Ken Burns: An Oral History


This page contains two different videos of the same oral history interview. One is a regular version without subtitles, but below that is a subtitled version, for anyone who requires different formats to enjoy Diverse Hawkesbury content. If you need (or want) to LISTEN to the written words instead of reading it, I will read it aloud to you if you click "play" above.

Welcome to another oral history video! The video at the bottom of this page is a normal length for a full oral history recording, at just under two hours long. Settle in, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the life story of Ken Burns, born in 1930 in Sydney and spending the first part of his life in the Eastern Suburbs. He then moved to the Hawkesbury, building his beloved family home and a life in Freeman's Reach, then Windsor. He is now a resident of Richmond.

When Lisa Burns contacted me via Facebook to ask me if I might come and record her father's oral history, I jumped at the chance to learn from a family who have lived in the Hawkesbury for decades. I also loved the attitude with which both Lisa and her dad, Ken Burns (aged 87) approached the collaboration. They not only saw the value for the their family in documenting Ken's life story, but also the many benefits in sharing that story with the wider community. One of these benefits - with a video such as this - is bringing into our consciousness the importance of quality aged care, and - contrast with my discussion with Hawkesbury youth - is the aspect of diversity I present this week.

Over the course of the three-month documentation process with Ken, he moved to his suite in one of our local aged care facilities, and I was given a lot of personal insight about the benefits and the challenges of that transition into a more supported living situation. For the individual who has lived as full, healthy and independent a life as Ken's, the adjustment to supported living is a huge mental and emotional shift. It is also likely to be a test of emotional resilience and teamwork for the family system surrounding that individual. In turn, the community surrounding that family may be supportive in various ways. I think a great way to remain mindful in that moment is if we all look back upon that individual's life to appreciate their humanity and the epic story that is one single, special, precious human life.

Something I hadn't predicted was that I would become instant friends with the Burns family. There's something so intimate and so humbling about being welcomed into a family home, being told all the cherished stories, seeing all the photos, hearing the songs, and being trusted to communicate that epic story in a manner that is as true to life as possible (without also ending up with a five-hour video!).

You will see in the interview footage that there are times when my "oral historian" facade drops and I quite literally collapse into fits of laughter; more than just a few instances of this occurred as the interviews progressed, and after a while, I just gave up trying not to burst into hysterics. Ken's clear enjoyment of making people laugh is only one aspect of his abundantly bright and inquisitive personality that clearly cannot be dulled by... well... anything!

I'm a fulltime uni student, so I've spent a good deal of the recent past balancing my coursework as a psychology student with my other favourite pastime... poring over old photographs, news articles, academic literature, hobby websites and of course Trove, learning the full context of Ken's many stories. It also must be said that the enthusiasm with which the Hawkesbury community embraces the sharing of historically-valuable photos and information on Facebook is something to behold. It is something I think sets us apart from a lot of communities and is a credit to us. History and heritage is clearly something that matters, here. And as always, with every visit I made to Ken's place, he made clear his delight in passing on the lessons, the wisdom and the insight he has taken great care to collect over his 87 years.

Over the course of our conversations, it became clear to me that Mr Burns is a man of political and ethical fortitude, and has demonstrated since childhood a fiery spirit of activism, which has an intriguing relationship with his entrepreneurial mind and significant achievements in the corporate and sales arena. I could see with the recurring topic of his beloved ALP, I might bring him a rewarding experience by inviting Federal MP Susan Templeman to not only thank Ken personally for his lifetime of loyalty but answer my questions on the importance of good aged care facilities for our older citizens.

SUSAN TEMPLEMAN MP: “It’s wonderful meeting Ken, and anytime I’m in an aged care facility, I can see the incredible memories people have, the passion they’ve had and still have for life, so it’s great to meet people and hear their stories. I always recognise how important it is that each person in aged care is treated as an individual; that there aren’t assumptions made about them. It’s important that each person is individually spoken to and you can work out where their heads are at… where their life is at. That means you have to treat people with respect and dignity. That takes time, and all I think we need to be conscious of is that facilities are funded so that they can allow their staff to have the time to talk to everybody as an individual.

Now, whenever you get cost pressures making decisions, you lose the human element. It’s not because there aren’t good people working here. It’s just because they don’t have the time to do all the things they’d really like to be doing.

So I think as a Federal MP, when I think of aged care, and how we fund it, they’re the sorts of principles that guide me, and I hope that’s what will guide our policy decisions.”

What can we do as members of the Hawkesbury community to better support our elderly citizens? Can a regular person with a little time each week help to fill those needs?

“I think you’ve nailed it; that this is a community issue. These are not ‘someone else’s’ older people who are in care. These are our older people. These are people who were our teachers, who looked after our kids, who had roles in our lives. And if people do have time – it might only be an hour a week – and you pop in and you have a chat to people, that seems to me to be what they want, more than anything. Obviously, people are at different stages of their life and need different things, but there are a lot of people whose bodies are failing but their minds are not. They desperately need people to come and have conversations with them and be interested in their lives. And as we’ve seen today, it’s just fascinating!”

I learned so much during the three months I spent making this video in my non-study hours. I am sure that I couldn't have learned quite as effectively any other way. I hope to pass on this learning, and that you'll enjoy it as much as I have.

Rozzie Chia


Diverse Hawkesbury


  • Ken Burns: An Oral History

  • Consecutive list of topics

  • Ken Burns: An Oral History (subtitled)

  • Further Learning links, for people wishing to learn even more! :)

Ken Burns: An Oral History


Bondi Boy (birth, Bondi, beginning of WW2)

Opinion on Citizenship crisis

Opportunity School

U.S. Air Force Property

Secondary School

The Greatest Rat in Tobruk

Bread & Dripping

Bondi Surf Life Saving Club

Black Sunday



Stepdad - Garnet Arthur Brickell

An Encounter with Roger Rogerson

Sydney's Underground Gambling Joints

1945 - War is Over

Tennis, anyone?

1956 - Jude and the Kids

A Job with Apeco

Pesky Prime Ministers... (meeting Bob Hawke)

Gough & Margaret

The Working Life



Work Imitates Life Imitates Art

What's it like to bear witness to the rise of technology?

Ben Chifley

How do you sell a computer to a society that doesn't want one... yet?

Treating People Well

Vera Fels / Germaine Rocher

Clark Rubber and Windsor Pubs

Labor Man



Hemsworth. Bit of a boofhead.

The Move to the Hawkesbury

Hot Dolly

The Commute

The shops at Riverstone, South Windsor

Windsor, and more about Windsor pubs

Hawkesbury local government

The Jolly Frog's Magical Floating Bottlo


The Reckless Family

Australian Politics

The Blake's Music link

Poor Cow

End Credits, featuring a Burns family performance of "Blue Moon".

Ken Burns: An Oral History (with subtitles)

Further Learning:

Click on the purple links below to learn more about the historical context of Ken's life!

Bondi Surf Life Saving Club - A History.

VIDEO (1min 20secs)

Bondi's Black Sunday

National Geographic

Black Sunday on Bondi Beach, 1938.

(Written Article.)


"He's Coming South: The Attack on Sydney Harbour"

(Animax Films, 2005).

N.B. This film was made before the remains of the M24 and its occupants were discovered.

Hasham, N. (2012, May 29). Divers struck gold when they found World War II Japanese Submarine. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from

The NSW Office of Environment & Heritage. (last updated September 2017).

Conflict on Sydney's Doorstep.

Retrieved from

Why haven't we recovered the M24's wreckage (and the Japanese submariner's remains)?

A detailed answer from the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage:

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