Vale Avril Everingham OAM

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Independent Australia presents a tribute to Avril Everingham OAM, the esteemed, universally admired and dearly beloved wife and partner of Independent Australia senior correspondent Barry Everingham.

We include here an obituary written by prominent journalist Jan McGuiness, which was originally published in The Age newspaper. Following this is a description of the 30 January memorial service that was attended by more than 300 people, including the Australian Governor General and many other distinguished figures. Finally, we include the deeply moving eulogy given at that service by Barry Everingham.

Resolute arts supporter in adversity

During the over-the-top eighties, arts fundraising and the events that propelled it developed into a stylish art form of its own — the leading local practitioner of which was Avril Everingham, as acknowledged by her 2007 Order of Australia Medal for services to the arts.

Firstly for the former Victorian State Opera Foundation and then for the main opera company, she raised millions of dollars between 1985 and 1992, organising everything from opening nights and black tie dinners to Dame Tiri te Kanawa’s Australia-wide Bicentennial tour, A Night in Peking dinner on the State Theatre stage, and A Great Waltz Ball for 1500 people at the Exhibition Buildings. Indeed, the Peking dinner and Great Waltz were the best parties of the 1980 party decade, according to the late photographer Rennie Ellis, who captured them all for the papers and glossies.

Avril was the first to agree that, while it might appear glamorous, the job of staging ever more novel events was challenging and demanding — so demanding, that in 1986, she handled her first bout of breast cancer in the midst of organising the Peking dinner and did much of the work from her hospital bed. The cancer re-appeared in 1990, and in different forms and at different times over the ensuing two decades, while Avril continued working, travelling and regarding it as just another illness.

“Practically every part of my body has been nuked,” she laughingly told Lawrence Money for a Melbourne Life feature in 2010 to which she agreed because she thought it might give encouragement to others with cancer.

“You have to push yourself a bit,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t feel like getting up in the morning but after you make the effort … you’re fine.”

Avril’s ever cheerful, practical and grounded take on life originated in her country upbringing on a wheat and sheep property near Griffith in the southwest Riverina, where she was born in 1938 to Alan and Nancy Cruickshank. There she roamed the paddocks with her brother Adrian, caught tadpoles and learned to weld and drive a tractor between twice yearly visits to Sydney for plays,  concerts and the ballet.

Schooled initially by correspondence, Avril went aged 12 to board at MLC in Burwood, Sydney, which she enjoyed, singing in the choir and becoming a prefect.  A gap year at home filled with balls and picnic races followed, then Avril visited Adrian in South Africa, where he was working, continuing on to London with a group of friends. There she studied interior design, worked briefly for the Australian Wool Board and became the personal assistant to four managing directors of a big company — excellent grounding, given that she had to organise their working and social lives and attend many important dinners and outings.

After three years, Avril returned home in 1963 for the Canberra wedding of her diplomat brother and joined Control Data, the American firm which brought the first large computers to Australia for the CSIRO and the Bureau of Statistics.  But after a year in America she decided that information technology was not for her and returned to Canberra to work in interior design. Hospitalised in Sydney as the result of a skiing injury, a friend sent her a visitor. It was the journalist Barry Everingham, destined to be transferred to the Canberra Press Gallery three months later. They married in 1970.

Following the birth of her children, Dougal and Nancy, Avril worked at a Canberra art gallery until 1978, when News Ltd transferred Barry to London for two years. Back in Australia, Barry’s move into public relations brought the family to Melbourne, which has remained its base, and Avril commenced fundraising for the VSO. The promise of a few months in Spain, where Barry’s PR company was working on the Seville Expo, brought that to an end; but, on her return to Melbourne, Avril was approached to help run the VSO’s commercial arm arranging artists and musicians for events outside the company. This she did until 1997, when Barry’s career took them to New York for three years.  After only a year, the cancer returned and Avril was forced to return to Melbourne for treatment.

“We simply couldn’t afford to have cancer in America!” she said.

While in treatment, the organisers of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition rang for advice. They were running at a big loss and in urgent need of funds, so Avril suggested a double gala farewell/fundraising dinner for the retiring chairman, Sir Rupert Hamer, and the artistic director. Over $250,000 was raised and the Hamer/Tribe trust established against future shortfalls. Avril stayed on and did an annual fundraiser for them until 2008, when she finally conceded that she wasn’t well and it was getting a bit much for her.

It is a tribute to her courage and positive outlook that Avril did her best and most challenging work for the arts during the 25 years she battled cancer. She is survived by her husband Barry, three children and five grandchildren.

(Jan McGuiness is one of Australia’s most distinguished and experienced journalists, whose career has spanned four decades in television, radio and print. This obituary was originally published in The Age newspaper on January 25 and has been republished with the author’s permission.)

Memorial service for Avril Everingham AOM

30 January 2012

More than 300 people packed St Georges Anglican Church, Malvern, for the funeral of Avril Everingham, the much beloved wife of Independent Australia senior correspondent Barry Everingham. In attendance was the Governor General Quentin Bryce and her husband Mr Michael Bryce, while the Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu was represented by his wife Mrs Robyn Baillieu.

The service opened with the singing of the first two verses of the National Anthem, after which Avril’s granddaughter, Ella, read Dorothea McKellar’s famous poem ‘My country’ (I love a sunburnt country).

Avril requested both to show her love for Australia.

The Tinalley String Quartet accompanied Mezzo Soprano Suzanne Johnston, singing Panis Angelicus from Cesar Franck’s Mass in A Major, Opus 12.

