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A tireless helper

“Well, I think this is ridiculous,” said Barbara Fisher as she opened the door to her home for our interview. Mrs Fisher from Te Karaka. She would squirt your mouth out with dishwashing liquid if you said “that word” again but no one ever saw her do it. That’s because she didn’t. Mrs Fisher was fair, and earned respect right off the bat with her demeanour. She talked to Sophie Rishworth over a cup of tea.

Barbara Fisher was born in Porirua East in 1930. People always looked at you funny when you said you were from Porirua, she said.

“That’s because we had one of the biggest mental hospitals in New Zealand there.”

She was the youngest of 10 children to dairy farmer parents. By five-years-old she already had two customers of her own who she delivered fresh milk to in a billy every morning before running down the hill to school. That was life in rural New Zealand during the ‘30s and ‘40s. You learned to be independent young.

She couldn’t even imagine her own three children getting out of bed as early as she had to. Let alone children today.

Over her 88 years, Mrs Fisher has seen many changes. Technology in particular.

“Some of it is splendid, excellent. Especially in health technology and what they can do these days.”

It can be difficult for older people to keep up with all the changes though.

“You only have to put your finger on the wrong button and you’ve gone to billy-o,” she says.

Mrs Fisher became a mum in 1956. She was 26, and married to Te Karaka builder Walter Fisher — the love of her life.

Wal went by the name Mick Fisher. He was also an artist, a potter and a painter. She lost him 25 years ago but the walls of her town house, where she moved from Te Karaka three years after he died, display his art proudly on the walls.

They include paintings of copper-leafed grapevines against bright blue skies — an autumn scene common in this region — and across the lounge are pen and ink drawings done by candlelight in 1937 when Mr Fisher was a young man.

The couple had three children, Dale, Dallas and Rachel, all born and raised in Te Karaka.

As well as being a stay-at-home mum, Mrs Fisher did the books for her husband’s building business and lived the adage, “It takes a village”, more than most.

There were often knocks on the window at all hours. She was the go-to person for many because of the kind of person she was — a no-nonsense helper. You could always count on Mrs Fisher.

Her community involvement was tireless. She married hundreds as a marriage celebrant, schooled thousands in first aid courses, and witnessed more signatures than we have had hot dinners as a Justice of the Peace (JP).

She became a JP after a call from then National MP Bob Bell, who told her they could really do with a JP in TK.

So she did.

It was part and parcel of who she was — a helper. Mrs Fisher was fearless, she would break up fights, had her heavy transport (HT) licence to drive trucks, and was the first woman on Waikohu County Council. She has also appeared before three Governors General as her wide service to the community was recognised.

In 1987 it was the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM), in 1992 she was made an Officer of St John, and in 1996 received the Meritorious Service Award for Civil Defence.

Mrs Fisher was also the Te Karaka special correspondent for the Gisborne Herald from 1972, reporting local events and taking photographs.

She also volunteered on the Te Karaka ambulance committee, helped with Te Karaka Girl Guides, and was an active volunteer with the Order of St John.

Mrs Fisher is still a member of PROBUS and a volunteer at Arohaina.

Gardening is one of her favourite pastimes, “There is nothing more relaxing if you have something on your mind than to dig in dirt.”

After her rural upbringing in Porirua East, Mrs Fisher worked in offices in Wellington before she trained as a nurse in 1949.

She came to Gisborne in 1954 to take up a temporary position of matron at the children’s health camp. From there she became the public health nurse to two large areas in Gisborne — from Te Karaka to Te Hapara. Public health nurses looked after you from birth to death back then so it was a big job.

Of the many community organisations Mrs Fisher has lent her hand to, her work as a welfare officer in Waikohu County during the 1988 Cyclone Bola floods stand out.

“It was a very busy time. I didn’t see our place in daylight for 10 days.”

But the team of people, the way everyone got together, and the generosity of the outside community made the job much easier, she said.

She also remembers the men on periodic detention (PD) who she helped re-integrate into the community.

“I got a lot of satisfaction from that because it was proven it helped.”

Groups of 10 men would arrive by bus in Te Karaka. Villagers had already rung jobs through they needed help with, and the men would be dispatched to do odd jobs.

Mrs Fisher also taught them first aid.

For some on PD, it was their first real achievement. It gave them pride in themselves and self-esteem.

The best bit, the part where Mrs Fisher really felt good, was when she was told that of all the men on the PD courses she had taught first aid to, not one had re-offended.

And the ones who had helped in the community — their rate of re-offending was very low.

It was because they were trusted, and had become part of a community, she said.

Next week, she will accompany her son Dallas Fisher to an investiture ceremony at Government House to receive his Officer of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business, philanthropy and sport.

Mrs Fisher leaves Gisborne in November to move to Cambridge to be closer to family.

Barbara Fisher has lived the adage "it takes a village to raise a child" more than most. She moved to Te Karaka in the mid-1950s after marrying builder Walter Fisher. They had three children. If there was something to be done, or someone needed to help out, it was usually Mrs Fisher they called. And because of the kind of person she was — a no-nonsense helper — Mrs Fisher graced many event, even being recognised by the Queen for her public service. Picture by Paul Rickard