Inspiring story of Redhill Aboriginal who is now a Doctor of Podiatry

PROUD: James Charles, pictured at the NAIDOC Awards, is a proud Kaurna Aboriginal man who successfully educated himself after being considered illiterate.

PROUD: James Charles, pictured at the NAIDOC Awards, is a proud Kaurna Aboriginal man who successfully educated himself after being considered illiterate.

An Aboriginal man who was once illiterate has risen to become a Doctor of Podiatry who writes international research papers.

James Charles, who has links to Redhill, Port Pirie and Port Broughton, began his incredible journey after his young sons brought home books from pre-school and he could not read them.

His secret of illiteracy became too much to bear and he vowed to overcome his lack of reading and writing skills.

What followed was a journey through TAFE, adult learning centres and five universities.

“I used to pretend that I didn’t have my glasses if someone asked me to read something,” he said.

“I think some people twigged … but I never got obviously caught out.”

Mr Charles, 49, is now a Lecturer in Podiatry at Charles Sturt University in Albury-Wodonga on the Victorian-New South Wales border.

He achieved his role with help from scholarships from Australian Rotary Health, encouragement from Rotarians and the support of his wife Sharyn and their five sons.

He was born in Adelaide and is a member of the Kaurna tribe whose lands extend from the Adelaide Plains to Port Pirie.

“Dad worked at the docks in Port Adelaide and Mum was a mum like it used to be back in the old days,” he recalled.

“We moved around a bit and mostly lived at Valley View.

“I didn’t go to school initially for very long. I slipped through the gaps. I probably should have been pulled up beforehand.

“I was captain of the football and cricket team. In those days, you could slip through as long as you could string a sentence together with the teachers.

“I think they thought I was going okay. They didn’t pull me up. I was put in the not-so-bright group academically.

“I left school at 14 with an exemption to work for a plumber and sheet-metal worker. I was a natural at that. I was a pretty strong young lad.

“But I was illiterate. I didn’t think about it at the time – that came a little bit later.

“I never thought I was going to do podiatry and my Masters and my Doctorate of Philosophy.”

Mr Charles worked for the plumber for about a decade and met his partner when he was 19 years old.

They later moved from the northern suburbs of Adelaide to Redhill where they bought an old cottage “for a song” and began renovating it as a future source of income. He took his young sons fishing off Port Broughton and Port Pirie. 

Later, after returning to Adelaide, his sons came home from pre-school one day with books containing simple reading exercises.

“I thought, ‘oh, my God’ … it was embarrassing. I realised I would not be able to fake it with the kids,” he said.

Mr Charles wanted to share in his children’s learning so he enrolled in adult Year 8 studies at Tea Tree Gully TAFE college and “smashed it” with good results.

He worked through to Marden college where he studied physics and chemistry among his subjects for Year 11 and 12, finishing with a university entrance score of 82.

He kept working in the building trade and Sharyn financially supported him during his study.

He began an arts degree at the University of Adelaide before switching to podiatry at the University of South Australia.

Australian Rotary Health, an arm of the service club movement around the country, helped him with thousands of dollars in scholarship allowances.

He paid tribute to late Rotarians Geoff Bailey and Ray Kidney for their support.

“Geoff used to fight for what he believed in and one of those was me,” he said.

“I have studied at five universities altogether. I never thought that would happen years ago. I still continue to surprise myself. It is quite bizarre really.”

Mr Charles hopes his story will inspire others … in fact, you wouldn’t read about it!

“I certainly got bitten by a bug when I started … but I never thought I would get there,” he said.

“On reflection, I should have done this when I was a kid.

“I am continuing to read and learn every day and am writing papers and publishing.”

He has had about six papers published in international journals and has another half-a-dozen in the pipeline.

He has spoken about his life at Rotary clubs and conferences.

“Rotary is awesome,” he said.

Mr Charles continued his education to achieve a Doctorate of Philosophy enabling him to be officially called Dr Charles.

“I don’t usually use that title. Even my own family would never have believed that would happen, but here we are,” he said.

“I can guarantee there would be people I grew up with who would have bet a million dollars that I would never achieve the things I have done.”