John and Jennifer Berryman have a long history with UTS and its antecedent institutions, but it was their work in bringing print literature to the blind that first led their two paths to intertwine.
At the time John was producing braille – on a computer the size of a refrigerator – for the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC), and on-selling to libraries. Jennifer, who had recently graduated with a Graduate Diploma of Library Science from the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education (KCAE), was working as a librarian at the Royal Blind Society (RBS) and was in the market for braille publications. After initial discussions via telephone, she invited John to visit her library with some samples.
“She looked at me, did a double-take, and said, ‘From your voice I thought you were about fifty!’ I was only twenty-something at the time,” John recalls with a laugh. “Sixty,” Jennifer interrupts, also laughing. “I thought you were sixty!” The pair worked professionally together for three years before their connection deepened to become more personal, and they married in 1982.
"I was getting a bit bored in my job and one of my colleagues had just finished her PhD, so I thought I’d have a coffee with her and find out what was involved."
Remarkably, John and Jennifer hold a total of eleven tertiary qualifications between them – six of them gained at UTS and its antecedent institutions, the Kuring-gai College of Advanced Education (KCAE) and the NSW Institute of Technology (NSWIT).
After completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, John was working in IT when he joined the RIDBC. They’d just purchased an application suite for producing braille by computer, and, needing to extend his knowledge of the programming language at its heart, he took up study in the Graduate Diploma of Data Processing at NSWIT.
“It was a very different campus in 1979,” he recalls. “I remember there was an Asian restaurant behind the tower building. There was this very rustic building, like someone had knocked it up over a weekend. I used to have dinner there after work and before class.”
Soon after completion he moved into an administration role with RIDBC. “I didn’t know much about running a not-for-profit,” says John, “so I enrolled in the Graduate Diploma of Social Administration at KCAE.” Subsequently appointed CEO, he again chose KCAE when he wanted to upgrade the qualification to a Masters. “The perspective on administration [at KCAE] was so different from anything that I had encountered before, so much more rigorous in its approach and more empirically based. It was a real eye opener.”
A Master of Special Education at the University of Newcastle followed: “I wanted to know more about what the people in my team actually did,” he explains. Then, when approaching retirement, John thought he might like to teach English, adding a UTS Graduate Diploma in TESOL to his credentials, and spending a few years teaching part-time alongside consulting to the not-for-profit sector.
Jennifer’s commitment to education is just as exceptional. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Macquarie University, she travelled the world before taking up a job in a library on her return home, and was encouraged by her employer to enrol as part of the inaugural cohort for the Graduate Diploma of Library Science at KCAE.
“I remember the incredibly green carpet… really bright lime green,” she recalls of her time studying in the iconic building in Lindfield that hasn’t changed much since opening in the early 70s. “But the bush setting was just exquisite.”
She fondly remembers inspirational teachers, amongst them Professor Margaret Trask, former head of the school and then Deputy Chancellor of UTS until her passing in late 2002. “She was just such a leader,” she recalls. “There was a real sense of being at the forefront of library studies.”
Jennifer then attained a Graduate Certificate in Public Administration from Griffith University and a Master of Management at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, before taking on what she describes as an ‘accidental PhD’ at UTS, where she had been teaching part-time in the Information and Knowledge Management program.
“I was getting a bit bored in my job and one of my colleagues had just finished her PhD, so I thought I’d have a coffee with her and find out what was involved.” What she hadn’t considered was that her colleague would be on the hunt for students to supervise, turning up at the café with an application form filled out on Jennifer’s behalf, a thesis topic already determined, awaiting her for signature. She took on the challenge with gusto, the resulting thesis winning the prestigious UK-based Emerald/EMFD Doctoral Award for Library Science and shortlisted for another prize in the United States.
For the last 25 years Jennifer has been with the State Library of NSW, where she’s watched the incredible impact of changing technology on her field. Earlier this year she wrapped up a major capital project for the organisation, to ensure electronic catalogue records for the entire collection.
She’s since taken long service leave, though has returned part-time to manage the significant process of re-valuing the library’s $2.1billion collection, one of the state’s highest valued assets.
John has also borne witness to a rapid and far-reaching technological evolution in his 33 years with RIDBC, 26 years of this spent as CEO before retiring in 2011. During this time the organisation has achieved transformational change, establishing an extraordinary array of programs and facilities resulting in a fundamental shift in the lives of blind and deaf children.
In the early days there was very little focus on early childhood, but now the 0-5 age group is the RIDBC’s main focus – the period of development most crucial in acquiring language. With the right technology and intensive lobbying on John’s part, newborns in NSW and across Australia are now screened for hearing loss within 24 hours of birth and babies as young as eight weeks can be fitted with hearing aids.
Craig Knowles, who was Minister for Health during the period and a key target for John’s contribution to the lobbying effort, publically acknowledged this initiative as the most significant development in his time in office.
Under John’s leadership, the RIDBC delivered successful integration of deaf and blind children into mainstream independent schools, and set up programs to train specialist teachers. Around 700 graduates of these programs are now working in schools and facilities around Australia and across the world.
His impact has been recognised with numerous accolades, including appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia. When asked about the honour, he’s very humble. “CEO’s get singled out for these kinds of things,” he says, quickly redirecting the attention to the achievements and recognition of his colleagues.
John and Jennifer have passed their love of lifelong education on to their 23-year old daughter, Tess, who plans to add a Masters in Speech Pathology to the Bachelor of Psychology she completed with first class honours last year. “I think she’s going to be a permanent student,” says Jennifer.
The accomplished and wonderfully warm couple are firming up plans to spend some time in Europe, most probably Hungary, from which John’s parents emigrated to Australia before he was born. The timeline on this is up in the air – their much-loved 15-year old kelpie fox terrier cross, Lissy, just couldn’t manage the trip and they can’t bear the thought of re-homing her or cutting her golden years short. There’s also their younger dog, and a horse stabled at Duffys Forest, to think of. “It’s probably still two or three years away,” says Jennifer.