Daphne Johnstone

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Susie Boswell catches up for lunch with the well known and much loved Daphne Johnston.

In six months’ time, on December 10, Daphne Johnston turns 80. She’s been in the workforce for 65 years – so far – and shows no sign of slowing down.

This little dynamo – packaged in a generous frame and barely five feet two in her comfy leather loafers – turns up impeccably dressed and perfectly made up for a chat over fish and salad.

She’s been on the go since dawn, rugged up against the Camden Haven autumn cold, hitting the road to Port Macquarie for the first of four engagements today. Yesterday was golf at Kew – she’s an 18 marker – with the Laurieton ladies, tomorrow it’s back to the bookwork for her sons’ commercial refrigeration business and a meeting about the proposed Herons Creek power plant.

Daphne wears a perennial smile, underlined by a firm jaw and a hint of determination. The smile faltered recently when she was dumped from Port Macquarie Council, with all her fellow councillors, just days before her 25th anniversary in local government.

The NSW Government didn’t have the nous or grace even to wait to sack her until she’d travelled from Camden Haven. She arrived at the council chambers to be told she’d been dismissed in her absence. She reminded me that day of Tom in the Tom & Jerry cartoons, when the cat’s just been lured over a cliff by the mouse, lying stuffed at the bottom of a canyon and seeing stars.

She’d served the council with distinction over a quarter century, including as Deputy and Acting Mayor, awarded an OAM, a Centenary Medal and Local Government Long Service Medal.

Daphne as a child

Daphne as a child

But, like Tom, she picked herself up pretty smartly, back on the road again. No wonder: she has a raft of other volunteer obligations with community groups to keep her going. Just a few, past and current: Camden Haven Sea Rescue, power and water groups that became Country Energy and Midcoast Water, regional Bush Fire Brigades, Bonny Hills and Lake Cathie Community Halls, Long Day Care, Hastings Valley Netball Association, Camden Haven Redbacks Soccer, Kendall Show Society, Kendall Pony Club, Camden Haven-Hastings Softball, Laurieton Swimming Club, Laurieton Quilters, Camden Haven Red Cross, Meals On Wheels …

“I’m pretty tough,” she admits now, although there were no doubt moments of deep disappointment at the dismissal. “I think I might be tougher than most of them,” she suggests, when we discuss the protective attitude the male councillors exhibit towards her. Six of her seven male colleagues all at one time during the crisis threw a protective arm around Daphne’s shoulders, concerned for her feelings.

They needn’t have worried: Daphne hit the ground running again, dusted off and busy with her other interests. She’s known as a bit of a lead foot, plying the distance between her home on the West Haven water’s edge and around the region in her smart white Corolla. “I still have my gold licence!” she protests, repudiating her reputation. Her previous car was traded when the clock reached 100,000 km in just a couple of years; she’s managed some 40,000 km a year around the district “up to Comboyne, and back up to Byabarra” and so on. She dropped $14,000 a year when ousted from the council, but it’s not stopping her.

Not surprising, for a gutsy woman who rode motor bikes for 40 years. “The Oxley Highway up the range is good for bikes,” she enthuses, a gleam in her eye. “The bends are great; you feel like you’re one with the machine and you lean into the corners, this way and that,” she says, dropping at the shoulder from side to side, demonstrating. Modern electric ignition is for softies, she appears to believe, recalling her first BSA side-valve. “You had to feel the compression with your foot, and take your leg back up and BELT it through, or it would kick back up and break your ankle!”

Daphne in her younger years, riding a motorbike at Woolloomooloo.

Daphne in her younger years, riding a motorbike at Woolloomooloo.

Her toughness stems from her early years. Born in Sydney’s Depression era, she sought a motor bike licence early “because you could get it at 16, when you couldn’t get a driver’s licence.” She was learning business management at tech and worked as a bike courier for OPSM to finance her studies. Then, she and her new husband Peter opened a deli; the family lived above the shop so she could be home for her children. Next there was a haberdashery shop and later she managed the food hall at Grace Bros Roselands.

She’s seen injustices that leave the council debacle in the shade. Indeed, she became involved in local government to fight for, and achieve, equitable rating for Camden Haven residents. More so, her husband Peter lost a lung to ill-advised surgery – bringing the couple to the country 30 years ago – and Daphne nursed him until he passed away seven years back. Now she’s bookkeeper for sons Alan and Michael. Her oldest son, Ray, runs butcher’s shops. She’s a granny and great-granny and keeping up with the tribe and their sporting pursuits fills any spare time.

But she hasn’t been confined to the bush: she’s skied Canada’s premier snow resort, Whistler, and travelled to North America, Britain and the Continent, Fiji, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bali and Hawaii.

There’s more, much more, to this gracious lady and robust spirit, but no more time to linger over lunch. She’s off now to chair Hastings-Macleay Community Transport, and tonight it’s a digital rock concert, Shout!, the story of  The Wild One, Johnny O’Keefe.

“I’m busier than before [the dismissal], with all sorts of things,” she declares, appearing a little surprised at the fact. “A lot of people seem to think I have time on my hands now …”

Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.

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