The eulogy was delivered by Barry Everingham, the couple’s son Dougal delivered an appreciate of his mother; their daughter, Nancy, read the poem A Mother’s Crown and son-in-law Mark van den Enden read from Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

Eulogy for Avril

given by Barry Everingham

The number of friends who have come here today to remember Avril really shouldn’t surprise anyone; she was and is a remarkable woman and, as it was so beautifully said last year, she is the thread of gold that runs through the lives of everyone she knew.

Our family is deeply touched that Their Excellencies the Governor General and Mr Bryce are honouring her by their presence, and that Mrs Robin Baillieu and other dignitaries, and indeed our relations, friends and neighbors, are here to pay homage. It seems to me that friendship and respect have been elevated to new heights.

It is indeed ironic that I said my last goodbye to Avril while she was on a bed in hospital, because when I said my first hello she was prone on a bed in a Sydney hospital. Let me explain.

It was way back in 1969, when a mutual friend of Avril’s and of mine called me and said I should visit Avril – a lovely young woman who was in hospital – and suggested I seek her out to “cheer her up”.

I pompously told my friend I wasn’t in the habit of visiting strangers in hospitals and left it at that. Well, as it turned out — not quite. A few days later, I found myself walking past the hospital. I was feeling lonely and thought — well, why not!

My friend was right. The young lady was lovely, she was gracious and her natural dignity was obvious. We really found a rapport and were soon chatting away like old friends. I told her our friend had told me of Avril’s skiing accident, which caused her back problem and that was why she was in hospital. She then dropped what I took as a bombshell and told me she had been up a ladder in Kerry Packer’s bedroom, had fallen off it, and her old skiing problem had come back.

This really made me sit up and take notice … a ladder! In Kerry’s bedroom … wow! …. what have I got here? This lovely young lady, climbing a ladder in Kerry’s bedroom — how interesting is that. Mind you, that was 44 years ago and in those days I was easily impressed by such anecdotes. Avril was quick off the mark in recognising my excitement and, I guess, misplaced enthusiasm and soon explained she was a member of a team redecorating the Packer house on Canberra’s Mugga Way.

After my equilibrium returned, we said our farewells and, a few days later, I was sent on an overseas assignment and Avril returned to Canberra.

I learned many years ago there is no such thing as coincidence, because three weeks later, on my return to Australia, my boss packed me off to Canberra to look after the bureau of the organisation for which I was working at the time. I went to Canberra, called Avril, we had  dinner, found we had a lot in common and, to cut a long story short, Avril’s and my children and our grandchildren are here today.

Twenty three years later, another hospital bed played an important but, this time, a sinister part of our lives together. That time she was in Peter Mac recovering from her first bout with the cancer which took her away from us just four weeks ago. She was recovering from breast surgery; her recovery was swift and successful – or so we thought at the time – and a new word entered her lexicon; she said then she felt fine — and that was how she said she felt right up to the end.

Avril really was amazing and there’s another hospital bed story. At that time she was working for the Victoria State Opera, putting the finishing touches to a huge fund raiser which was to be held on the stage of the State Theatre. I went to visit her in the hospital and found some of the committee members sitting around and on her bed having a meeting.

She flashed me a beautiful smile and asked me come back later when she wasn’t so busy! Oh Avril, dear Avril. The cancer which took her away was her constant and unwanted companion for the most part of the rest of her life; a life she lived as fully as she could and hardly ever complained; when she did, it was never about the pain — it was the inconvenience it caused her really getting on with life. But it didn’t ever stop her loving us as much as she did.

Her condition brought some very wonderful, caring, and loving people into our lives, in the form of her oncologist Professor Ian Haines; her long time GP, Sharon Woolf; and those angels – and that’s what they are – the Cabrini Home Care nurses, some of whom are here today — Amanda, Louise and Janice, with their manager, Helen Walker.

As a team they nurtured and loved her and she returned, as we do now, that love in spades.

Charlie Teo, in his Australia Day address, said he never failed to be impressed by the dignity of the way some of his patients with cancer lived and their dignity in the way they died – he could have been speaking of Avril.

There are thousands of Avril stories and all of them enduring but we don’t have all day. One of my favourites is the time she came along with me on an assignment to Iraq in the 1970’s. Avril wasn’t going to miss a visit to Iraq and, after a lot of reorganisation, off we set.

We even encountered Saddam Hussein, who hadn’t, at that time, murdered his way to the presidency of his country. He was told of Avril’s childhood on a sheep and wheat farm and, through an interpreter, asked if “Madam would do him the honour of swallowing a sheep’s eye!” Madam did, of course!

At a dinner in London, Avril was seated opposite one of the one of the Yugoslav princes, who later suggested to me (but not to Avril) that were she not married to me he would claim her and make her his queen when he regained his father’s lost throne. An older brother stepped up and, as it turns out, neither prince ever did get back that throne — and Avril was never the Queen of Yugoslavia.

The stories are many and varied and, in closing, I want to share today her decision to do a course in car servicing while we were living in London. Even in mechanics overalls she looked gorgeous.

We are going to miss her so much and she will never be far from our thoughts.

Our gorgeous granddaughter Ella – who will speak later today – will, I am sure, always have beautiful memories  of the hours she spent dressing  up in her grandma’s clothes and her wonderful gesture of using masses of tinsel to bright up Avril’s hospital room recently.

And Willem and Angus, those beautiful grandsons who never tired of Manar – that’s what they called her – reading to them for hours on end and taking them out as much as she could.

Some thing’s I hope will never change in a hurry — she’s here today, she was here yesterday, and she’ll be here tomorrow.

Thank you all again for being here today.

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