Canberra Citizen of the Year
Helen Mary "Molly" Clark (1913-2011)
SOURCE: Canberra Times, 12 June 1995, page 1, photographer Richard Briggs.
Molly was born Helen Mary Gale on 29 October 1913 in Te Moana, a village on the eastern slopes of the Southern Alps about 150km southwest of Christchurch, New Zealand. By 1935 she was living in Temuka, 30km away. It supported a rich sheep and dairy farming area, and had its own newspaper, the Temuka Leader. The owner/editor was Lyndsay Scott Clark, and Molly wrote the children’s pages. “That was during the Depression," she said. "The children didn't have any toys, and there was little else for them to do”.
Lyndsay’s father Alexander was born in the Orkney Islands off Scotland in 1863 and emigrated to New Zealand with his family in 1876. He was a farmer, a sailor and a policeman before setting up a threshing mill with his brothers, later adding a flour mill and a stone quarry to the family business. Lyndsay was born in 1915, one of five children of Alexander and Jessie nee McDonald. He started in newspapers in his teens, finally retiring from the Canberra Times in 1980 but continuing as a casual sub-editor until 1991 when he could no longer read the computer screen. He died in 1994.
Lyndsay came to Australia in 1935 to work as a reporter on the Sunraysia Daily at Mildura. Molly followed him and they married in Mildura, producing three children. The family moved first to Melbourne, where Lyndsay worked with the Herald and Weekly Times, then at the beginning of the war to Sydney where he was war correspondent for the Daily Mirror and the Sydney Truth. In 1946-47 they were off again, this time to America where Lyndsay was the Mirror’s New York correspondent.
The wandering life continued: back to Mildura as editor of the Sunraysia Daily, a return to the Daily Mirror in Sydney, a stint as sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald and then a return to New Zealand as editor of the Wanganui Chronicle and finally the Dominion in Wellington. By this time, two of their children were living in Canberra and in 1972 he and Molly settled here. Lyndsay took a position as senior sub-editor on the Canberra Times and Molly’s career as a volunteer began in earnest.
Molly started volunteering with the YWCA in 1956. It is an international organisation, so she was able to continue her activities wherever she went. She was elected president of the Canberra branch in 1980, continuing in the position for four years. In 1981 the patchwork group of the YWCA started making cloth books for blind children, incorporating raised pictures and braille tape. Molly and the group offered them to the Blind Society, and as she tells it, they walked in with the donation and walked out as the Society’s new Auxiliary.
This was typical of Molly’s approach – see a need and meet it. As head of the new Auxiliary she not only had to raise funds for the Society but to do it in a sustainable way. Her solution was to go into catering. At that time commercial catering for smaller events was almost non-existent, and she had access to a large volunteer workforce of mainly home-based women still equipped with traditional cooking skills. She also had advertising opportunities in the ordinary activities of the YWCA – cater for their own functions and spread the word. Molly herself supplied the organisation.
Molly’s social connections in Canberra were already fairly extensive. One was Belle Low, wife of the then ANU Vice-Chancellor. In 1981 Belle hosted a three-course champagne breakfast to commemorate the wedding of Charles and Diana. It also celebrated Molly’s 25 years with the YWCA. The publicity was excellent. The Blind Society Auxiliary moved into catering Melbourne Cup parties, craft exhibitions, fashion parades, card parties, weddings, birthdays, Embassy functions, meetings, conferences, balls and receptions.
Molly was also a frequent speaker at functions, raising both funds and ideas for the Auxiliary. April 1981 saw their son and his wife home from France on a visit, but the work went on. An article in the Canberra Times described just a few days’ of Molly’s week:
“Today Molly and her auxiliary are still working at the Albert Hall and have been there since Saturday. … Tonight when they pack up at the Albert Hall they will go home to start another bout of cooking for the Council on the Ageing and make plans for Button Day on May 6.”
“Aren’t you tired of the constant cooking?” she was asked, and replied “We all enjoy it knowing that we are providing a service which is really needed. Before the [Blind] Society was formed here families had to take their children to Sydney to get their education." Nonetheless, when organisers of a 1990 fashion parade chose to donate money to the Society, Molly remarked that it was a wonderful change for the Auxiliary to receive funds without working for them.
By 1988 Molly’s 20-woman Auxiliary had raised over $65,000 to provide educational equipment for the then 300 visually impaired Canberrans, from babies to the aged. The major fundraiser was organising and catering its own annual fashion parade, but the Auxiliary found itself in 1992 in an unexpected “spot of bother”. Two, actually. Firstly, they were suddenly unable to use their booked venue at Old Parliament House and, although they found another in the grand marble foyer of new Parliament House, it cost more in hire and they could not do their own catering. Secondly, having done so well financially the year before, their government funding was cut.
The unsinkable Molly picked up her ladies and herself and kept going, buoyed by Molly’s awards of life membership of the Blind Society in 1992 and Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1993. Lyndsay died in 1994, and in 1995 the Auxiliary’s source of funds was almost lost also.
The Health Department had discovered that the Society was preparing food for public functions without a licence, and threatened a fine that equalled a year’s profits as well as demanding to see both the recipes and all the private kitchens. In public health terms it was all reasonable, although the last straw for Molly was that she and her ladies had to undertake a food preparation course to qualify for a licence. Molly won the battle, at a cost, and the Auxiliary was back in (licensed) business in time for Molly’s OAM in January 1996.
Molly’s interest in improving the quality of life for disadvantaged people extended beyond the YWCA and the Blind Society. During 1993 she helped establish St Andrews Village, then continued to raise funds for it, help in the hostel shop and read to blind residents. In 2001 she was involved with the Save the Children Fund.
On receiving her Canberra Citizen of the Year award, Molly unwittingly spoke her own epitaph: “You don’t need to be great to be good.” She died in Canberra on 1 May 2011.
Awards and Distinctions
- 1992 Life membership of the Blind Society
- 1993 Canberra Citizen of the Year for her voluntary work for the disadvantaged people in the community
- 1995 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the community, particularly through the Canberra Blind Society and the YWCA
1993 'Charity champion Molly Clark Citizen of Year.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 13 March, p. 1, viewed 20 December, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127201398
1994 'Obituary: Lyndsay Clark (1915-1994) Journalist who measured words.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 18 November, p. 8, viewed 11 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article130538430
1995 'Molly stirs bureaucracy, wins OAM.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 12 June, p. 1, viewed 11 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127530102