Thank you all for being here today, it really means so much to Alison and me, and our families to have you all here. This service was originally organised as a memorial for my mum, Betty, however, Dad’s passing on Christmas day means that I will also be talking about him. Talking about them together was inevitable anyway, as they were married for 65 years and their stories, like them, are inseparable. I should also say how difficult it has been to distill into 20 minutes or so these two remarkable lives.
Five years ago, mum’s memoir ‘November Papa Mike, Nurse Pilot Missionary’ was published by the University of Western Australia. In the copy given to my sons Hugo and Clem, mum and dad wrote:
‘We found trying to help people was a worthwhile job to do. It was exciting.’
These two sentences sum up their lives perfectly. They helped people and they were adventurous. The fact is they enjoyed helping people – it was fun for them. In return, people helped and loved them. I will be talking today about the things they did to help others, and some of the adventures and excitement they had along the way.
Some other words that also meant a lot to mum were pinned up in her art room. She called these words her ‘magic recipe’ for the way she approached art. The recipe was:
‘Be bold, adventurous and assertive. Practice and stubbornness the magic recipe’
Although these words were about her art, and certainly she was a successful artist and sculptor, they also summarise beautifully her approach to life. As you will hear, Mum was adventurous and assertive – she was stubborn – it was hard to shift her views on anything. She also had a good sense of humour and sense of fun and this shines through in her book.
Mum was the most adventurous of the pair. When she was 3 years old a doctor, who was treating her mother, told her that she would be a very good nurse. These words stayed with her for life. At the age of 9 she spent six weeks in bed with rheumatic fever – the fever damaged her heart valve which caused her problems for life. She put the time in bed to good use reading the 10-volume set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. She said that the books changed her thinking about the world and what she wanted to do in life. She learned about problems faced by many people throughout the world and this strengthened her desire to be a nurse. Her love of books resulted in the nickname ‘Betty Book’.
Mum’s early years were in Perth. She had a tough upbringing and left school at 14 with a fierce determination to become a nurse. Her mother was against the idea, thinking that she would be better suited to factory work because of her damaged heart. Despite this opposition, mum qualified as a nurse in 1950 and went on to post graduate studies in children’s nursing in Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney. It was during the time in Adelaide that she felt called to become a missionary. Despite her parents having no interest in religion, mum had been reading the bible since she was a teenager. The calling to become a missionary set the course for the rest of mum’s life.
Always practical, mum planned a course of study to help her prepare for missionary life. As she said in her book, ‘I need to be prepared because I might not have doctors around me.’ She pursued further studies in midwifery, child welfare, emergency medicine, dentistry, tropical diseases and basic surgery. When she moved to Hobart to do obstetrics, she also learnt to fly because she felt that would be a good asset for a missionary.
Mum first saw dad at St David’s Cathedral in Hobart, where he was a server and bellringer. They first met when he offered her a lift on his motorcycle to the Cambridge Aerodrome where he was a flying instructor and Mum was learning to fly with the Aero Club of Southern Tasmania.
Dad was born in Hobart. His family were part of the Hobart establishment. His grandfather had been Bishop of Tasmania for more than 20 years. He had been Dux of his school and was a university qualified civil engineer designing roads and bridges. Despite his establishment background, dad was no conformist. His family had not approved of him learning to fly while he was at University and cut his allowance to show their disapproval. They were not happy when they found out from a newspaper article that dad had not only learned to fly, but what’s more had become a flying instructor!
Dad was also a keen yachtsman and sailed many classes of yachts on the Derwent River in Hobart. He was also skilled with his hands and built at least 6 yachts during his teenage years and early 20s – all of which he sold.
In 1951 Mum qualified as a pilot on the Tiger Moth, which is a single engine bi-plane with an open cockpit. She obtained endorsements on many single and twin-engine aircraft and . formed the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Women’s Pilots Association and later also formed the WA branch.
Flying was not heavily regulated in those days, so mum and dad could fly their Tiger Moths to Lake Pedder and land on the beach. They also had flying races, including treetop height races to the top of Mount Wellington and flour bombing competitions. During the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race, they would fly out to sea, plot the position of the leading yachts and pass the information on the radio stations and newspapers.
