So often we pass the elders of our community on the street, stand behind them at the checkout, sit near them in a coffee shop. We may notice their frailty, clear a corridor on the footpath for electric scooters. But, do you ever wonder, asks writer Gay Liddington, who is that person, what is their story?
by Gay Liddington
Speaking with John and Veronica (Ronne) Wildman in their Maleny home left me feeling enriched as the two, steadfast in their individuality and their support for one another, shared their stories.
Eighty-eight-year old John is described by Ronne, one year his junior: “He’s a political animal. I try to see both sides but he’s one-eyed,” she said with attitude. John smiled knowingly.
John Wildman graduated from the Hawkesbury Agricultural College in 1949 and began his career with the Department of Agriculture as Advisor to Junior Farmers. He retired in Wagga Wagga in 1987.
“On retirement Ronne and I came caravanning to Queensland and discovered Maleny.”
Not being one to let the grass grow under his feet, John became involved in local affairs and remembers Jill Jordan, co-founder of Maleny Credit Union.
“Jill grabbed me by the ear and the next thing I knew, I was at a meeting putting pins in a wall doing planning business.”
John founded the Maleny Residents Association and also became ardently involved with Green Hills, an organisation with a vision to protect the character and rural integrity of the Maleny district.
It seems that retirement for John meant creating a new and varied career. Apart from local involvement which included volunteering for the Maleny Wood Expo and Maleny Bowls Club activities, he initiated a Queensland group for self-funded retirees. Eventually, this became a national endeavour with John at the helm as president.
John and Ronne first met in Grafton. She was just out of teacher’s college. It was 1951. He remembers that fateful evening: “My mother kicked me out one night to go to the church dance. It was there I met Ronne and she swept me off my feet.”
Ronne added: “It was the only church social we’d ever attended. He could dance and he owned a car. His fate was sealed and we married two years later,” she said with a pert look in John’s direction.
At that time, Ronne was teaching at Grafton Primary School. She later transferred to high school, teaching Home Economics.
“As far as I was concerned Home Economics wasn’t just about sewing and cooking. My specialist subjects were textiles and design. It was a great course and we were the only state that ran it. However, the teachers couldn’t teach it, so I educated myself. I loved it!”
Ronne retired as Mistress of Home Economics at Wagga Wagga High School. Like John, she was very involved with community and was next in line as District Governor of Quota.
“I came to Maleny with the motto: If it is to be, it is up to me.
“My mother, well in her eighties, came with us. When she was dying, I stayed beside her bed at Maleny hospital on two ordinary chairs for 30 days and 30 nights. I felt like my body was breaking in half.
“When mum passed away in 1997, I joined the hospital auxiliary. And, never being one to be quiet, went in as Publicity Officer. The first thing we did was buy two recliner chairs!”
The name Veronica Wildman has its place on the Maleny hospital’s honour board for her service of over 20 years to the auxiliary. She was also awarded life membership.
“I’ve had to take a back seat now that I’m an elder stateswoman. You’ve got to know when to step back. We’ve got a wonderful new lot of women who bring fresh ideas.”
At age 87, Ronne Wildman has clear viewpoints, is active in the community and has fought her battles along the way. Her next comment took me by surprise: “My bi-centenary project was giving them a breast.”
Ronne was diagnosed with breast cancer just after retirement. In her indomitable way, she met the crisis head on. “I told them to take it off. I didn’t have time to mess around as our daughter was due to have her first child. Breast gone, I just got on with things.”
Another of Ronne’s community interactions was with Friends of the Library. “I enjoyed that. A good group of women and books. But I had to give it up because I had a big spinal operation.”
Describing herself as ruggedly and rudely healthy in between a couple of wee strokes, Ronne shared more of her creative pursuits: “When I retired, I took up china painting competing in the local show and Brisbane Exhibition. I painted for about 26 years.
“And, I’ve always sewn but my fingers aren’t as nimble as they used to be so I had to teach myself to knit again. I’m happy to do that because I’m doing something for someone else.”
That morning Ronne had returned home from Busy Needles, a group that knits and donates to charity.
“I go to the carer’s group too because I’m a carer for John. I’m very happy to help them as they help me tremendously.”
A twirl around the dance floor and a spin in a flash car in 1951 marked the time when John and Ronne’s story began. In spite of a family forecast that the relationship wouldn’t last, they sat before me 67 years later having two children and two grandchildren.
On parting, Ronne said, “Whenever you’re in town remember, the doorbell is connected to the kettle.” John’s voice reached from the background, “…and don’t forget.” And, these are the inspiring characters that are John and Ronne Wildman.