Journalist Des Parker has shared the stories of residents of Port Pirie for 65 years and still preserves the memories

It’s the early 1970s and Des Parker is engaged in an illegal two-on-one game on Weerona Island, atop the Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

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

As the organizer of the competition, Mr. Parker was fined $14.

When one of the inspectors needed help taking pictures of the scene, he asked Mr. Parker as the local photographer and journalist.

Ironically, the money earned that day went to the local police anyway, since Mr. Parker’s games were always for charity.

The veteran journalist and published author was completely self-taught and had a journalism career spanning more than 65 years.

a set of two-person equipment
Des Parker hosted couples every Good Friday for 14 years before being ambushed by the police.ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts

His career began in 1943 selling newspapers in what he calls ‘newspaper corner’ in the lead-melting town of Port Pirie, where he was born and raised.

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

Mr Parker has been shooting sports matches all over the region and can still pick up the name of every local football team and probably most of the players.

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

In 1979, Mr Parker attended the opening of the new lead smelter, the tallest building in South Australia.

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

It contains a thousand resident profiles, thousands of old Recorder newspapers bound in large red books, hundreds of glass negatives and countless photographs.

a photo of a barn with some posters of newspapers
Des Parker’s barn is full of all kinds of historical artifacts.ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts

A curious Parker for 30 years

His column, Nosy Parker, was in The Recorder for 30 years. Some of the city’s secrets were shared there, but he said he would never share a few either.

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

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

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

Mr Parker had one major criticism of today’s papers and it was characteristic of his attention to detail: photos without captions indicate who is in the photo and when it was taken.

“I don’t know how they set up a newspaper these days. There are pictures without a name,” he said.

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

black and white negatives of people at an event in the 1950s
Glass negatives from the early 20th century are part of Mr Parker’s collection.ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts

In his back shed, Mr Parker’s collection contains material from the 1890s.

He has had people from all over the country contact him to find some sort of memorabilia for a friend or relative.

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

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

an old newspaper bound in a book
Mr. Parker has arranged old editions of The Recorder newspaper into bound books.ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts

Now, at an age when he will have to sell his house, Mr. Parker said he didn’t know what would happen to the history he owns.

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

Mr. Parker began documenting all the photos and newspapers after preserving multiple records from destruction at local papers in Spencer Gulf in the 1980s.

He justifies his collection with one thought.

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

A horse, carriage and ‘giant’ shark

Mr. Parker, a published author, has three books to his credit, his most recent titled, From Town to Swamp, a history of the town 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 were not necessary for success as a writer, photographer or journalist.

a photo of a shark entangled in a fishing net
“Shakka the Shark” was entangled in a fishing net when Des Parker was called to photograph it.Delivered: Des Parker

“I’ve learned by watching other people… I haven’t had any studies at all,” he said.

“I used to be terrified to take pictures, but you look at the sun. You look at other people and fix what they’re doing wrong.

“It just goes to show you that you don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to make progress. I did well, I just learned most things myself.”

Mr. Parker attended some of the largest historic events in the region. One in particular he remembers well.

One cold morning in 1998, a phone call was received with the curious request to photograph a “giant” shark that had landed nearby.

At 5.5 meters in length, “Shakka the Shark” was immortalized in Mr. Parker’s photos and at the local tourist center of Port Pirie, which features a shark replica and VR shark diving experience.

On another occasion, Mr. Parker himself became the story.

At just six years old, he was the key witness to an accident between a horse, cart and train that resulted in the horrific death of a man.

It was some sort of origin story, perhaps an event that made Mr. Parker thirsty for memorizing and reporting events.

“I also have the records of that lawsuit,” he jokes.

Fishing for history

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

a man in a blue t-shirt 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 on lead and write the words backwards,” he said.

“I admired those people. They did it hard.

“Young people today wouldn’t know what it’s like to sit upstairs all day without air conditioning.”

Mr. Parker recalls hand-rolling each paper about three nights a week for early delivery.

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

“But most of the time you only see the milkman.”

an old front page of a newspaper in red reads 'the recorder'
Des Parker worked for over 60 years at The Recorder in Port Pirie.ABC North and West SA: Georgia Roberts

So who does Mr. Parker owe his long career to?

In his own humble way, he said they were his colleagues.

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

He left his shed to move into a retirement home and said he was concerned about where his collection would go.

Looking around the room, he’s clearly not ready to let it go.