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Celebrating Paddy

Extract from eulogy by daughter, Frances.

Mum was born 11 January 1942 in Wanganui, a large town on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. She was the oldest living child of Harry and Kathleen McKee, who were dairy farmers.  

Harry McKee was born in Northern Ireland. He showed tremendous fortitude establishing himself after the tragic death of his own father when he was 12, which plunged the family into poverty. Harry left school to labour on his father’s foreclosed farm, the youngest children went to orphanages and old Nan went into service. Harry took on a mortgage while still a teenager to rebuy the farm and reunite the family. He lived and died on that small farm in Castlecliff.  

The excellence of the Catholic Education system in New Zealand afforded my parents tremendous opportunity. 

For her senior education, my mother boarded at the Sacred Heart Convent in Wanganui, ultimately becoming head prefect.  

When she was 17 she applied for a Field Scholarship to the United States.  

Mum explained another girl at school had applied, and she and her friends slung in applications because they thought the other girl was up herself.  

To her surprise Mum won a travelling scholarship to complete a year’s study in the United States.  

She travelled by ship via Tahiti and Panama landing in New York. She lived with an upper middle class Jewish family on Long Island where she attended High School.  

Her letters home in 1960 are a joyous romp. The family was cosmopolitan and sociable. She drove the family convertible around Long Island. She hurtled in taxis across New York riding behind drivers swearing at the traffic. She went to Broadway shows. She travelled with the other Field Scholars across the United States.  

Mum was constantly required to give talks to luncheon meetings to promote the Scholarship. There are letters of thanks commenting what a wonderful representative she was of New Zealand. 

She was there the year that Kennedy won the Presidency and the African-American Civil Rights movement continued their non-violent protests. 

The Field Scholarship transformed her sense of herself and her place in the world. 

She returned to New Zealand to attend Victoria University at Wellington, where my father Peter Byers was also studying.  

She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1963 and her teacher’s certificate in 1964, but disliked teaching so much she left to work in a biscuit factory. 

My parents had known each other since teenagers. They married at the age of 23. The newspaper article announcing their marriage photographed them in cap and gowns, noting they had four degrees between the two of them.   

Both were eldest children. Both came from Catholic families in Wanganui who overcame poverty and hardship through resolve and solidarity. They were the first in their families to have university educations. 

Beneath her warmth and sociability, Mum was self-reliant and independent. She was confident in her own course of action and thought as can be seen in the rest of her life. 

After Michael, Claire and I all started primary school, my mother studied the new Bachelor of Social Work. She studied fulltime and sometimes stayed awake all night writing essays. 

As the two oldest students in the class, she and Jim Colville sat next to each other for support.  

As a trained social worker, Mum’s contribution was remarkable in its depth and breadth.  

Her friendship with Jim Colville led her to become involved in Colony 47.  

The core business of Colony was working with people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, or who faced barriers to participation in society. 

From 1978 Mum occupied numerous voluntary board roles with Colony, including as President. 

Then for the decade from 1986, Mum was Colony’s Director. 

Mum said Jim Colville looked after Colony when it was a child.  And she looked after it when it was teenager.  

After 22 years, Colony was definitely a member of our family.  

Christmas is a very important celebration for our family. And for two decades Mum always spent the first half of Christmas day with people who attended the Colony Christmas day party for those who lived alone. 

Under her leadership Colony’s governance allowed it to adapt rapidly to need and opportunity.  

She recruited on three principles – head, hand and heart. Of these heart, was the decider.  

By 2000 Colony employed over than 90 people and delivered 19 distinct programs in seven locations. 

My recollection is that three staff were needed to take on her workload when she stepped down as Director of Colony 47. 

When my father became a Member of the Order of Australia (recognising his public service to Australian universities, superannuation, infrastructure and the arts) he told me he thought her contribution to public life was far more significant than his.  

My mother’s genius was repairing, renovating and creating institutions. She was practical, curious and tenacious, as she spanned the local to the national knitting together solutions to build a more compassionate Australia.  

When I went through her papers to prepare her eulogy, I was able to identify over 30 major voluntary board roles, many as office holder – Chair, Deputy Chair, Secretary.  

And there’s just too many sub-committees to count.  

In addition to her leadership position at Colony 47, she also held positions on inquiries and was appointed by State and Federal Ministers to be the Tasmanian representative on several national committees. 

Her endeavours include community development, palliative care, literacy and numeracy, museums funding, university governance, the needs of children and families with disability, respite, homelessness, housing, supporting the Richmond Fellowship in Tasmania from its very earliest days as a therapeutic community, employment and training, the National Council of Women, the holistic needs of young people, mental health, drug and alcohol services, needle exchange (her grandkids always gave Nan street cred for that), innovative health services for homeless youth, St Vincent’s de Paul, Carers Australia. And more. 

She technically retired in 1995. But I notice she attended her last community meeting on 30 July 2022. 

As the saying goes ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you accept’. My parents would pause when they saw a problem. It was very unusual for either of them to see it as not their job.   

One piece of advice is to ‘fall in love with the problem’. Mum really understood what this meant. As a change agent, she approached problems thoughtfully, with compassion and curiosity. She believed the way you defined the problem was fundamental to its resolution. She encouraged others to befriend the problem. Above all she was hopeful that there was a better way. 

Mum was a genius at path-finding a better alternative and convincing groups of people they were well placed to share responsibility for owning the issue. She did it repeatedly across her working life.  

As a master of social governance, she helped groups of people see they had the opportunity and capability to develop their community. 

She approached social and political issues in the same spirit and energy that she cultivated her large garden. There were always jobs that needed to be done: weeds to rip out; things to prune; seeds to sow; fruit to harvest. There were always opportunities to grow new things and start over. There was always something new to learn, or a deep well of experience tapped to solve a challenge.  

During retirement she became a prolific letter writer offering her insights about practical opportunities she saw to tend, repair, and grow Tasmanian society to help it flourish. 

Thank you to Colony 47 for offering me this opportunity to celebrate the life of my mother Patricia (Paddy) Byers.  

Postscript by Jim

Paddy and I became close associates and friends from when we met as students in 1977 until her death. Throughout all the years we consulted often on issues relating specifically to Colony but also on wider issues relating to what was needed to make the world a better place. 
I miss her friendship and insightful intelligence and remain deeply appreciative of the essential and outstanding role she played over many years in a raft of different positions including the CEO of Colony.

Danny Sutton speaks to ABC Radio remembering Paddy.

Listen now

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