14 August 2017, Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia
Most of what I will deliver today was prepared by Sue’s son Neville. Neville, her daughters in law Roslynne and Janine, her six grandchildren and her 13 great grandchildren have been the centre of Sue’s life. They have all done a wonderful job in looking after her in recent years. But Neville thought speaking today was one last job that would be a bit too hard for him. So sit back brother, I’m honoured to step in.
Cathleen Lesley Wilson was born in 1924 in the Melbourne suburb of Murrumbeena, the first of 10 children of Leslie Wilson. a returned serviceman from WW1, and Millie Morton. It is not known why she was always called Sue not Cathleen, but nicknames became a family habit. Next born child David was only ever called Mickey, and third child Les is known as Dolly.
Sue’s life was long, fruitful, and with periods of joy and happiness. But by any measure it contained more hardship and setbacks than was her fair share. That she never showed the scars of them to any of us, her family and friends, is in itself a remarkable tribute to her strength of character.
The first of these setbacks came when Les Wilson lost his job in the Great Depression and he and Millie lost the house they were buying. It started a series of forced house moves for the next 15 years. Sue started school at Port Melbourne Primary, shortly after moving to Kensington Primary. By then sister Rosie had arrived, with Leila, always called Bubby, to follow soon after.
Dolly, who I’m pleased is hale and hearty and here today, recalls their walk to school being considerably shorter if they cut through the Newmarket Cattle Saleyards, which were off limits for children. This fact was frequently explained to the trespassers and in the colourful language of the saleyards, but with no effect. The Wilson kids toughened up quickly, but always under the protective wing of big sister Sue.
Even paying the rent at Kensington was beyond the parents means, and the family moved next to Koo Wee Rup. It was then a small country hamlet, not as now on the fringe of the Melbourne metropolis. There child number six Robert was added. Les and Millie were clearly below par with his label, just settling on Bobby. However they returned to form with Vera, coming up with Tuppy as her moniker.
By now Sue was in full swing as the big sister. She safely ushered her brood to and from school, which when another move was made to nearby Monomeath, involved a three mile walk there and back along the railway line. Once again her vocabulary was improved by the railway workers they occasionally encountered who advised them to use the road. No chance of that, Sue with her mathematics knowledge knew the shortest way between two points is a straight line.
Maths wasn’t her only academic talent. She was smart enough to win a Commonwealth scholarship, and attended Dandenong High, taking Mickey every day by train. I’m told there is a plaque at the Koo Wee Rup school with her and Mickey’s names on it.
After three years at Dandenong High they were on the move again to Moonee Ponds, where Sue completed year 11, the old Leaving Certificate, at Essendon High School. In the 1930’s that was considered quite an achievement for a female.
Sue often joked about her inability at the creative arts. At Essendon she was hopeless at sewing, music and art, so was thrilled to be asked to be in the end of year performance, only to be told she was on the door selling tickets because “you are good with money and numbers”.
Take a moment to think about what opportunities her academic ability would have afforded her had she been born two generations later. Certainly good enough to get a university degree, she would have had a wide range of careers from which to choose. But the attitudes of the time and the tough family economic circumstances saw her commence work as a secretary and bookkeeper. She would have been a very, very good one.
The next move, and thankfully the last for Les and Millie, was to a Housing Commission house in Preston. They had run out of inspiration for Maxine and Noelle’s naming, they just were Maxine and Noelle. I brought up the rear, and I think with Bobby’s help I became Mort, named after Mortein, because I was considered to be a pest. So unfair, particularly as Dolly had been named after a brand of chocolates, Dolly Varden.
While the teenage Sue was still running the show, she added on a new focus of attention. She had met a young Koo Wee Rup native when living there, a fella named Allen Burgan, who only ever answered to Ginner (more bloody nicknames). Dolly says Ginner stayed a short while at Preston while looking for work in Melbourne, and his and Sue’s relationship blossomed into something stronger. It was unfortunately interrupted by Ginner serving in New Guinea in WW2. On his return they married in 1946 and their first child Alan was born in 1947, followed 18 months later by Neville. All four of them lived with the eleven Wilsons in the small three bedroomed house which also had an outdoor sleep-out until the army allocated them a place at Camp Pell. Camp Pell was a village of army huts at Parkville adjoining the zoo. Today it is parkland, with no sign of a makeshift village similar to the refugee camps we see on television today.
In September 1949 brother Mickey, who had joined the Air Force at 18, was lost at sea while in a training flight over Bass Straight. The front page of the Melbourne Herald recorded the family’s anguish, made worse as he had been to Melbourne two days before to see his young wife who was still in hospital with their first child. The following year Millie had a stroke which rendered her an invalid for the rest of her life. These two events probably catapulted Sue into being the official head of the Wilson family, while also managing her own family with Ginner.
