitous meeting with Bill Kennedy.
Stephen recalls that aged 20 and after working at Permewans in Taree, then Forbes and Sydney, he resumed his education when accepted into Tocal Agricultural College. He graduated Dux of Tocal, with a Certificate in Education. He had also travelled back to Taree to play A-grade hockey with Chatham and rugby league with Taree United and Taree Old Bar, where the match fees of $25 per game were handy. He played in the Old Bar side beaten by 7-3 by United in the 1973 Group Three grand final.
The next major turning point came in 1974 when he successfully applied for a Rotary International Fellowship, where he was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Taree. Here Stephen lauds the help of Taree businessman and Rotarian Jock Turner - 'a great man' - and fellow Rotarian Arthur Sommerville.
This enabled Stephen to study in the USA. Life, academia and work then took him around the world including a stint in France before he returned to Australia, living in Adelaide and now Perth. Stephen is married to Wendy and they have three children, Julia, Amy, and Mark.
He has authored numerous books and international research journals in his fields of expertise. However, the pandemic was the catalyst for him to write the memoir.
"I had a bit of time on my hands, so I sat down and did it,'' he explained.
"It probably took about six weeks.''
Stephen lives on a property in WA, although he said the land there 'isn't as beautiful as the Manning Valley.'
There were plans to meet up with his old Chatham Hockey club mates this year in Northern NSW for a reunion but COVID-19 travel restrictions put paid to that.
"Hopefully we can organise something for next year,'' Stephen said.
However, when he finally settles into retired life he hopes to visit the Manning on a regular basis.
He dedicated the memoir to his mum Jacqueline and wife Wendy. "The two women to whom I owe everything.''
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