Obituary: Doreen McGibbon always found ways to help out

Doreen McGibbon, then aged 94, with her grandson Johnny, at an Anzac Day service in…

Doreen McGibbon, then aged 94, with her grandson Johnny, at an Anzac Day service in 2017. Photo / Christine McKay.

Doreen McGibbon was a “great mother who was always finding ways to help out”, her son Ian says.

The Dannevirke resident, who had been living at Eileen Mary Residential Care Centre for about 10 years, died on New Year’s Eve after battling Covid-19.

Ian McGibbon said his mum, who was 98, had become increasingly frail over the past year and had lost much of her mobility.

“We are desolate, to be sure, but we are here really to celebrate Mum’s life,” he said in his eulogy at the service.

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Doreen McGibbon was the sixth of nine children born to Marjory and Harold Hunt. Her mother died before she turned five, not long after giving birth to her youngest child. One of the children died at three months.

Her father would remarry and have another five children with his second wife.

Doreen grew up in Napier and had vivid memories of the earthquake in 1931. She told her family she could remember the name of the boy who ran out of the school ahead of her.

“She hated earthquakes for the rest of her life,” Ian said.

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Her childhood was spent in difficult times, not only losing her mother at a young age, but going through the Great Depression as well.

“[It] made life hard for everyone but I suspect especially so for Mum’s father, as he tried to feed and clothe his large family. There was no welfare state safety net in those days.”

By the time she was 18, World War II had been raging in Europe for three years and women between the ages of 18 and 30 were being “manpowered” or conscripted.

Not wanting to be sent to work, a number of women opted to join the women’s armed services.

Doreen’s two oldest brothers, Archie and Ray, were serving in the Expeditionary Force in North Africa and another brother, Arthur, was in the navy, which likely influenced her decision to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

Doreen McGibbon, seen here with a photo of her in her WAAC days, died peacefully at the age of 98.
Doreen McGibbon, seen here with a photo of her in her WAAC days, died peacefully at the age of 98.

Sent to Fort Dorset in Wellington, her job was to help man the searchlights at the entrance to the harbour, covering the anti-submarine nets installed there.

Above those searchlights were six-inch guns ready to fire on any enemy ship that tried to enter the harbour.

While no Japanese ship did, the threat was very real, as evidenced by the passage of a Japanese submarine through Cook Strait.

When her brothers returned to New Zealand, their troop ship docked at a wharf in Wellington. Doreen was there to greet them.

The men transferred onto a troop train that would take them to Napier, and persuaded Doreen to go with them.

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Ian said when she returned to Fort Dorset, she was arrested for being AWOL and marched before the commandant.

She was sentenced to two weeks’ fatigues in the officers’ mess.

“Mum said it was the most enjoyable fortnight she spent in the army!”

Doreen, pictured in 2005, with some of her son's works. Photo / NZME
Doreen, pictured in 2005, with some of her son’s works. Photo / NZME

In 1946, Doreen was living in Napier when she was told by a friend living in Dannevirke that there was work available, so she moved down.

One weekend she and her friend went to a party, where she met Ian McGibbon (senior), a farmer.

He told her he was going to see some rams the next day and invited her for a drive.

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The couple had a whirlwind romance, marrying after just a month.

“When Dad proposed to Mum, he recited a poem by Robbie Burns: A Red, Red Rose. I’m sure after that it was a done deal! Not only a farmer but a poetry-reciting romantic,” Ian said.

“We used to tease Mum that she hardly knew Dad when they wed, to which she would respond indignantly ‘We were in love, so why wait!’”

There were apparently a few eyebrows raised within the family at the marriage as Ian senior was twice her age, but once her siblings got to know him they heartily approved.

The couple lived in Waitahora, but moved into town in the 1980s, where they remained until Ian senior’s death in 1991.

Her son said his mum’s war service left her with a “wonderful empathy and kindness and desire to do her bit to help others.”

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Once her five children were older, she became a nurse’s aide at Dannevirke Hospital, working in the ward for handicapped children.

She became involved in the Returned Services Association, once they allowed membership for those who served at home. Her contribution to the women’s section was recognised with a life membership in 2006.

Ian said after his father’s death, Doreen would spend winters in Sydney, where she worked for an organisation called Dial an Angel, providing companionship for aged Australians.

She is survived by four of her five children, 18 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.