Early NZ Game Changers
As personal account by NZBWN member, Elizabeth Sullivan
In March I was fortunate enough to spend the day with my grandmother’s cousin, Madeline Anderson Orlowski. Born on 4th May 1907, on Baldwin St, Dunedin, the world's steepest residential street, Madeline is the oldest person in New Zealand. She is the granddaughter of New Zealand's earliest Polish settlers, who arrived at Port Chalmers in December 1872.
The eldest of 4 sisters, fear did not feature in Madeline’s vocabulary, nor that of her youngest sisters Rayena, Mavis and Gertrude. One day when they were staying in Wanaka, the 4 sisters took their dad’s car, a Crossley, to visit friends at a station in Glenorchy, on the far side of Lake Wakatipu. Driving down the treacherous Crown range towards Arrowtown, the brakes failed, but Mavis managed to control the car, driving it to Arrowtown and then on to Queenstown.
The sun had set before they started on their way home, not to be put off by the man who said, ‘If you’re going to drive through the Kawerau Gorge in the dark, you’ve got the courage of Ned Kelly’ (an Australian outlaw). The battery and headlights were low & Madeline had to walk in front, so they could see where they were going. They got home eventually, returning the car to their dad without brakes or lights, but they and the car were all in one piece.
Other than the everyday adventures, the 4 sisters were all adventurous in different ways. Mavis was the first female horse trainer in Dunedin, she got a license to train at the Forbury Park Trotting Club, which created a great deal of interest at the time. Gertrude learned to fly aeroplanes and flew serum to Alexandra after a polio outbreak. Rayena took the top prize in English at Otago University, sharing the first year with future war correspondent Geoffrey Cox, and winning the Gilray Memorial prize in 1929. Madeline was very involved in the community and is now the oldest person in New Zealand.
Madeline sent me some writing about her life which I read with great interest before we met, and which made me reflect on my own life. After growing up in NZ, then living in London and Nice, travelling, meeting and coaching women from all around the world I have seen that many women don't have the choices we do – the freedom to drive a car, go to school, have an education, or even go out on the street alone.
I have long been aware that New Zealand is one of the freest, most advanced countries in the world for women. Reflected of course by the fact that we were the first country in the world where women got the vote, in 1893. 125 years later we are now celebrating the anniversary of the women of our country winning the right to vote.
And we currently have our 3rd female Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, admired the world over, and only the second Prime Minister to give birth while in office. Jacinda leads the country in a very feminine and collaborative way. As woman who is not afraid to have a baby while unmarried and with the father looking after the baby at home. Only five percent of the world’s nations are headed by women, just 11 female leaders in the world today!
When I met Madeline, it was 7 weeks before her 111th birthday. She was marvellous, incredibly positive. She said she felt incredibly lucky that during her lifetime, New Zealand has become a wonderful country and that she still enjoys meeting people. As well as a positive attitude, she is still as sharp as a tack, has a fantastic memory & can remember her mother giving parties for the soldiers in 1914, just before WW1.
Madeline’s had tough times in her life. She lost two of her three children, Brian at 7 and Graeme at 20. She says her faith and staying close to her community helped her immensely during those times. She has an enormous number of friends, and loves to help people, in her 80s and 90s driving younger people around to their doctors’ appointments. Strong, resilient, resourceful and connected, while living opposite her church in Upper Hutt, she stayed close and plugged into the community, until she moved in with her daughter in Masterton at aged 110. Being kind and helping others is key for her.
Through this experience I have learnt that courage, a can-do attitude, positivity, bravery, strength and resilience in tough times, all attributes of Madeline and the people of our great country, New Zealand, are very important for us as a culture.
Madeline passed away this year. Her funeral, held on the 23rd June 2018, was a celebration of a wonderfully full life.