While mum was in Melbourne studying infectious diseases, she was invited to compete in an air race organised by the Australian Women’s Pilots Association, called the AV Reliability trial. The challenge was to fly to Adelaide from an airfield nominated by the pilot. The flight plan had to also nominate how long it would take to get there. The winner was the pilot who was judged to have kept the closest to their flight plan. There were no radio communications with the ground or other pilots. Mum flew from Moorabbin in a Tiger Moth – which is a bi-plane with an open cockpit – with a passenger who had never flown before. The passenger’s job was to hand pump fuel from the aircraft’s secondary tank when mum signalled that the main tank was low. They overnighted at Nhill in Victoria. Because they landed in the dark the airstrip had been illuminated by flares. In the morning, because of the passenger’s inexperience a third person had to swing the propeller to start the engine. The next day they flew to Adelaide. When they landed, the aircraft had to be turned onto a ramp and stopped before it crashed into other competitors. The plane had no brakes, so mum had to judge precisely when to turn the engine off. As they landed, other competitors grabbed the wings to help slow and turn the plane. The next day, they turned around and flew back to Moorabbin. On the way home there were winds so strong that the plane was making no headway – so they had to land in a ploughed field and tie the aircraft to logs to stop it from flipping over. They made it back to Moorabbin.
If mum and dad were going to stay together, dad was going to have to follow mum’s career, which is what happened. The fact that dad gave up his comfortable life as an engineer for the uncertainty of mission life illustrates how besotted dad was with mum.
In 1954, they were married at St David’s Cathedral in Hobart. Mum continued with her preparations for missionary life by moving to Sydney to study anthropology, linguistics and religion at The House of Epiphany (which, by the way, dad used to call the House of Purgatory). During this time, dad worked as a senior instructor at the NSW Aero Club. while in Sydney that they learned that they were being sent to Papua New Guinea – mum as a nurse and dad as a pilot and engineer. Mum was also to assist in flying and aircraft maintenance.
While in Sydney Dad delivered aircraft to the Aero Club of Southern Tasmania. The aircraft were assembled in Sydney and flown to Hobart. On the front page of the Order of Service is a picture of mum and dad standing beside an Auster aircraft which they delivered from Sydney to the Aeroclub of Southern Tasmania.
In 1955 they arrived in PNG with 2 suitcases, dental equipment and mum’s set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Mum later gave the encyclopedia to a school. They were based at a place called Erora Mission Station Hospital in a remote location in Northern Papua.
With the exception of parts of the hospital, the buildings were built from native materials. The walls in the hospital began a foot of the ground and were built to half wall height. There were 5 wards and later a tuberculosis ward. There was no electricity. After about a year, an X-ray ward was opened and they either found or acquired a generator from a benefactor. It was not hard to find useful things in the bush because the Americans had left a vast array of materials behind after World War II. Mum’s vehicle was a WWII vintage Willy’s Jeep and Dad used ungalvanized corrugated iron left behind by the Americans in the construction of buildings. There was plenty of fuel available in abandoned 44 gallon drums.
The hospital had no sheets or pillow cases – patients slept on wooden beds made of bush material and their friends and families slept on mats on the floor.
Mum and Dad did not have their own house. Later on, Dad built a house for them. He also designed and constructed a phone system for the hospital and the doctor’s house.
Much of Mums work would normally be performed by doctors. One thing she did was inject penicillin into the spines of locals during an epidemic of meningitis. On one occasion 8-9 Papuans came in carrying the young son of a tribal chief – he was having convulsions and they were screaming. Mum was certain that she would by lynched if the young man died. Mum thought that the patient had meningococcal meningitis which meant that she would have to remove fluid from the patient’s spine and replace that fluid with penicillin. She only had one tube of penicillin flakes and a small amount of sterilised water to reconstitute the flakes. Mum and the local priest prayed together for God’s help. The priest held the child while Mum performed the lumbar puncture. Fortunately the treatment worked.
