Our history: telling Vilma’s story

Rob Willis and John Morseu recording Vilma Ryan's story for the National Library of Australia in Forbes. John is a reference and administration officer with the library's Oral History branch.
Rob Willis and John Morseu recording Vilma Ryan's story for the National Library of Australia in Forbes. John is a reference and administration officer with the library's Oral History branch.

Things have changed a lot for Aboriginal people in Vilma Ryan’s lifetime. 

And this unassuming lady, now a resident of Jemalong Retirement Village, played no small part in that.

Vilma Ryan spent her early years in Bagtown – a community near the Cowra Aboriginal missions. 

She left school at 14 but later put herself through TAFE. She then set about improving education for her people.

She was on the board of the Murrawina Preschool for Aboriginal children in Redfern and one of four people Charlie Perkins sent to Santa Fe Indian School to learn how to establish an Aboriginal high school, which they did.

Recognising a deeper need of indigenous young people, she also worked with the Church of England homes with Aboriginal children who had been removed from their families, desperate to reconnect them with their people and culture. 

Another of her passions has been to share the story of her people. In her lifetime, she has had the ear of celebrities including Michael Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Evil Knievel, George Negus and Ernie Dingo, just to name a few. 

Her “brag book” holds the photographic evidence. 

But for all that, her own story has remained largely untold. Now her stories, memories and work are being recorded for the National Library of Australia, by Forbes local and NLA oral historian Rob Willis.

He and wife Olya have – along with Torres Strait Islander John Morseu – last week continued recording Vilma’s story for the library.

Mr Willis described her as an activist, teacher, educator, carer and tradition bearer and is thrilled that her previously untold story will now be in the National Library.

“This is not even scratching the surface of Vilma Ryan’s story and we will continue to preserve her memories in the NLA,” he said.