Jenny Dowell was Mayor of Lismore for eight years. She retired six months ago – but you’d hardly know it. From tonight she’s playing Aunt Julie in the Lismore Theatre Company’s production of Heda Gabler – and that’s just the start…
If I had a dollar for every person who asked me ‘How’s retirement?’ I’d be a wealthy woman. I’m not wealthy of course but life is full of new-found riches so I respond ‘I’m loving it and I can recommend it highly’.
It’s now just a little more than six months since I relinquished my role as Lismore Mayor in September 2016 and many people also ask me what I’m doing with all my free time.
As a firm believer in lifelong learning and challenging oneself, I knew that retirement was not going to be boring or sedentary but I didn’t really have more than a few simple ideas about what I’d do with my time. As you might imagine, I had quite a few invitations to join various community organisations but I took the advice of another politician who retired not so long ago, Don Page, and decided to take a ‘gap year’ or at least a gap six months. I wanted to keep my mind open to opportunities and they have unfolded in many wonderful ways.
My husband Ron and I had planned a three-week road trip to Victoria last October to visit family and for me to attend a high school reunion and a gathering of the Bungalow Girls, eight female student teachers who roomed together in a bungalow attached to a Geelong Teachers College hostel. I also announced that I was suspending my very active Facebook account for several months to make it clear that I was no longer a representative of Council or a conduit to it. I admit that I missed the contact with community during that time but it was also a way of giving necessary clear space for the new Mayor Isaac Smith without the ‘old grey mare’ in the background.
There is something sad and unfair about a retired politician staying on the sidelines and making comments about political decisions so I also resolved never to comment publicly on the voting outcomes of the new Council or to be used to pressure current Councillors on their decisions. I do admit to reading the Council business paper but will not attend meetings and I’ll keep my views on Council decisions to myself.
So apart from that road trip, what have I been up to since September 14?
I was well aware as I approached retirement that I was overweight and too sedentary, had a few aches and pains and wasn’t eating as well as I should. Two years earlier I’d participated in the Cancer Council’s Dance for Cancer and in my efforts to tap dance, I’d joined a gym and become quite fit but in the six months before retirement, I’d lapsed into poorer habits.
Fortunately through being an Ambassador for Heart Health for Women and attending a community heart check morning, I’d been encouraged by Jillian Adams, from Health Promotions here in Lismore to sign up for the NSW Health GetHealthy free phone coaching program. My first phone call from Pierre, my coach, came through on September 16 and from then on, until my graduation last month, I benefitted from the support to set my goals to get healthy.
Having met with the local coordinator of Parkrun in the lead up to its launch in April last year, I supported and walked in the first few Saturday events in Lismore but then dropped away as my motivation waned. But through the GetHealthy program, I set a goal to do something active every day. Mostly that involved walking but soon, to my great surprise, I found myself jogging short sessions. I hadn’t run since I was 11 years old in my first year of high school when I was the only girl Under 12 in October that year and had to run in the interschool athletics at Olympic Park in Melbourne. The embarrassment was immense as I was not at all sporty. So you might imagine my surprise to now find that I can run 5km without stopping and can do it in 33 minutes!
I now run every day for 4-6 kms and have cut out sugar, upped my intake of vegetables, snack less and have lost 14k. I feel fantastic and my back, knee and ankle pains have reduced or disappeared.
Volunteering was also on my ‘to do’ list and as I’d always liked Uniting’s model of Inspired Care, I became a volunteer at Kalina at Caroona in Goonellabah in February. Initially I spent a couple of hours with 6-8 ladies over a cup of tea chatting, reminiscing and laughing at often outrageous stories from their youth. Kay Cleverly, activities coordinator, lived up to her name when she came up with the bright idea that I could teach a group of residents to tap dance while seated. The challenge (apart from my very limited tap skills) was to devise something that would fit on residents’ feet to make a tap sound. The best ideas often come in the middle of the night and so I experimented with the base of drink cans that I collected from the local park, Velcro-ed onto shoes. They work a treat! We’re doing a simple tap dance to Que Sera Sera and having so much fun.
I have also accepted a role as Patron of Jodie’s Inspiration and the Lismore Art Club and continuing roles as Ambassador for the Cancer Council and as Patron of The Rivers College, Kadina campus P&C. Several other Patron roles will come to an end at the AGM of various organisations because my Patron role was linked with the Mayoral position.
My big secret desire during my years on Council was to see if I could act on stage. Although some would say being Mayor was a great preparation, I really had no idea if I could learn lines or take on a character but just before Christmas I fronted up to the Lismore Theatre Company’s Christmas Party, paid my membership and literally put my name in the hat for the evening’s Theatre Sports. I must have played a convincing monkey in a dental surgery and before I knew it I had an email from David Addenbrooke to offer me a supporting role as Aunt Julie in Hedda Gabler. I was stunned and excited! We began rehearsals in late January and opened on March 31 for six performances. ( lismoretheatrecompany.org.au/)
My husband Ron retired more than three years ago and went travelling without me several times while I was fulfilling my Mayoral duties but now I can join him so we are off to France and Italy for a long holiday in late April. I learned French at school but knew no Italian except for a few basic words so I enrolled in Beginners Italian with U3A and have been attending weekly lessons this term. U3A has so many wonderful courses but so far, I’m only enrolled in Italian and the weekly discussion group, Friday Forum.
Of course in the midst of all this activity, gardening and reading remain personal passions that I’ve always enjoyed and to which I can now devote more time. I read 2-3 books a week and have recently written a book review for the Richmond Tweed Regional Library newsletter.
A couple of other surprises have also come my way since I retired. Both directly relate to my role as Mayor and both fill me with that odd mixture of humility and pride.
The first was an invitation to become a Mayors’ Mentors for Local Government NSW, the peak state organisation for Councils. When I was Mayor I was very grateful to have the ex-Mayor of North Sydney, Genia McCaffery as my mentor and I’m now so pleased to be able to support other mayors in their often-challenging role by providing a confidential sounding board and guide.
The second great honour is one that was bestowed as recently as Saturday March 25 when I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at Southern Cross University in recognition of my services to the Lismore community. As part of the award, given at a graduation ceremony, I was invited to give the Occasional Address for the third time. I owe SCU a great deal – in fact I can honestly say I would not have been Mayor if it were not for SCU. My family moved to Lismore in 1991 so that Ron could take up a Lecturing position here in the fledgling Tourism school. As someone who values education and understands the role that regional universities play, I am absolutely thrilled to be given this very special award.
So as readers can see, I’m embracing my retirement with enthusiasm. I love my life and being a cancer survivor, I understand that every day is a blessing. So, as far as the future is concerned…bring it on!
Hedda Gabler opens tonight, Friday April 7 at the Rochdale Theatre in Goonellabah. Tickets are available for tonight, Saturday, & Wednesday evening. Sunday at 2.00pm is sold out, and Thursday April 13 at 8.00 pm is sold out. You can book tickets here: lismoretheatrecompany.org.au/