It’s impossible to over-emphasise her devotion to looking after others. It was a lifelong calling, she was an Olympic medallist at it. She was the one who kept up the contact with telephone calls when her siblings moved all over Australia, she never forgot a birthday, she was always there to comfort and advise but rarely to burden others with any troubles she had.
In fairness though, she did find it hard to give the role up. Earlier this year, when ringing her baby sister Noelle and getting the message machine, Sue opened the conversation the next day with “where were you last night?”, and saying Noelle should not be out on her own. Another night she rang four times on the hour, the last saying she was sending out a search party to find her. Noelle is 76, a widow with four kids and several grandkids.
Back to the narrative. The Housing Commission was building rapidly to accommodate the returned soldiers, and the Burgans were allocated a two bedroom brick house in West Heidelberg. Life was sweet and Ginner set about making their house the best in the neighbourhood. He was a terrific worker.
Soon after, probably about 1952 or 1953, Sue gained employment with the Education Department. After completing “on the job” training she commenced at North Heidelberg Primary, always teaching infant grades. It became Olympic Village Primary in 1956 when the Games Village was built on the school boundary.
This was a tough area but Sue loved it and stayed more than 20 years. She continued studying for higher qualifications allowing her to gain senior positions at Banyule and later McLeod primary schools
In 1970 Sue’s life was again thrown into turmoil when Ginner died at the unthinkable early age of 47. As with other setbacks she collected herself and carried on. She continued teaching and finally retired at the age of 60.
She now had time to spare and so decided to work on her weaknesses. She had earlier completed a short dressmaking class and became interested in ballroom dancing. However the dressmaking class didn’t achieve its intended goal, as most alterations landed on the doorstep of daughter-in-law Roslynne.
It was a time for Sue to enjoy her growing number of grandkids, and she made several trips to Disneyland and Hong Kong with them. She loved having the kids stay over and the kids loved it even more. Grandma really knew how to spoil and entertain grandkids.
It was time to also put the dancing lessons to work, and Sue, often visiting Wangaratta where Alan and Neville and their wives had a growing business, started to attend the country dances. It was at the Wangaratta CWA that Sue met George Lawrance, a Public Works inspector, who was about to retire. Their friendship grew and they married in 1984, and settled in a house in Franklin St Wangaratta. They enjoyed outback touring and camping, although by age 70 Sue said roughing it was no longer her forte.
They were energetic members of Wangaratta Lions where George served as President and Sue was elected Lady President. She was still the leader, the organiser, the giver to others. George and Sue made lasting friends at Lions, some of whom are present today.
Sue also was a member of the Ex Teachers Club, staying involved until well into her eighties. She volunteered as a reader at “Chronicle for the Blind”, and both she and George spent years delivering Meals on Wheels.
Possibly Sue’s greatest disappointment in life occurred in 2001 when her older son Alan succumbed to cancer. They had been very close and his passing hit her hard. You wonder if a parent is ever the same after losing a child. She battled on, beat her own breast cancer and then had to cope when George was found to have throat cancer. He passed away in 2015.
Sue was that wonderful blend of kindness and softness, and we shouldn’t forget that she was genuinely funny. Not with well told long stories or remembered jokes, but with lightning fast quips and razor sharp put downs, which she was still delivering in her nineties. It’s annoying when a 92 year old is funnier than you?
But underneath was one tough cookie. She wanted to remain in her own house, and did for a while courtesy of loving visits multiple times in the day from her family here in Wang. On behalf of those of us in her family who live far away, who did so little, I want to publicly thank you all for looking after our big sister, as well as she had looked after us over so many years, and as she so deserved to be looked after.
In autumn last year, and in the autumn of her years, she performed perhaps her last great act of unselfishness. She had both a fall and a kidney infection and was in Wangaratta Hospital. Although she would have really wanted to return home she knew that she would be putting extra burden and unreasonable responsibility on her family, and so she readily agreed to go to St John’s Village. Class act at age 91
But happily, Sue found St John’s “not so bad after all” In no time she was presiding over the communal meals from the head of the largest table. She won the hearts of all the staff who attended to her. They have remarked on her humour and agree she will be sadly missed.
I will finish with these exact words of Neville, of Roslynne and Janine, of grandchildren Michelle, Jodie, Nicky, Justine, Brad and Sarah, and of her 13 great grandchildren.
We would like to tell you about our amazing Mum, Mother-in-law, Grandma, Great Grandma Sue, and big sister. She was generous with her time and money and always prepared to help others. She was proud of us, her offspring, and followed our scholastic and sporting endeavours enthusiastically.
She always said her two daughters-in-law were more like her daughters.
She was a mother who made us proud.
She was always well groomed, kept a very welcoming house and made our friends feel immediately welcome.
She was supportive and always there if we were in trouble
She was simply a special mum.
Sue lived a wonderful life and she died the way she had wished for.
A great innings from our most valuable player.
We will always love her.