About Jennie Thomas AM

Jennie Thomas AM has been a well known figure at the UoN and HMRI for over ten years as a supporter of education and medical research. She is well known for her enthusiasm, her love and her hugs!

Jennie has led a life dedicated to the education, care and welfare of young people of all ages. Although she had no children of her own, she has collected a large extended family throughout the years. Some of them are the scholars who have benefited from her support of scholarships and grants through the University of Newcastle Foundation and the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

This web site is dedicated to those members of the JT Family.

During her school days, Jennie lived in the small dairy farming village of Wyrallah on the NSW Far North Coast. Her father was the teacher of the primary school where Jennie and her friend Helen were the only two in her class. From there she moved up to the very large Lismore High School where the first year classes were spread from 1A to 1P. It was a culture shock, but Jennie enjoyed high school and is still in touch with her school friends.

Following her dream to be a teacher, Jennie attended Newcastle Teachers’ College where her training was made possible by a Commonwealth Scholarship. Her first teaching role was in the then new suburb of Doonside in the fast growing western suburbs of Sydney. Classes were very large and English was not spoken by most students. At that time, there was no provision made by any Department of Education in Australia for special English classes for such children.

Jennie moved back to the Newcastle area in 1962 to marry Philip Emlyn Thomas. Em was an immigrant from South Wales who attended both Toronto Primary School and Newcastle Boys High. He studied for his Science Degree at the Tighe’s Hill campus of the University of New South Wales. Jennie taught at Toronto and Hamilton while Em worked at Sulphide Corporation and BHP. Em was an industrial chemist and, in 1967, Jennie and Em moved to Melbourne where Em joined Techtron Pty Ltd, a small company dedicated to the development of the new chemistry technique of Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry.

In 1969, Jennie and Em moved to Switzerland where Em’s task was to introduce AA to the laboratories of Europe. It was while living in a small Swiss village where no-one spoke English that Jennie became much more aware of the difficulties facing people living without access to their mother tongue. It was the turning point in her teaching career. She became determined to make a difference to the education of migrant and refugee children in Australia.

On their return to Australia in 1970, Jennie joined a small group of teachers who worked together to develop Child Migrant Education in Australian schools. Her life became very busy as she juggled teaching English as a Second Language, writing curriculum, training teachers and lecturing. She also represented Victorian CME at the national level, became an advocate for multi-cultural education and provided consultancy for schools in Victoria and other states. There are many tales to be told about those years!

Apart from her school students, especially refugees for whom she became a mother figure, Jennie provided assistance and language classes to parents at night. She was also a sounding board for Em through the 30 plus years that he managed the fast growing AA company, by then owned by the Californian based company,Varian Pty. Ltd.

In the late 1970‘s, new rules in the Victorian Education Department forced Jennie to take time off to study to upgrade her then two year qualifications to a four year qualification. With that done, she undertook a degree by correspondence from Deakin University completing eight subjects in one year all at HD level. That was followed by an Honours Degree year at Stanford University in California. Em spent that year as President of Varian’s Instrument Group in nearby Palo Alto, California.

When they returned to Australia, their country of choice, Jennie took on adminsitrative roles in Migrant and Refugee programs as well as tutoring for Deakin University,

And the Thomas extended family continued to grow as more children came into their lives, children who needed their love, assistance and mentoring. Four became as their own very special family; Sam, Clarissa, Emlyn and Christian.

Another, Alistair and his family, came into their lives and home for five years while Al was fighting brain cancer. It was a heartfelt blow to them all when Al died.

Although both Jennie and Em were keen sports people in sailing, squash and tennis, Em’s health began to fail and he had several heart attacks. It was time to think about retirement. They planned to retire back to the Newcastle area.

In 1993, they bought a house at Coal Point on beautiful Lake Macquarie, near Newcastle. It was in need of drastic renovation. Jennie, who loved building and renovating houses in her ‘spare time’, took on the task - a huge job but very satisfying. It was finished and ready for them to move into in 1996 when Em was forced to retire because of another major heart attack - genetics won out again. Although it broke Em’s heart to leave the factory and the 600+ employees whom he considered to be his family, he was able enjoy a few years at the lake sailing his yacht “JEM” and his small dingy. There was also time to travel for fun, rather than business, with lots of walking holidays with Jennie in UK and Europe.

Em’s life hit crisis point with yet another heart attack in late 2000. He required a valve replacement. This operation, at John Hunter Hospital, unfortunately resulted in a stroke from which Em never fully recovered. He fell into deep depression and, after months of despair, tragically died in March 2001.

Jennie, herself in despair after losing her partner of almost forty years, had two paths to choose from. She chose not to fall into self pity but instead determined to go on as they had always done together, trying to make a difference to the lives of others. Jennie chose to re-build her life again by finding ways to help other people make their dreams come true.

Many people, including Jennie, have benefited from that decision, not just in Australia but in far flung corners of the world. In answer to her oft asked question, “What’s your dream?”, friends, acquaintances and strangers who cross Jennie’s path as well as University scholars, have become part of that extended JT family. In Australia, she has been passionate about education, medical research, mental health awareness, melanoma awareness and assistance to the disabled.

Overseas, Jennie's JEM projects extend as far afield as Sierra Leone where her JEM Eye Clinic has resulted in many thousands of people in war battered west Africa having their sight restored. She believes strongly in the adage that ‘it is better to teach a person to fish, than to give a fish’. This philosophy lead her to become involved in deep well and village garden projects in west Africa, micro loans in various third world countries, and medical and education programs for the poor and disadvantaged in countries like Myanmar and Fiji.

Jennie now lives in Canberra with her partner David Young, well known to Canberrans for his many years of radio and television Gardening Advice. Both Jennie and David have been honoured several times for their community service. Both are members of the Order of Australia. David was awarded an OAM in 1993 and Jennie was awarded an AM in 2009.

In their retirement, Jennie and David enjoy travelling and exploring the world together. They share those adventures with others through their photography and videography, through talks to community groups and through their travel blog http://www.jtdytravels.com. And together they enjoy following the careers and achievements of all members of the JT extended family of scholars and ‘dreamers’.


The Dream Begins! Jennie and Em at College in Newcastle in 1958.


Jennie, teacher and lecturer.


Em at work.


Our special family - Clarissa, Young Em, Sam and Christian, with Em.


Jennie and Young Em.


Jennie's last hiking holiday with Em in the Swiss Mountains (2000).


Jennie and David at Jennie's Investiture.


Jennie with new friend MeMe in Myanmar.

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