November 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Ella Ebery is 97 with so much to do

By Ian Kenins
Illness and enforced retirement won’t stop a local newspaperwoman

It’s been an exasperating year for Ella Ebery, who was until recently the editor of the North Central News, the weekly paper in the Victorian wheatbelt township of St Arnaud. She battled bowel and breast cancer, lost her driver’s licence and broke her hip, requiring a month off to recover from surgery. When Ebery returned to work in May, she found that she had been replaced by a younger journalist.

“A little bit of caring wouldn’t have gone amiss,” says Ebery, who is 97. “They have offered me a column, but unless you’re there in the heart of the place …” Her voice trails off and, as has long been her habit during conversation, she doodles in her notebook before picking up the subject again. “What I feel now is that I’m not really needed. I’m not part of the flow. I haven’t got other options, that’s my problem. I find being housebound the biggest imposition anyone could put on me.”

Ebery’s desire to remain active stems from when she was “a trapped housewife searching for identity”. She’d married Jack Ebery, a local shearer, at 22, and given birth to a daughter, Anne, the following year “because that’s what women did back then”. Anne died aged 15 months, and Ebery, whose mother and grandmother had died within 12 months of each other during her teenage years, had little support. The Eberys went on to raise two children in a house with linoleum floors, hessian curtains and wood-fired hot water. “You couldn’t get out because you spent all week doing the housework, it was so labour-intensive,” she says.

The strain wore her down. After a brief stint in the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where she was prescribed tranquillisers, she found solace in writing, submitting witty, personal accounts of the tribulations of a country housewife to women’s magazines in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. She also got involved with the local theatre group, joined a protest against a council proposal to raze an Edna Walling garden and, in 1969, ran for local council and became the first woman to take a seat in St Arnaud’s town hall. “That was a terrible shock to the men, and a lot of women didn’t approve of what I was doing. They felt it wasn’t my place to be in there with the decision makers.” The men, she says, “treated me with great courtesy but they didn’t know what to do with me”. Nineteen years later, though, they appointed her mayor.

Ebery says her husband Jack was supportive, in a quiet sort of way. “It wasn’t fair on him. He should have married a nice lady who’d go to bowls or fishing with him and cook his tea, but I wasn’t that sort of person.”

At 58, five years after joining the council, Ebery found her first full-time job, with the then welfare department. She relished the work as it helped open doors and because “welfare workers have the same empathy as writers”. Meanwhile, her freelance contributions to the local paper led to her next job, as staff writer for the North Central News. In 1981, the year her husband died, she was offered the editor’s position. “It saved my sanity,” she says.

For the next 32 years Ebery made it her purpose to help save St Arnaud from further decline, becoming a forceful advocate for services the state and federal governments were closing. “I know it sounds patronising,” says Ebery, who won a national award for her editorial writing in 2000, “but I could speak for the inarticulate, and that’s what country newspapers do – they speak for the people. The Rupert Murdochs that have the power to change governments and influence people don’t use it as honestly as they should – they use it mainly for their own advancement.”

Now, left “battling the depression of not having a purpose”, Ebery plans to remain productive. On a desk in the timber cottage that has been her home for more than seven decades, a new computer has taken the place of her 1920s Underwood typewriter. Once she has finished chronicling her career, she plans to document her family history. She’s also taking driving lessons in an effort to get her licence back. “I’m in a hurry,” she says. “There are drawbacks to being 97 with so much to do.”

 

Ian Kenins
Ian Kenins is a journalist, photographer and occasional relief editor of the Koondrook and Barham Bridge. He is based in Geelong.

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