While on patrol – by that I mean trecking to remote villages- Mum came across a woman who had a dreadful crocodile bite on her thigh. She and her helper built a fire and heated up water in a Sunshine powdered milk container to sterilize instruments. With no local anaesthetic Mum removed the damaged flesh because otherwise gangrene would set in, she then inserted more than 60 sutures. She packed the wound with cotton wool. Mum told the brave woman that she had asked God for help. Later, she did a skin graft on the woman by taking healthy flesh from her thigh using a man’s razor to replace the damaged flesh. The patient healed up well and was able to walk with a limp. Mum had great respect for the Papuans – particularly their resilience.
Limbs were also removed – often as the consequence of gangrene infection following a crocodile bite. Mum tells one story of a woman’s arm being removed at night – Dad was supposed to be holding the lamp while mum removed the limb– unfortunately he was overcome by the appalling smell caused by gangrene infection and fainted. Mum had to call for someone else to hold the lamp.
She introduced immunisation clinics to combat measles and other childhood diseases. To enable things to run smoothly she used to involve the local puripuri – or witch doctor – in the clinics. She also started clinics in the local villages for Mothers and Babies – apart from treating patients she also taught hygiene and food preparation. Mum would visit once a month. The local policemen and teachers would be involved in arranging for the Mums to attend the clinic. To get people to the clinic the names of the Mums and babies were written on a piece of paper which was wrapped in bandages and dropped from the air by mum or dad at the local school. The children would take the paper to the teacher who would inform the village policeman who was supposed to attend. Mum had this to say about her “mother’s school” where hygiene and food preparation was taught:
“When I gave these talks I drew on St Mary as an example of a perfect mother and would use a flannel board as an educational aid with cut out pictures and drawings of food, hands and washing etc. I’m sure Mary always washed her hands before feeding baby Jesus and she would have given him nourishing food; we were told he grew up to be a strong boy.”
Mum developed an ingenious record keeping system – she encouraged Australian friends and family to send her used Christmas cards. She would give the Mum the picture part of the card with the Mum’s name and baby’s name on the card and write up another card for her own records. The locals loved the cards and treasured them. The fact that baby Jesus and Mary were on the cards was also a way of introducing the locals to Christianity. In her book she says:
“I used to tell them that mother Mary was a very good mother who looked after her baby very well keeping him clean and well fed and that baby Jesus never got ill because of this. (I felt justified in saying this because we never read in the Bible that Jesus was ill).”
Many babies starved. Part of the problem was that pigs – which were a form of currency – were more valuable than babies. On many occasions Mum would come across a mother feeding a child from one breast and a piglet from the other. In her book Mum refers to baby Hishaba who at 8 months was only 4 pounds – her mum had lost her milk supply because in addition to Hisbaba she was breast feeding several piglets. The locals did not have any way of feeding youngsters other than by breast milk – this meant that if their mum was not producing milk they starved. Peanuts were widely grown and Mum developed a peanut gruel to feed youngsters – the use of the peanut gruel led to a major reduction in infant mortality. With the help of the peanut gruel and some breast milk from lactating relatives baby Hishaba survived.
Some clinics were conducted in villages so remote that they could only be accessed by days of trecking or by long trips up the coast in outrigger canoes. On occasions the outrigger would part from the canoe and Mum and her medical gear would end up in the ocean.
Teeth extractions sounded like a horrible experience for patients. Papuans had lots of problems with teeth partly because they used them as tools. Mum describes using a “screwing motion” to remove kids’ teeth – kids did not get the benefit of anaesthetic. Adults were given anaesthetic, when it was available.
An American church donated a single engine Cessna 170 B single seat four-person plane to the mission. Dad flew the plane. The engine failed on an early flight – fortunately Dad got the plane back to the airstrip in one piece. Dad pulled the plane apart and rebuilt it – he was qualified to work on airframes and engines. The plane had a major impact on mission life – a three and half day trek to get a patient to hospital was reduced to a 12 minute trip. The aircraft also enabled them to visit a remote area where a tribe of pygmies lived – none of them were higher than 4’ 11”.
In 1958 the AWPA awarded Mum the Evelyn Follett Trophy for her flying work in PNG and for building a new airstrip at a place called Sila in the Managalas area – Mum was able to persuade the locals to help cut the grass for the strip and fill in the bandicoot holes. Dad did the survey for the airstrip which was approved by the Dept of Civil Aviation. Evelyn Follett was the third Australian women to earn a pilot’s licence and she donated a trophy to the AWPA to recognise a noteworthy feat by a female pilot each year. Mum was the only private pilot ever to be awarded the Trophy. In 2017 the AWPA did a feature article about Mum’s award in its magazine.
