Deborah McKern has lived in Armidale since she was 2 years old. During that time she has had many roles and worn many hats, including nurse, teacher, Property Manager, mother, artist, Registrar of NEGS and, most recently, Development Manager for a nursing service. She reflects on her time in this wonderful city.
> Why did your family move to Armidale?
My family moved to Armidale in March 1957 from Brisbane and in 1959 opened a business selling agricultural products. E. J. Butler and Co. was initially located in Beardy Street but moved to a bigger site in Rusden Street after 3 years and remained there until it closed in 1976.
Although my parents said the winters took some getting used to after the Queensland heat, they loved Armidale from the very beginning. I have a younger brother, Geoff, who is now in Brisbane and sister, Lesley, who is in Toowoomba.
Growing up in Armidale was a carefree time. My parents purchased a small block of land off Cooks Road and we had sheep, horses, cattle, chooks and all the freedom a country environment brings. My father was very involved in the community – amongst other things he was an Alderman on Council, President of the Senior Citizens Association and hosted a program on the local radio, 2AD for many years. So we were always doing something or going somewhere. I would help in the business on Saturday mornings and sometimes accompany my father when he delivered to the local properties.
My childhood experiences taught me how to relate to people, how to deal honestly and fairly and to value the strength of family. Despite my parents’ many public roles, our family ties were very strong. It came out of adversity I think. When times are tough, as they could be in those times, who can you rely on but your family?
> What did you do after school?
When I was finishing school I couldn’t wait to leave Armidale. At that time it was a lot smaller and because it seemed like everyone knew me in Armidale I looked forward to being somewhere where I wasn’t known.
I always knew I wanted to be a nurse and I completed my general training at Lismore Base hospital. I returned to Armidale to visit my parents and met my future husband. Although he was from Sydney he had been at school in Armidale (TAS) and he had moved back for work. So I stayed in Armidale and 32 years later I’m still here. (More on that later.)
My first job following qualifying was right out of left field; teaching at Hobbit House Preschool, where I ran the section that looked after the 2 year olds. After 4 busy years I returned to nursing and completed a Certificate in Intensive Care in Sydney. I worked in the Intensive Care Unit for 5 years, until we started a family.
> Did you enjoy motherhood?
Four children in 5 years – all boys! James, Tim, Chris and David. They were the next stage of my life – one that would bring many challenges but also overwhelming satisfaction and love. I really had no idea what being a parent would mean. I remember thinking, “We have 4 beautiful, healthy boys. OK … now what do we do?” Twenty three years later and we have 4 fine, young men of whom we are enormously proud.
Of all my roles, being their mother is the one I will appreciate forever. I decided early on that I didn’t want to look back on parenting with regret for missed opportunities, and so I made it a rule that if possible, whenever the boys were doing something, I would be there. This meant that over the years I have carted canoes to Nymboida, listened to concerts, attended art shows, passing out parades, drama evenings, fetes, cross country events, parent-teacher evenings, baked cakes, helped with soup kitchens and much more. Interestingly, initially I thought I was doing it for the boys, but in the long run I realised I was the winner. Because I got to know the boys as people, to see them grow not just physically.And those of you who know us will realise that, in itself, was a huge feat but in character – what an absolute joy.
> How did your artistic side develop?
The artist period also occurred while I was at home with the children. I’d always had a strong artistic inclination. As a child I remember spending hours drawing, and so when I heard of a watercolour school being run by James White I jumped at the chance to learn from someone of his calibre.
James became a great mentor. He and Anne were always very encouraging when I turned up with a new work for them to critique. I had a painting framed, entered it into an exhibition and it sold. “That wasn’t so hard,” I thought. The start of a passion which continues to this day. I have since attended a summer school at the University College of London thanks to a very tolerant and supportive husband, completed many commissions and exhibited and sold at most of the regional exhibitions.
> You’ve also endured some challenges that in turn opened up new opportunities?
In the late 1990s we invested in a development in Moree that failed, and because we still had 4 children at TAS, it was all hands to the wheel to survive. Looking back, although it was hard, Stuart and I are really proud of the way we responded to the situation. Adversity does force you to examine your priorities, and we found we were determined not to let it break us. We all pulled together to get through. In that time TAS was a fantastic support to the whole family and later offered me a small role in their marketing team. From there I was offered the position of Registrar at NEGS, and that began another stage. It was an enormous privilege to work at NEGS and meet and work closely with the parent body and old girl community. The commitment demonstrated by those families was inspirational and it was such a delight to see the students develop into such fine, young women, with visions and dreams and the will to make them a reality.
> You gained greater insight and an appreciation for life here as a result?
Yes, definitely. I travelled a lot across the country and attended many events in Sydney and Brisbane during that time. I really began to appreciate the unique attractions Armidale had to offer. It was easy to sell – scenic countryside, a cultural life to equal any major city, a community composed of many interesting factions including academics, business people, rural producers, professionals, retirees.
I realised that it was possible to explore any interest in Armidale and you were bound to find someone else with the same interest, whether it was a speaking Latin club or square dancing. The added bonus was that it was all very accessible and the people welcoming. I remember meeting a family in Sydney and after speaking to them for an hour, receiving an email two weeks later saying, “After speaking to you we were so attracted we’ve put the house on the market, resigned our jobs, and we’re coming!”
Because I co-ordinated the enrolment process I saw families arriving in Armidale – stressed, burnt out and almost traumatised by the restrictions life in the “big city” imposed. Fast forward 12 months and everyone had relaxed. The children were happier, life was easier and safer and, importantly, no- one felt they were missing out on anything.
The big change in my thinking about living in the community where I had grown up came very gradually. I realised I appreciated seeing people who had known me since way back when, but also I loved the fact that I could meet people who had lived here just as long and we had never met.
I came to value the contributions and the energy of individuals in the fields of music, drama, art etc. that meant we did have a local product, not only to enjoy but to allow a voice – a sense of belonging. People like our GP, Bruce Menzies, who, after a long day will turn up to conduct the Armidale Symphony Orchestra – priceless. I guess the most ironic thing for me is the security growing up in this community has given our children. It’s hard to disappear when you’re six foot five.
> You have since returned to nursing?
It was wonderful to return to nursing and especially community nursing. I had over the years worked with family members and friends, supporting them as they were dying, and I retained a strong belief in the value of familiar surroundings and faces. There is no greater honour than to be allowed to work closely with someone on their journey to death. SOS Nursing & Home Care Service gave me an opportunity to expand my commitment to the community. I love having time to talk to clients, to advise on concerns and work holistically to achieve positive outcomes. Because my role is a senior position I have been able to implement strategies that ensure we continue to have highly skilled staff through professional development programs, that we embrace changes in treatment for conditions like dementia and that we are proactive in sourcing funding for the region.
> Plans for the future?
The next stage is a long awaited return to painting. I have scaled back my role in SOS Nursing a little, the boys are off on their own journey and my long suffering husband and I have time now to do a few things before we are caught up in weddings, grandchildren or find we are simply too old. The beauty of living in Armidale is that I have so many choices; UNE to study fine art? The Musical Society’s latest production? Bushwalking? Local government? Who knows? The only thing I do know is that it will be interesting!
> Thank you Deb.