When five-year-old Karl Kruszelnicki arrived in Wollongong in the early 1950s it was a very different place to what we know today.
But if it hadn’t been for a fever he would have grown up in America. The man now affectionately known across the nation as Dr Karl moved to Australia when he was two. The first three years were spent in a migrant camp in Bonegilla, Victoria. His family then relocated to Wollongong when he was five.
Dr Karl recently recalled for In The Loop’s People of Wollongong some of the early challenges he faced and reflected on the journey that started in a Wollongong library. He is now so highly regarded in the country that gave him and his family a new start that he has been described as a National Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia, was honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia and consistently ranks in the top 10 list of the most trusted people in Australia by Reader’s Digest.
There have been many accolades bestowed on the man who introduced us to many scientific facts on Quantum and has since regularly graced our television screens, radio, newspapers and magazines.
There is only one Dr Karl and sitting with the Julius Sumner Miller Fellow in his office at the School of Physics at University of Sydney memories flowed as he recalled his years spent growing up in and being schooled in Wollongong.
He took us on a journey through time and space sitting near his 40th book as an author. It is appropriately called The Doctor.
The former Edmund Rice College student said his family migrated to Australia within two years of him being born because the future was looking fairly bad in Europe.
“Russia was threatening to invade into Finland. My father had already spent time in a Russian concentration camp...before he escaped,” he said.
“We were going to be heading for the United States when I had a fever in response to a Smallpox vaccine. My parents panicked and the ship sailed away. The next ship was coming to Australia so we went on with our cardboard suitcases … and ended up in a refugee camp on the border of NSW and Victoria.”
Dr Karl described the early years in Wollongong “as a totally different time”.
“If you were a woman and had a job but got married you had to resign. A married woman was not allowed to have a job. If you were an Aboriginal/indigenous person you didn’t exist. You didn’t get counted on the census and you couldn’t vote. But the good thing about Wollongong was not just the beautiful climate and environment and lots of jobs available..but for me the Wollongong Library.”
Dr Karl started reading Fairytales of the World and his constant thirst for knowledge began. “I then got into science fiction and funny stuff like that. And the librarians looked after me”.
Dr Karl went to high school at Edmund Rice College and afterwards did many different jobs such as driving a taxi and digging trenches for sewer pipes with picks and shovels around Dapto.
“My father had a job there at the Water Board and because he could speak 12 languages he ended up in the personnel department which nowadays they call human resources. He would employ people and he spoke to one of the bosses,” he said.
There was a reason why Dr Karl’s family wanted him to do that. He remembers his father saying to him “you’re smarter than any of us. You can go to university but none of us can. People like me will never ever have any job except labouring. But you can do anything you want. I don’t want you to ever forget that”.
“It just blew my mind. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. And it has stayed with me ever since,” Dr Karl said.
“They “my family” called me “The Prof”. Not many people went to university in those days.”
Dr Karl said growing up in Wollongong had made him “very non-racist”. It also taught him that enjoying life and having a good time is completely independent of winning or losing. His belief system changed when he lost the need to be competitive with other people and learned it was more important to have internal competitiveness. He became satisfied with just being as good as he could be himself.
“I thought WOW..there is enough success to go around for everybody. I can succeed in being as good as I can. And they can succeed in being as good as they can. And it doesn’t matter what the score is”.
Asked about his favourite memories as a child growing up in Hillcrest Street, West Wollongong about 500 metres from Wollongong hospital he recalled flashing his father with a mirror after he had a kidney stone operation.
“Every morning when the sun was right my mother and I would sit at home and he would sit on the verandah. We would flash mirrors at each other and try and do primitive messages in morse code. I loved growing up between the ocean and the mountain. I loved the environment there and being able to walk up Mount Keira just for fun. I love the fact it is such a beautiful place in the world and it was easy comfortable living,” he said.
Dr Karl recalled watching the face of Mount Keira completely go up in flames in 15 minutes flat during the big bush-fire of 1968. He was standing on the campus of what is now known as the University of Wollongong. He said it had changed enormously since then. “It started off as a branch of the University of NSW and kept on growing. Now it has so many people doing world class work. I think it is a lovely university”.
Dr Karl said Professor Gordon Wallace was one of about a dozen researchers in Wollongong recognised as world leaders in their fields. And they have a really nice environment to work in and live. After completing a Bachelor of Science majoring in Physics at UOW in 1968 Dr Karl’s first job as a physicist was at the Port Kembla Steelworks where he designed a machine that could be used to test steel.