From Muhammad Ali to Wandoo woodlands
By Ieva Tomsons
OCCASIONAL Toodyay Herald acting editor Roger Simms (right) was appointed news editor of The West Australian in 1984, a senior job that came with a company car that provided weekend transport to a newly purchased Julimar bush block and childhood memories of the Avon Valley.
“The smell of the Avon Valley can sweep me across a seven-decade divide as soon as I drive through the front gate,” he said.READ MORE
Roger (78) was born in Mt Barker and spent his childhood in Northam before attending Perth Boys High School and Perth Modern School.
His 40-year career in journalism has taken him far from the isolated outposts of his youth to interviewing US boxing legend Muhammad Ali and iron-fisted former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Roger had just started work at the Commonwealth Bank in 1960 when The West Australian, where he had applied for a job two months earlier, offered him a cadetship.
“I didn’t really know what journalism was all about but I thought it might be a better career than posting ledgers in pen and ink.”
Cadet journalists in those days did a four-year apprenticeship and Roger cut his teeth sitting in the Perth Traffic Court and WA Supreme Court gathering stories about traffic offenders and broken marriages in the days before ‘no fault’ divorce was introduced.
“Reports of people granted divorces came with the reasons for marriage breakdown, including adultery.
“Some of the cases of bedroom hijinks and accounts of philandering spouses fleeing down drainpipes made good copy for Perth’s old Mirror newspaper which specialised in divorce cases.”
The West published divorce case lists and spouses ‘caught with their pants down’ sometimes begged journalists to keep their names out of the paper but reporters knew that to do so would mean instant dismissal.
Three years into his cadetship, 20-year-old Roger copped “a bollocking” from the newsroom chief of staff for reporting that the only way to get out of Perth after the 1962 Commonwealth Games ended was “on foot”.
But in investigating the mass departure, he forgot all about ships, which weren’t fully booked, and his story appeared next day alongside a shipping advertisement for berths to the eastern states.
“It was an embarrassing but valuable lesson – it taught me to check my facts and then check and check again.”
Roger was recruited in 1963 by Melbourne’s The Age newspaper where he stayed for two years honing his craft.
He recalls working with the late Mike Willesee – later a leading Australian TV current affairs journalist – covering the dramatic landing of a stricken aircraft at Essendon Airport. “It was front page news.”
By now Roger had married his WA girlfriend Trish and in 1965 they travelled by ship to England where Roger worked for two years on the Manchester Evening News and The Daily Mirror.
The interview with World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Mohammad Ali took place in a London hotel after Ali’s second bout with British champion Henry Cooper and shortly after his conversion to Islam.
“The hotel foyer was crammed with Pakistanis who had all come to see their hero. It was quite something.”
Roger’s time in Manchester coincided with the arrest and conviction of Britain’s infamous Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady over the killing of five children and the disposal of their bodies outside the city.
“It was a long and horrendous story. Children going missing in Manchester had become a frightening fact of life in the community for a year or so leading up to the discovery of the monstrous Hindley-Brady crimes.
“Parents of the missing children were desperate. At one point, a photographer and I were dispatched to Liverpool to verify a Dutch clairvoyant’s claim that one of the children would be found there. It was a wild goose chase.”
Trish and Roger returned in 1967 to Perth where Roger became a sub editor at The West Australian in St Georges Terrace, a role which suited him to a tee.
“I remember so many nights as a sub editor in the composing room at Newspaper House, making last-minute cuts to stories as compositors put together a page of The West Australian whose content and design had been my job to edit and prepare in the previous few hours
“It’s been a source of amazement to me to think that in my working life I have witnessed a revolution, the drawing of a line across my industry that marked a break between a centuries-old, hot-metal way of producing newspapers and new computer-driven processes.
“It would sweep away the crafts of printing, see jobs go in their thousands across the nation and put powerful production tools into the hands of journalists.”
Roger was seconded to Singapore in 1971 to help set up a new afternoon daily paper, the New Nation, and on a visit to the island state a few years later he used his contacts there to set up an interview with Singapore’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, at the presidential residence.
“There was a minder present at all times and I had to play by the rules on the issues I could raise. So, I didn’t get a major scoop, but it was a good experience.”
Two years later, Roger was back at The West Australian where he worked his way up to become a leader (editorial) writer and eventually news editor in 1984.
It was there Roger met current Toodyay Herald editor Michael Sinclair-Jones, who had completed a cadetship in the early 1970s and was working as a news reporter.
Roger was one of eight Australian journalists invited in 1980 to visit China as a gesture of thawing international tensions between the two countries.
“We stayed in a (Mongolian) yurt and I presented prize ribbons to the winning riders at pony races on the open plains.”
Two years later he was off to the US for a month where he wrote about homelessness and interviewed US civil rights activist, journalist and publisher Daisy Bates who escorted, under armed guard, the first black students into a previously whites-only high school in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957.
Roger returned to the US in 1985, this time on a Jefferson Fellowship.
In the late 1980s Roger made a career change and began teaching journalism at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory.
During his three years in Darwin Roger rekindled his life-long love of playing the violin and joined the Darwin Symphony Orchestra under the direction of a flamboyant conductor who once arrived in a speedboat to join the orchestra seated on pontoons in the Katherine River.
He had come a long way from his youthful party trick of clambering onto a roof to play Fiddler on the Roof.
From Darwin, Roger went on to help set up Murdoch University’s Graduate Program in Journalism and taught there until he retired in 2000.
In between he enrolled part time in the WA Academy of Performing Arts’ certificate course in classical music, attending classes with much younger students.
“I was the Methuselah of the second violins,” he jokes.
At a time when many country newspapers are closing their doors, The Toodyay Herald is proud to be still publishing with Roger close by to provide expert advice, guidance and training to the local volunteer editorial team.