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

It is the early 1970s and Des Parker is in the middle of running an illegal game of two-up on Weeroona Island atop the Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

Police have decided to perform a raid on the unsuspecting journalist and those enjoying the game.

As the organiser of the game, Mr Parker copped a fine of $14.

When one of the inspectors needed a hand to take photographs of the scene, he asked Mr Parker as the local photographer and journalist.

Ironically, the money made that day was going to the local police force anyway, as Mr Parker’s games were always for charity.

Entirely self-taught, the veteran journalist and published author had a journalism career of more than 65 years.

a set of two-up equipment
Des Parker ran games of two-up every Good Friday for 14 years before being raided by police.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

His career started in 1943, selling newspapers on what he calls “newspaper corner” in the lead-smelting city of Port Pirie, where he was born and raised.

“It was just a job and my mother always told me I would never last in that job … so I proved her a little wrong,” he said.

Mr Parker photographed sports matches all over the region, and can still reel off the name of every local football team and probably most of the players.

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

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

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

It includes a thousand profiles on residents, thousands of old Recorder newspapers bound in big red books, hundreds of glass negatives and countless photographs.

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

A Nosey Parker for 30 years

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

“My boss used to say to me, ‘How in the hell did you get that story?’,” Mr Parker said.

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

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

Mr Parker had one major criticism of newspapers today and it was characteristic of his attention to detail — photos without captions that detail who is in the picture and when it was taken.

“I don’t know how they lay a paper out these days. There are photos with no names,” he said.

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

black and white negatives of people at an event in the 50's
Glass negatives dating back to the early 1900s are part of Mr Parker’s collection.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

In his back shed, Mr Parker’s collection boasts material from as early as the 1890s.

He has had people from all over the country get in touch with him to locate some sort of memorabilia for a friend or a family member.

“I have had people contact me from all over Australia to find photos of all different people,” Mr Parker said.

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

an old newspaper bound in a book
Mr Parker has organised 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 home, Mr Parker said he did not know what would happen to the history he has in his possession.

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

Mr Parker started to document all the photographs and newspapers after saving multiple records from being destroyed at local Spencer Gulf newspapers in the 1980s.

He justifies his collection with one thought.

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

A horse, cart and ‘giant’ shark

A published author, Mr Parker has three books to his name, his most recent titled, From City to Swamp, a history of the city 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 for success as a writer, photographer or journalist.

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

“I’ve learnt from watching other people … I had no study whatsoever,” he said.

“I used to be petrified of taking photos but you watch the sun. You watch other people and rectify what they do wrong.

“It just shows you that you don’t need to be a Rhodes scholar to progress. I’ve done alright just learning most things myself.”

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

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

Measuring 5.5 metres in length, “Shakka the Shark” was immortalised in Mr Parker’s photographs and at the local Port Pirie tourist centre, which is home to a replica shark and a shark dive VR experience.

On another occasion, Mr Parker became the story himself.

At only six years old he was the prime witness in an accident between a horse, a cart and a train, resulting in a man’s gruesome death.

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

“I’ve got the records of that court case too,” he quips.

Fishing for history

Mr Parker reflects on the “old days” of lead-based linotype printing, done by hand on every single page as he flicks through one of his newspaper-bound books.

a man in a blue tshirt smiles in front of a set of shelves
Mr Parker’s son, Daryl Parker, also has a keen interest in the city of Port Pirie.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

“They used to print out on lead and write words backwards,” he said.

“I admired those people. They’ve done it tough.

“The young ones today wouldn’t know what it’s like to sit over hot lead all bloody day with no air conditioning.”

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

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

“Most of the time though, you’d 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 more than 60 years.(ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts)

So who does Mr Parker have to thank for his long-spanning career?

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

“The people that put up with me for so bloody long,” Mr Parker said.

Leaving behind his back shed to move into an aged care home, he said he was worried about where his collection would go.

Looking around the room, he is clearly not ready to let go of it just yet.

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