A distinguished life fellow, an award-winning nurse, a multi-linguist and a mean mah-jong player. From the moment this Aveo Durack retirement village resident entered the world she has proved an unstoppable force.
Marie Josephine Burley’s mother was too busy to go to work. Her daughter, however, is too busy not to.
Nearing 90 but with the effervescence of someone a quarter of her age, Marie has dedicated her life to the service of others.
A frontline worker with a special interest in midwifery, Marie’s career as a nurse took her on a journey from a local hospital in the Hunter region of New South Wales, to a posting with the World Health Organisation in Geneva, and a myriad of locations in between.
Her impeccable service record and extraordinary work ethic saw her receive the highest honour bestowed by the Australian College of Nursing when she was named a distinguished life fellow.
At the tender age of 88, the pragmatic grandmother of two was one of just a handful of healthcare staff to be named an Order of Australia medal (OAM) recipient in the 2019 Australian Day Honours List.
But it’s not just those who have had an interaction with the health services who have benefited from her generosity.
A Justice of the Peace (JP) with 50 years’ worth of duties behind her, the Aveo Durack resident is a long-standing University of the Third Age (U3A) Gold Coast chapter tutor where, in addition to instructing on how to play the tile game mah-jong, she also teaches three languages.
At one time or another she has occupied almost all voluntary positions on U3A Broadbeach’s executive committee.
A nurturer by nature
By virtue of birth, caring came second nature to Marie.
Raised in a small country town called Barellan, about 260km northwest of Canberra, she was born the eldest in a family of seven children and the only girl.
“My mother was a sweetheart, she helped everybody she could. She was constantly pregnant and as a result was a lady who never went to work – well, she didn’t have time, did she? She had her last child when she was 46, so of course, at 12 years of age I already had a nurturing role.”
While she proclaims she “bluffed her way” through intelligence tests, evidently Marie proved a smart and willing student, winning a scholarship to study at a Catholic high School in Newcastle – a mere 670km from her childhood home.
Yet rather than send their only daughter to live miles away on her own, Marie’s parents made the selfless decision to relocate the whole family to the state’s second most populated city.
Out of her hands
With a midwife as her godmother and two aunties who were already in the profession, the die was cast early when it came to choosing her future career.
Marie says she briefly entertained becoming a doctor but the cost of studying medicine proved prohibitive for her large family who relied upon her father’s single income – firstly as a bootmaker, then a caterer and latterly as a fitter and turner – on which to live.
Fate was to have other ideas, however.
“I’d always been told that I’d make a great nurse and when I mentioned that I’d like to be a doctor, the nurses took me aside and said to me ‘look, the doctors are rarely in the hospital, they just do their rounds. We’re the ones who do the work’. That was enough for me, I was hooked.”
She took a job as a telephonist at the end of her schooling to bide her time until she was old enough to enter nursing college while her evenings were spent teaching ballroom dancing.
Her plan was to put enough money aside to purchase what she terms a “proper nurses watch”.
“I can’t remember what I was paid, but I know it wasn’t very much. I used to pay around £2 per week for the layby of my watch which was not much more than I earned at the time.”
Marie completed her training in general nursing and midwifery at what was then known as the Newcastle Mater Misericordiae (now Calvery Mater Hospital).
She completed the five year course in 1954 and spent some time working in the maternity ward before making the brave decision to journey to South East England to study orthopaedic nursing at the famed Wingfield Morris Hospital in Oxfordshire.
In its early life, the hospital served as an auxiliary to the Third Southern General Hospital at the outbreak of the first world war, but by the mid-1950s Marie claims it was “the best orthopaedic hospital in the world”.
“But that’s only my opinion,” she says.
Gifted with a spare 12-month period in which to await her passage home, rather than head off to see a bit of Europe, Marie again put others first taking on a role with the World Health Organisation in Switzerland, before her eventual return to Australia.
While things were going well on the work front, things on the home front proved a mixed bag. Her first marriage ended prematurely but resulted in the birth of Ann-Maree, now 61 and following in her mother’s footsteps working as a nursing unit manager.
Her second union also ended before its time but again it resulted in a much-adored child. And again it was of the female persuasion.
Melanie, now 49, decided against following the family career path and instead works as a chartered accountant because, Marie chuckles, she “cannot stand the sight of blood”.
There is a saying that goes ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’ and so it proved true when it came to Marie’s decades’ long involvement with the Quota Club and unwavering commitment to her duties as a Justice
of the Peace.
It was while she was attempting to juggle the hustle and bustle of family life with her role as a matron at a regional hospital that Marie was asked to join the Quota Club.
An American-based not for profit organisation that exists to help empower women and children and to assist people who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, and speech-impaired, the organisation’s mantra to “share and care through serving others” fitted in perfectly alongside Marie’s own desire to expand her contribution to the community around her.
It was around this time she was also approached to become a judicial officer.
“As far as patients were concerned, they often didn’t think they needed to see a JP until they were already in hospital and thought their time had come. Noting how hard it was to find a JP in the middle of the night, a time when they were often required, the doctor said to me ‘you basically already live here, right, so why don’t you do it?’ I joined up soon after.”
Her next move
Armed with a quick wit, a great heart, a massive generosity of spirit and a pragmatic nature, typically Marie shies away from the spotlight.
While she admits receiving an OAM in recognition of her many years of service was a “great honour”, the site she has chosen to store her precious medal speaks volumes about both her humbleness and the way in which she lives her life.
While most recipients would choose to frame it or place it on display for all to see, Marie’s medal rests in its original box, in the middle of her wardrobe, gathering dust.
“It’s not in my nature to go spouting about what I have or haven’t done. I suppose I will retire at some stage, probably when I die. To me it’s quite simple… if there’s people willing to give there are always people in need.”
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