For Yvonne Harrison, life hasn’t always been a smooth path, in fact you could say there’ve been times when it was an uphill battle, but there’ve been very few times when her brilliant smile has not managed to shine through. Last month, with neither fuss nor fanfare, she quietly slipped into retirement. She shares her story with Spirit Magazine.    

words: Judy McAuliffe image: Emmily Harmer Photography

At 75 years old Yvonne still has an energy that would put many 30-year-olds to shame, her smile is irresistible and her genuine warmth and love for others is evident in every word, every action. 

She’s also incredibly humble. Why would I want to write about her? she asks, then hoots with laughter as I suggest that her face is probably as recognized around Ashburton as any celebrity.

For the last 42 years, the diminutive mother of three and grandmother of six has been employed taking care of “the olds” at both Ashburton Hospital and Rosebank. “If you love what you do, you never work a day – that’s my philosophy. I have absolutely loved my 42 years working night shift. It allowed me to always be at school sports days and activities and gave me the extra money to enjoy life and make sure my kids didn’t miss out. It’s been incredible.”

Leaving school at the end of 1959, Yvonne began Nurse-Aiding for Ashburton Hospital, sharing a house with six girls on the corner of Cox and Williams Streets, next to what is now the Savage Club. “That was a fantastic time. Our duties included toileting, washing, changing beds, feeding the patients and a lot of cleaning. We did it all. We worked hard but we had a real sense of doing something worthwhile, and great camaraderie between us all.”

Life moved on, she married Joe, and they had a family, Greg, Jo and Bridget. On one occasion when the children were small, she went to a kindergarten evening to learn how to ice a cake. “I joined Kindergarten and stayed for 17 years,” she laughs. “I forgot to leave when the kids moved on to school. I still can’t ice a cake to save myself!”

In 1977 she returned to nursing, writing a letter to Matron Muriel Phelps at Ashburton Hospital asking for nightshift work. Matron promptly replied that there were no positions currently available, but 15 days later on February 18, 1977, Yvonne began working one night a week on Chalmers Ward, providing geriatric care. A careful keeper of family records and history, Yvonne still has a copy of both letters in her family album.

In 1982 she and Joe attended the Ashburton Operatic performance of My Fair Lady in 1982. “I just loved the costumes. I wanted to sew them,” she says. So, what did she do?  She joined Operatics of course, and is still there, 37 years later, doing anything and everything, including sewing. “I’m very critical at shows I go to. I look at the costumes and think, ‘Oh, that’s not very well made’ or ‘that hem could be done better.’ 

“I’ve been so lucky,” she says. “I’ve been to Europe twice. The first time we joined a Maori All Black Tour of Wales, which was an amazing time.” They also visited Cornwall, where her father’s parents came from. The second time, in 2011, Yvonne went to Buckingham Palace and was thrilled to see Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. She was amazed at the crochet work involved, and to learn that a needle only lasted 3 hours!  

“Funny story,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that the drapes in Buckingham Palace didn’t reach the floor. It didn’t look good, so I asked one of the guards (they were everywhere). The answer amazed me. He told me that if a bomb came through the window, there’s something in the drapes to stop it getting through. I don’t know how that works, but it was a fascinating piece of information. Such a shock! Anything breaking through the glass would hit this and be stopped! You learn something every day!”  She pauses, and adds, “I see there’s a big refurbishment planned at Buckingham Palace. I might head away and sew for them!”  

When Joe passed away unexpectedly in 1989, Yvonne was devastated. Daughter Bridget was still at school, and she knew she had to pull through and keep her family together. Needing something to fill her evenings, she applied for nursing work at Rosebank and was promptly hired. “Over the years I’ve always worked at either Ashburton Hospital or Rosebank, always taking care of the oldies. It’s such a rewarding thing to do.”  

She also cleaned houses for many years, and fondly recalls cleaning for well-known local identity, Kip Sparrow. “I cleaned his house for 19 years. He was always such a lovely man. He played the piano while I cleaned. I must be the only house cleaner on the planet to be accompanied by live music!”

Theatre has also been a lasting love. Yvonne is the face of Ashburton Trust Event Centre for many theatre-goers as she ushers them to their seats. What you don’t see is the enormous amount of work she puts in behind the scenes.  She is a long-serving member of the Ashburton Performing Arts Theatre Trust. “I’ve been involved since before the first brick was laid. Boy, that took a lot of fundraising. We held garden parties, lamington drives, people would pay $2 to come and look at the theatre being built. I even rode a bike for that theatre, fully sponsored, in the gym. It was great fun!”

She’s also a staunch supporter of the next generation of family and friends involved in the theatre. “Everyone calls me ‘Gran’. I’m another pair of eyes, and another set of hands whenever I’m needed.” She’s always there for ‘pack-in.’  “When all the sets and props are being brought in there can be as many as 15 people involved and they need to be fed. I cook up a storm the night before, and then feed the crew the following day.”   

On a Sunday morning after the last show, Yvonne says she has a VERY interesting clothesline. Yes, also does the laundry!. She was in charge of catering for a long time too, making 12,000 sandwiches one year! In recent weeks she has been making eight-metre drop, satin curtains to hang on the stage at the Event Centre, each drop taking 30 minutes to sew down one side. Her collection of “Thank-you” cards and letters gathered over the years, is mountainous. “Such lovely memories,” she smiles.

In 1998 Yvonne received the Ashburton Operatic Society’s own Merit Award for volunteer services; she became a Life Member of Ashburton Operatic Society in 2005, and in 2015 she was awarded a Musical Theatre NZ Award for services to theatre.

Another ‘spare time’ activity is knitting hats for schoolkids around the district while she watches TV in the evenings. When she has a box full of hats, she simply chooses a school and gives them the hats!  She is also very involved with her church, helping out whenever she can.

In April, Yvonne celebrated her 75th birthday with good friends, in Fiji. “They told me they were off on a cruise and asked would I come. I don’t know who got the biggest fright when I said YES!”  

So, as this page is printing, after 42 years of night-shift employment Yvonne has now retired. “Not from everything,” she hastily points out.  If this was a stage performance, a standing ovation would be in order.

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.