In 1959 Mum was told that her health was too poor for her to continue as a missionary. Missionary life was too hard for a person with an irregular heartbeat. She was devastated that after only four years she had to give up her life’s mission but proud of the pioneering work that she had done with mothers and babies.
Dad took up a position as first officer flying DC3s which were really the world’s first mass passenger aircraft. After 14 months he was promoted to Captain (now flying for Ansett) and in 1961 he became the airline’s only pilot based in Rabaul which is located on the island of New Britain. They remained in Rabaul for 10 wonderful years.
I have very fond memories of Rabaul. My sister, Alison, and I were born while we lived in Rabaul – it was a wonderful place for us to grow up.
Mum thrived in Rabaul – she became very passionate about art and also did wonderful work for the Nonga Base Hospital which serviced New Britain and the outlying islands. The hospital had no facilities for patients to buy soap, magazines or writing material or fruit. Patients of often stayed there for months with few visitors and no schooling was provided for children.
Mum’s church’s ladies guild organised members of the Catholic, Methodist and Seventh Day Adventists churches to care for long term patients. They provided “mouli” juice (limes, sugar and ice blocks), magazines, writing material and toiletries. Mum notes in her book that the “Seventh Day Adventist ladies always checked the magazines and removed any offending pages”. Catholic school teachers agreed to teach kids on the teachers’ day off.
Mum rekindled her love of art and began painting in oils before changing to pastels and water colour. She would often go out into the villages and paint. Mum was asked to and did do a huge painting of the Last Supper for the Catholic Teacher’s Training College. Later on, she learnt and painted in a Japanese form of painting called Sumi-E and did sculptures.
Apart from his flying, Dad was responsible for emptying and filling Rabaul’s public swimming pool using seawater.
As a youngster I would occasionally miss school to fly with Dad in the DC3 – there was a small seat behind the captain called the “jump seat” – I would stay there for the 3 day trip. Dad would open the pilots’ windows when they started the two huge Pratt & Witney engines. I recall that when it rained water would leak through the windscreen – because the DC3 were designed as troop carriers this fault had not been corrected even after the aircraft were returned to civilian use.
Rabaul was a wonderful place to grow up. The harbour – which was one of the great natural harbours of the world – was the crater of a volcano and surrounded by more volcanoes. On one occasion we went by canoe to visit one of the volcanoes and climbed down into the crater. Rabaul was destroyed by volcanic eruption in the early 1990s. I sailed with Dad on the harbour in our 12 foot cherub dinghy and we often won races. Rabaul was a great place to explore – it was riddled with tunnels built by the Japanese during the War – they also left behind lots of war flotsam such as aircraft and tanks
In 1972 Ansett moved all its aircrew to PNG’s capital – Port Moresby. Mum became heavily involved with the St Francis Church at Koki where she conducted a medical clinic for children and teachers. Many of the children lived on houseboats in Koki harbour and had chronic ear infections caused by moisture in their ears. After church on Sundays Mum would give the mothers small bags of sterile cotton wool buds and instruct them how to use them after their children had a swim. Mum also arranged for kids with poor hearing to be moved to the front of their classes. She also treated kids with tuberculosis.
Mum was a very determined women and she was very good at getting her way when dealing with authorities. Despite many requests by Mum the Government Dental Clinic had not visited Koki – she was always told that they were fully booked. Mum solved this problem by transporting the children to the main dental clinic in Port Moresby which was so overwhelmed by the number of children that they agreed to send the Mobile Clinic to the Koki school. Mum asked a rhetorical question in her book about this episode:
“Would St Francis have approved of my gentle persuasive ways? I wonder.”
In 1973 PNG decided it should have its own airline. Dad trained the new pilots for a year before Ansett transferred him to Australia. In 1974 Mum and Dad moved to Mt Macedon in Victoria.
Mum was initially devastated by the move but gradually came to love the place. There was an abundance of wildlife – particularly birds and koalas. Dad developed a particularly close friendship with a kookaburra (named “Stumpy”) which lasted more than 10 years. Each year Stumpy would introduce his babies to us – we have a wonderful photograph of 14 of Stump’s relatives waiting to greet Dad.
