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Don Barrett, who taught Latin, Greek and ancient history for decades, wins Australia Day honour

Honoured: Brisbane Catholic and retired educator Don Barrett outside his Spring Hill home.

BRISBANE Catholic and retired educator Don Barrett, 92, has taught Latin for more than half a century and said the best part about learning the ancient language of the Romans was how it improved your English.

“English is heavily indebted to Latin,” Mr Barrett said.

“You get much greater insight into how English works, how words are derived from Latin; it’s a very precise language and has lots of finer shades of meaning that English doesn’t have.

“People who do Latin, and Greek because they’re sister languages, gain much better insight into how English works and become much better able to think and express themselves clearly and concisely.”

Mr Barrett, a Spring Hill resident, was received as a member into the Order of Australia for “significant service to tertiary education, particularly to the classics and ancient history” on Australia Day 2021.

“Back in October I got a letter out of the blue saying you have been nominated for the award of the member of the Order of Australia – ‘would you please indicate if you wish to accept’,” Mr Barrett said.

“Well I know these things are hard to get, so I thought this is probably about my one and only opportunity,” he said with a laugh. 

There was a long silence until about a month ago when he received word he was successful and he could add the initials AM to his name.

“That was the thing – I was glad about the award because it would make family and good friends happy,” he said.

“My children were highly delighted for me.” 

Mr Barrett was Queensland’s oldest active teacher when he retired from teaching at 89 years of age.

He taught at the University of Queensland for 34 years and 22 years at Brisbane Grammar School, accolades which contributed to his Order of Australia membership.

“In truth, it’s a reward for my greatest achievement, which is longevity,” he said.

He said he thoroughly enjoyed his time teaching and he firmly believes that education is about building “better citizens”.

“I think very much that it is a people job,” he said.

“Building relationships with these people who have been entrusted to me and then watching them grow, seeing them become more self-sufficient and more persistent, becoming a better citizen – those things are more important than the details of a subject that you take.”

A lot of things have changed about education in his years too.

For one, the classics had gone out of fashion.

“When I went to school, everyone learned Latin from Year 5 or 6 up,” he said.

“Kids did Latin from that stage onwards; starting with derivations and then made up Latin and then the real thing.”

He said people had become more critical of letting kids discover things for themselves too.

“I think that’s gone over the top too much,” he said.

But as much as things had changed in education – speaking as one who had taught ancient history – he said he quickly learned there was “nothing new under the sun”. 

“I’m reminded at this awful time of the pandemic of the Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote a very long history of Greece… and he gives quite a graphic description of what he calls the great plague of Athens,” he said.

“At this distance in time, we don’t know what the disease was; some suggested typhus, some suggested smallpox, but the diagnostic capabilities didn’t exist then so he just called it the great plague.

“It cut swathes through the population but there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Medical science was not the way it is now but there was one thing that Thucydides did appreciate and that was the need for social distancing, he said.

“I thought, gosh, there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Mr Barrett spends his days in retirement reading up on the news, keeping up with the latest in arts and culture, and visiting Villa Maria Chapel, which is only a stone’s throw away from his home.

He was also awarded a Quinn medal for his long-time contributions to Brisbane archdiocese and he gives to the Church for a simple reason.

“It’s my mother, you might say you look after your mother,” he said with a laugh.

“I wouldn’t call myself a major financial contributor but I give what I can.”

It was an important time in the Church too, he said, pointing to the drop in numbers at churches during the pandemic.

“People take their faith for granted, I think, but you never give up on anybody, including yourself,” he said.

“I don’t think you can change people by talking, but by your example; that’s the best thing you can do to help people.”

He heeded the message that “you have the responsibility to be God’s glass window through which he shines and the impact you make, it depends how clean you keep the window”.

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