Scott Saddler… "Wherever I’ve gone with work I’ve mentored Aboriginal staff.” Photo: Holly Treadaway

SCOTT Saddler was going down a “scary path”, he had friends in jail, others dead and if it wasn’t for the mentorship of one man, he doesn’t know where he would have ended up. 

The 57-year-old of Dickson, now has a dream job as the executive branch manager at the National Arboretum, part of a career that saw him honoured recently with his appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia for service to public administration and as a supporter and mentor of indigenous youth. 

“It was Athol who got me through,” says Scott, of the late Athol Boney, an Aboriginal man from Scott’s hometown, Wagga Wagga.

“Having Athol as a mentor meant everything. I could have been one of the ones in jail or god knows.

“Since then, wherever I’ve gone with work I’ve mentored Aboriginal staff.”

For Scott, a Wiradjuri man who has now been mentoring people for about 20 years, it’s about giving back. 

“I left home at about 15 and was a bit of a loose canon,” says Scott, who remembers when Athol would call him up on days he had skipped TAFE to hold him accountable. 

From a greenkeeper, he studied and eventually moved into a parks' management role in Townsville, which paid enough for him to stop playing. 

Since, he’s worked for local governments in Queensland, Victoria, NSW and the ACT in roles such as parks' manager, director of recreation and director of parks. 

He’s also worked at places such as Concord Oval in Sydney, zoos, botanic gardens and centenaries but he loves working at the National Arboretum the most, because it’s everything brought into one. 

“This job is why I studied for 15 years,” says Scott, who has done studies in greenkeeping, horticulture, landscape design and irrigation management. 

He started at the National Arboretum about six years ago and, outside of work, continues to mentor Aboriginal people in the region.  

“Currently, there’s 13 Aboriginal people [in the ACT] that I mentor,” he says.

“It’s about me giving back. I take them back to country a few times a year and we meet up with elders and we teach them how to carve shields out of trees and make clapsticks.”

Scott says when they all get on the bus to go, it’s always quiet, but when they get to country there’s laughter, jokes and friendship. 

“Then, rather than them speaking to me, they can talk to themselves. There’s a flow-on effect. They start helping as well,” he says. 

The first time Scott mentored someone was back in Wagga Wagga and, at the time, he says he didn’t even know he was mentoring. 

“I was in Wagga and this young Aboriginal fella had some problems with work and his family life,” he says.

“We started talking about it. I didn’t know I was mentoring, I just thought we were catching up. He improved in his work, moved up the ladder and his family life got better, too.” 

Since, no matter where in Australia, Scott’s been mentoring Aboriginal  people. 

“It’s just a matter of me giving back. I never did it for trophies, I just love doing it,” Scott says. 

“It’s been a wonderful journey working across Australia but also having that connection to country and different mobs.

“But the biggest buzz for me is when I see someone that I mentored 15 years ago, mentoring someone else.”

It changes people's lives, says Scott, who's passionate about making change, but isn’t a radical changemaker. 

“I can make changes where I work and culturally enhance the areas I work in. When I came here there was nothing Aboriginal here,” he says.

Now there is, and more recently, the arboretum’s been running tours where they show people a tucker garden and tell them about the medicinal and edible usage of more than 4000 plants in the garden. 

But not all of Scott’s changes have been in relation to the Aboriginal culture and he says when he first started at the arboretum there were only two staff looking after 40,000 trees. 

“I expanded this to 11,” he says. 

He also was part of a team behind the upgrades of the arboretum's water system, which saw the system computerised and fitted with drip tubes and soil moisture sensors. 

“Now I sleep at night because I know the trees are being well looked after,” says Scott who believes Canberra has the hardest climate for plants, pointing to the region's temperature differential of 55C, with a bottom of -10C and a top of 45C.

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Ian Meikle, editor