Mum became the District Nurse attached to the Gisborne Bush Nursing Hospital. Predictably she clashed with some local doctors – in PNG Mum had effectively acted as a doctor and was used to making decisions about patient treatment. There is one lovely story I should tell you: Mum visited an elderly man with a leg ulcer who didn’t like the treatment suggested by his doctor – of his own volition he applied maggots to the ulcer. Mum told him that the maggots were ok because they would clean the wound but had to be removed when the wound was clean to prevent them eating good flesh. Mum removed the maggots at the appropriate time and suggested he get sunshine onto the ulcer which would dry the wound and help healing. The man’s doctor was horrified when he found out what had happened.
Mum was then appointed Gisborne’s infant welfare sister – the job also covered the townships of Romsey and Lancefield. Mum developed a huge following of mums. She allowed mothers to ring her at home and I can recall many occasions when Mum was speaking on the phone to patients. She turned the kitchen of welfare centre into an education room and hosted morning and afternoon teas for mums. She also started a lending library and turned the back yard of the centre into a playground – Dad made a dolls house and rocking chair for the kids. The centre became a very happy meeting place as well as a welfare centre.
While in this job Mum managed to thwart her employer’s plans. Mum was told that the council was proposing to move the welfare centre. Mum’s band of mothers were horrified because the centre’s location was ideal. The mothers decided to attend the next council meeting in protest and asked Mum for her views. Despite being a council employee she urged them to go ahead with the protest and joined them at the next council meeting. Mum addressed the council meeting while babies crawled everywhere including between the feet of councillors. For a final act the mothers breast fed their babies while Mum was giving her annual report. Mum says in her book that when she looked up from her notes:
“I noticed that all the men had lowered their heads and were staring at the table in front of them. It was hilarious. The location of the Centre wasn’t changed until after I left the job”.
Mum’s health again failed her and she retired. The Council replaced her with two nurses.
In 1983 our home at Mt Macedon was destroyed in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. That experienced scarred both of them – particularly Mum. They found summers very stressful and refused to take holidays during the fire season.
In 1986 Dad was forced to retire as an Ansett captain at the compulsory retiring age of 60. He resented having to retire regarding himself at his peak as a pilot. He took up model trains with a passion including building a house sized shed to accommodate his trains.
They both embraced the role of grandparenting – they were particularly involved with Eliza in her early years and later with Iris, Tyler and Matilda – Hugo and Clem did not see them regularly but Dad kept in touch by writing lengthy adventure stories for them in which they were the lead characters.
In 2008 they moved to Denmark. Dad was the driver for the move – he said he “wanted to live near the beach”. They quickly became a very loved part of the Denmark community and were very happy here. They particularly loved their friends here at St Leonards. They built a house on property owned by Alison and her husband, Michael, outside Denmark.
In the past few years Mum developed dementia. It was sad to see someone so capable cut down by such a horrible disease. Throughout that period Dad – despite being older than Mum – was Mum’s carer – 24 hours a day 7 days a week. It was only in the past year that Mum went into a home – the Blue Wren – in Denmark. Dad visited Mum every day without fail – often for 4 or 5 hours. The staff at Blue Wren were wonderful – Mum got first class care there. They were also very kind to Dad.
Despite all her health problems Mum lived to 90 years of age. Mum was tough, had a fierce commitment to her God and enjoyed every moment of her life. In difficult times she got great strength from her religious convictions and until recently read the Bible and religious texts every day. Since 1959 Mum has been involved with the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. The cover of her book bears the postnominals “TSSF” beside her name – TSSF stands for Tertiary of the Society of St Francis. The Society’s rules have particular focus on poverty and identifying with the poor and destitute as well as a respect for the environment and all creation.
Dad lived to 93. While I think of Mum as the leader of their team he was the member who had the technical skills to get things done. While he had a strong faith Dad’s faith was less overt than Mum’s. Mum would not have done half the things she did without Dad’s expertise.
Because of their strong faith neither Mum nor Dad had any fear of death.
Neither of my parents would want you to leave today feeling sad – they would want you to embrace their sense of adventure and joy in helping others.