At age 84, PhD graduate Judy Opitz has combined her two passions – learning and Kakadu – and steered a straight course for the highest academic honour.
After 18 consecutive years of university study, she has just received a Doctorate of Philosophy from Charles Darwin University.
In 1990 Dr Opitz (pictured) started an Arts degree at CDU’s predecessor institution, Northern Territory University (NTU), majoring in archaeology and anthropology. She said her days as an undergraduate were the “happiest of her life”, and she wholeheartedly embraced student life and the opportunities for learning.
Immediately after finishing her first degree, she enrolled in an Honours course and was awarded BA (Hons) from NTU in 1998. But with her appetite for learning yet to be satisfied, she decided to begin a PhD.
Her thesis compares the archaeological significance of two Australian Heritage sites – Port Arthur Penal Colony (in Tasmania) and Kakadu National Park – and examines the different ways each site’s archaeological history is presented for visitors.
She said that visitors to Kakadu were seeking a more in-depth knowledge of Indigenous culture, and wanted to know about the use and significance of the site to prehistoric peoples, not just about its present-day significance.
At the same time as working on her thesis, Dr Opitz wrote her autobiography entitled “An English Rose in Kakadu”, which has been accepted by a local publisher. The book recounts her childhood in England where she was raised by nannies and governesses, to her search for adventure and subsequent voyage to Australia as a “10-pound POM” in 1959, and eventually to meeting her future husband and crocodile hunter hero, Tom Opitz, in the famous Darwin Hotel.
Tom worked at the Nourlangie Safari Camp as a guide, leading hunting and shooting parties for well-heeled American tourists. In 1964 the couple built a store in Kakadu, which later became the Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, renowned for its Yellow Water boat cruises. After her husband died in 1982, Dr Opitz opened a shop in Darwin’s CBD, selling seashells and jewellery.
To satisfy a seemingly unquenchable desire for learning, Dr Opitz enrolled in correspondence and short courses in Egyptology, literature and mathematics.
“Even quadratic equations were something I wanted to try out,” she said, “just to see if I could do them.”
She submitted the first complete draft of her thesis to her supervisor in 2004, but it was rejected as not meeting academic standards required to be offered for examination. However, she wasn’t easily discouraged, and she began re-writing. And after another four years’ work, her determination finally paid off.
Now that she has finished her PhD, Dr Opitz has set her mind on studying philosophy. Her study ambitions, however, will have to fit in with promoting tourism in the Top End and publishing her autobiography. The proceeds of her book will go towards Indigenous educational programs in the Territory.
Dr Opitz said education would always be important to her, and helping people access education was her current passion. She said getting a degree was never her primary focus, but rather she set out to acquire knowledge and discovered the personal rewards education offered.
“I see education as tremendous exercise for the brain, and I feel particularly rewarded in knowing I’ve achieved something worthwhile,” she said.