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Lifetime of giving

This week Gisborne woman Jean Webster turned 100-years-old. Debbie Gregory sat down and talked with her about her long life filled with teaching thousands of children and giving to others.

Gisborne’s newest centenarian Jean Webster counts herself lucky. As she turned 100-years-old this week, she still enjoys good health and a sound mind from what she describes as a good life.

“I have been so lucky to have a good mum and dad and many friends who have helped me in many ways — they built me up to know the right way to live.”

But she says this does not come easy.

“You don’t get anything unless you earn it and you have to work hard to make sure you don’t take the wrong turn.”

One of three children born to immigrants to New Zealand, her father George Davencourt Muirhead worked on a ship and travelled to many parts of the world before coming to New Zealand.

Before moving to Gisborne and opening a bike shop called Muirheads Cycles, he lived in Wellington and the King Country.

Her mother Grace Ann Kindred, from Kent in England, turned up in Gisborne to work as a governess for a family.

The couple met up, courted, married and had two daughters and a son.

“We grew up in a house in Gladstone Road where Ray White’s is now. Dad planted six to eight fruit trees and we always had a garden. We had a nice lawn and fowls . . . we had everything we needed.

Growing up, on each side of their house were teachers.

“That is how I got the idea to become a teacher,” she said.

She started school at Central School, when it was in Derby Street in town, then had to move to Te Hapara because of zoning, and then from 1932 to 1936, went to Gisborne High School.

She was a first-year student at Epsom Teachers’ College, one of about six from Gisborne.

“It was a wonderful time. We had a great group and had many fun adventures.”

As part of her training she did surf lifesaving and says getting her bronze and silver medals was a big help for her teaching.

Just before World War 2 started, she met her husband Charles Webster at a dance, one of many run by daughter of Gisborne’s former mayor W Douglas Lysnar (1908-1911), Miss Winifred Lysnar.

Her house was later split with part of it becoming Gisborne’s museum and the other, what is now the Marina Restaurant.

“Years later I was telling someone I got my husband from the museum and he shot back ‘I got her off the shelf’,” she laughed.

They had a happy life and had one son called Peter John Webster who became a joiner.

At the start of the war, in 1939, she taught at Mangapapa School and in a lifetime of teaching has also taught at Kaiti School, Hicks Bay, Nuhaka and Te Hapara.

She says Gisborne has always had a diverse range of people including Indian, Maori and Chinese.

“The diversity is wonderful . . . I have met so many different children and I can tell you it is not the top-of-the class people who make it in life.”

In 1940, she married Charles and he went to war, while she carried on teaching, now at Paparatu School.

After he returned from the war, Mr Webster worked as a builder.

“He was very able and did all sorts of work.”

While he was away at war, in 1942, Mrs Webster bought a section at Wainui from a Mr Shanks for 100 pounds and he gave the church people the section next door. Mrs Webster and her father built a small house on the section where St Davids church was later built.

On his return from the war, Mr Webster was “so pleased to see what I had been up to”.

“He stood there with his hands on his hips and talked about the house he would build back near the hill . . . with ten steps on the side up to the door . . . and he did just that.”

The house is still a family home.

In 1952, when her son was four years old, Mrs Webster started a kindergarten calling it St Anne’s Kindy, and ran it from her home for seven years.

Then it was back to teaching at Mangapapa School in 1959.

“I was then a first day teacher at Ilminster Intermediate and then got talked into going to Wainui Beach School when it opened in 1962, then to Gisborne Intermediate.”

When Lytton High School started up, she was lured to go and teach work experience classes.

“Older students sometimes not only need teachers, but they need mothering and fathering. I taught them cooking and other things they needed to learn.”

Mrs Webster has always been keen on crafts and did basketry, knitting and crochet. She was a founding member of 10 Talents Craft Shop, which provided an outlet for craftspeople and also donated profits to charity (and still does).

The shop moved from Makaraka to town in 1983 and is still running in Ormond Road.

She also played the organ at St Davids and a church in at Kaiti for many years.

Her husband passed away in 1990 and 10 years ago, after breaking her leg, she moved into Leighton House.

She broke another bone in her leg recently and has had some time in hospital but has recovered well and is still enjoying life.

Mrs Webster says every family has a few problems.

“You have to stand by and be there to help them work them out. Everybody needs some help and it is great when you can do that for family.

“I have been really privileged by the way I have been brought up in a society where everybody helped each other.”

She has two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

“They are all doing very well. It has been a real pleasure to see what the grandchildren have been doing.“

A highlight in her life has been her health.

“I have kept very well all my life. I didn’t have to have many days off from teaching.

“It is important to look at how you are made — you have a physical body to look after, a mental body to look after and a spiritual body which lets you know right from wrong and you live accordingly. When you are able, you do things to help others.”

Today, Mrs Webster will be joined by friends and family for a special centenary birthday celebration at The Marina Restaurant.

Gisborne centenarian Jean Webster turned 100 earlier this week and today is having a celebration with family and friends at the Marina Restaurant, where she has a special link. Her family have always been extremely important to her and she is pictured here with grandaughter Leigh Sheldrake. Picture by Liam Clayton