Journalist Des Parker shared the stories of Port Pirie residents for 65 years and still holds the memories

It’s the early 1970s and Des Parker is arranging an illegal game of two on the island of Weeroona at the top of Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

The police decided to raid the unsuspecting journalist and those who love the game.

As the organizer of the game, Mr. Parker was fined $14.

When one of the inspectors needed a hand taking pictures of the scene, he asked Mr. Parker as a local photographer and reporter.

Ironically, the money earned that day went to the local police anyway, as Mr. Parker’s games were always for charity.

Entirely self-taught, the veteran journalist and published author has had a career as a journalist spanning over 65 years.

Des Parker hosted two-man matches every Good Friday for 14 years before being raided by police.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

His career began in 1943, selling newspapers on what he calls “Newspaper Corner” in the lead-smelting town of Port Pirie, where he was born and raised.

“It was just a job and my mom always told me I would never last in this job… so I kind of proved her wrong,” he said.

Mr. Parker has photographed sports matches throughout the region and can still name every local football team and probably most of the players.

“I never learned photography or journalism. I just learned it from other people,” he said.

In 1979, Mr Parker was present for the opening of the new lead smelter pile – the tallest structure built in South Australia.

He used to sell papers at the foundry gates for a penny, but now Mr Parker holds Port Pirie history in his garden shed.

It includes a thousand resident profiles, thousands of old Recorder diaries bound in thick red books, hundreds of glass negatives, and countless photographs.

a photo of a shed with a number of newspaper posters
Des Parker’s shed is filled with all kinds of historical artifacts.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

A Nosy Parker for 30 years

His column, Nosy Parker, ran for 30 years in The Recorder. Some of the city’s secrets were shared there, but he said there were some he would never share.

“My boss was like, ‘How the hell did you get this story? “said Mr. Parker.

“If you do the right thing for people, they do the right thing for you.

“You have to keep your mouth shut when you see things you shouldn’t see and when people tell you stories and say, ‘Don’t print that.

Mr Parker had a major newspaper review today and it was characteristic of his attention to detail – photos without captions that detail who is in the photo and when it was taken.

“I don’t know how they present a paper these days. There are unnamed photos,” he said.

“You need names in photos and dates. Dates are so important.”

black and white negatives of people at an event in the 1950s
Glass negatives from the early 1900s are part of Mr. Parker’s collection.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

In his garden shed, Mr. Parker’s collection contains material dating as far back as the 1890s.

People from all over the country have contacted him to locate some kind of keepsake for a friend or family member.

“I’ve had people contact me from all over Australia to find pictures of all the different people,” Mr Parker said.

“As long as someone gives me a date, I can find that negative in five minutes.”

an old newspaper bound in a book
Mr. Parker has organized old editions of The Recorder newspaper into bound books.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

Now at an age where he will have to sell his house, Mr Parker said he does not know what will happen to the story he has.

“I miss people calling all the time. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to find a piece of history for someone,” he said.

Mr. Parker began documenting all photographs and logs after saving several recordings from destruction in local Spencer Gulf newspapers in the 1980s.

He justifies his collection with a single thought.

“If I don’t document the history of Port Pirie, who would?” said Mr. Parker.

A horse, a cart and a “giant” shark

A published author, Mr. Parker has three books to his name, his most recent titled From City to Swamp, a story of the town he grew up in.

Mr Parker said he wrote his books by hand without what he described as ‘formalities’, such as a degree, which he said was not necessary to succeed as a writer, photographer or journalist.

a photo of a shark caught in a fishing net
“Shakka the Shark” was tangled in a fishing net when Des Parker was called in to photograph him.(Supplied: Parkers)

“I learned by watching others…I had no study,” he said.

“Before, I was petrified to take pictures, but you look at the sun. You look at others and rectify what they are doing wrong.

“It just shows you that you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to progress. I did well to learn most things myself.”

Mr. Parker was present for some of the biggest historical events in the region. One, in particular, which he remembers well.

A phone call came in on a cold morning in 1998 with a particular request to photograph a “giant” shark that had landed nearby.

Measuring 5.5 meters in length, ‘Shakka the Shark’ has been immortalized in Mr Parker’s photographs and at the local Port Pirie Visitor Centre, which is home to a replica shark and virtual reality shark diving experience.

On another occasion, Mr. Parker became history himself.

At just six years old, he was the primary witness to an accident between a horse, cart and train, resulting in the horrific death of a man.

It was a sort of origin story, perhaps an event that gave Mr. Parker his thirst for remembering and reporting events.

“I also have the files of this court case,” he jokes.

fishing for history

Mr. Parker looks back to the “old days” of lead-based linotype printing, hand-made on every page as he flips through one of his newspaper-bound books.

a man in a blue t-shirt smiles in front of a set of shelves
Mr. Parker’s son, Daryl Parker, also has a keen interest in the town of Port Pirie.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

“They used to print on lead and write words upside down,” he said.

“I admired those people. They made it tough.

“Young people today wouldn’t know what it’s like to sit on burning lead all day without air conditioning.”

Mr. Parker remembers hand-rolling each paper for early delivery about three nights a week.

“The characters you would see early in the morning were interesting,” he said.

“But most of the time you would only see the milkman.”

an old newspaper front page in red it reads 'the recorder'
Des Parker worked at The Recorder in Port Pirie for over 60 years.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

So who should Mr. Parker thank for his long career?

In his humble way, he said it was his colleagues.

“People who have supported me for so long,” Mr. Parker said.

Leaving behind his back shelter to move into a nursing home for the elderly, he said he was worried about where his collection would go.

Looking around, he’s clearly not ready to let go just yet.

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