Justice Michael Kirby revisits his public school roots

Proud Strathfield North Public alumnus Michael Kirby went back to school to reminisce and inspire. Ben Worsley reports.

A man making the peace symbol surrounded by a group of students. A man making the peace symbol surrounded by a group of students.
Image: Justice Michael Kirby with students at Strathfield North Public School this week.

Michael Kirby’s list of achievements are as formidable as any notable Australian - he was a judge for 35 years, a High Court Justice for 13, had key roles with the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, and held court with Prime Ministers, the Queen of England and even the Emperor of Japan.

So, what does he list as the finest achievement of his distinguished life?

“Mr proudest achievement is being a graduate from public education, and doing well in my life professionally, with the benefit of public schools,” Justice Kirby said.

“That has led to all sorts of appointments.”

He was asked the question by a bright-eyed student from Strathfield North Public during a recent visit to the school. Justice Kirby was a student at the school from 1944 to 1948.

During the visit, he answered questions from Student representative Council members and prefects and spent some time in his old Kindergarten classroom.

“My best memory is of my teachers,” he told the class.

“I remember all my teachers because they all such a big impact on my life. They were wonderful.”

Justice Kirby was able to name all 13 teachers he studied under from Kindergarten right through to Year 12.

“With a bit of luck and hard work I was successful, thanks to Ms Pontifex, Miss See, Mrs Godwin, Mr Casimir ... all of them,” he said.

“Their spirits are with me every day of my life. The democratic values I learned from them are also with me.”

An old school photo. An old school photo.
Image: Justice's Kirby's Year 4 class, pictured in 1948.

Justice Kirby discovered a love for history at Strathfield North, a subject he later went on to top the state in at Fort Street High School.

He does, however, have one regret from his time at primary school.

“There was only one student who could beat me in my exams. His name was Bobby Chong, and I was furious about this. I could never beat him!” Justice Kirby said.

He still stays in touch with Bobby, who is now a professor of biotechnology in New Zealand.

Justice Kirby was asked by students how different the school was now, compared to when he attended.

He explained how girls and boys were in separate classes in the 1940s, and discipline included the occasional use of the cane.

“Not for me of course, I was a goodie two shoes!” he laughed.

He also noted the diversity evident in the playground nowadays, which he said was a far cry from when he studied during the White Australia Policy.

“It’s wonderful seeing the whole cross section of our country reflected in our public schools. It’s so important to building a successful multicultural society,” he said.

He did have one concern. Justice Kirby would dearly love the old school song to make a comeback.

He even gave a rendition to the class, which was met with enthusiastic applause.

“So here we are, side by side, sturdy and strong together. Play the game, on to fame, Strathfield North forever.”

Justice Kirby said the school still holds a very special place in his memories.

“I’m still, in my heart, Strathfield North Public School,” he said.

“I haven’t changed in the values I received from my school, my teachers, and my parents – values of kindness, of reaching out, and working for a better society and equality.”

A man pointing to students sitting on the floor. A man pointing to students sitting on the floor.
Image: Justice Kirby answered questions about his time at the school.
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