Kevin Atkinson Snr was a Bangerang Elder of the Moirada Clan, a staunch advocate and leader whose passion and love were for his wife Mary, his six children, the Cummeragunja Mission and the Murray River.
Being born the third child of nine brothers and one sister to Daniel and Myra Atkinson, Uncle Kevin was introduced early to a strong work ethic by his father. Beginning his working life as the mail boy he would ride the punt across the Murray River to collect the mail from Barmah and upon return would deliver it to the people on Cummera. This job which Uncle Kevin enjoyed immensely instilled in him at an early age the ethic of ‘hard work’ which he kept his whole life. His father also became a successful shearing contractor through whom Uncle Kevin and eight of his brothers were provided with regular employment.
A couple of years after marrying Mary Josephine Bamblett on October 13th, 1956, Uncle Kevin began the position of Farm Manager of Cummeragunja Pty Ltd, remaining in this position until they moved to Shepparton in 1977. Uncle Kevin’s business acumen developed in this period where under his leadership, irrigation was laid out to produce winter and summer pastures providing cereal crops of wheat, oats and barley. Good quality tomatoes and potatoes where also grown that were sold in the market in Melbourne, as well as locally. This enterprise was seen as fairly big and very successful. Much of the land at this time had been leased to surrounding local farmers by the NSW government. Despite this setback, the boon of the successful crops inspired Kevin and others on Cummera to join forces with the Aborigines Advancement League president Ray Adams and Sir Doug Nichols, who had been monitoring the expiration of these leases to meet with the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs in Sydney. Sir Doug, ever the ‘trail blazing’ diplomat broke through the Minister’s gruff demeanour by motioning to a photo on the wall of a rugby player while commencing to discuss the finer points of the game with him. History as it has been said ‘must always be seen in its context’ and in those times Aboriginal people were coming out of the ‘mission manager’ system of dealing with government agencies, especially Aboriginal Affairs. Although no firm decision or promises were given at that meeting, Uncle Kevin was chuffed that a ‘seed’ had been sown that had given the delegation hope. As the leases started to expire the NSW Government telegrammed them saying “we’ll let you use the land and you will be what we call ‘tenants at will’. Meaning they would be virtual ‘share croppers’ while the leases were still current; so, with the assistance of the AAL they bought an old tractor, received a donation of six cows from a Seymour farm and began working the land. They finished up with two hundred head of cattle through their breeding program.
In 1977 began another chapter in his life at Shepparton, where he had moved his family to improve the children’s educational opportunities and him and Mary’s employment prospects. While looking for gainful employment Uncle Kevin continued shearing, fruit picking and driving trucks before he finally started working at the Department of Human Services as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer. In this position Uncle Kevin assisted itinerant Aboriginal persons to obtain ID’s, others with their pensions and benefits and to complete and lodge forms. Putting history in its context Uncle Kevin initially experience a hostile work environment with undercurrents of racism. Fortunately, Uncle Kevin’s hard work paid off with the changing of the cultural ethos of the Shepparton office to value the human capital of Aboriginal people.
Uncle Kevin played a prominent role in the establishment of the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer program in Shepparton, Victoria. The idea came to him upon attending a meeting at Cummera where police liaison workers gave a presentation on their roles in NSW with the police. Much discussion was held by Uncle Kevin with various organisations and word soon made its way to Race Matthews the Minister for Police in Victoria. Eventually it was decided the benefits of this program far outweighed the costs and the ACLO program was fully funded.
Using his exceptional political savvy Uncle Kevin became the Chairperson and board member of the Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative as well as many other local and State Aboriginal organisations striving to continuously develop, problem solve and improve the welfare and employment opportunities of the Goulburn Valley Indigenous community.
After taking a package from Social Security in the early 90’s Uncle Kevin took a position with Aboriginal Hostels working as the assistant manager at the Shepparton hostel until he turned 65. Coming full circle Uncle Kevin successfully applied for the position of CEO with the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Land Council. Travelling over from Shepparton, he remained in this position until 2010 when he retired. Returning to live at Cummera he remained eternally optimistic about the mission’s future. Watching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren playing sport and attending church with his daughters was what he preferred to do in his latter years. Camping with his sons Keve and Max and taking road trips with them and his ‘grandies’ also bought Uncle Kevin great joy.