A tribute to Jean Gilbert

With the passing of Jean Ellis Gilbert (nee Breeding) the Dorrigo community lost an inspirational elder and stalwart citizen on February 27.

Just a few weeks beforehand, Jean celebrated her 100th birthday among relatives and friends.

Jean lived most of her life on a farm near Bostobrick, having settled in the region in 1941 as the young bride of Jack (Allan John) Gilbert.

Jack’s father, Francis Gilbert, built many of the early roads in the Bellingen Shire before turning to beef cattle and potato farming.

Jean was the eldest child of English migrant Sarah Jane Evans and Gallipoli veteran Clarence William Breeding.

Born in Semaphore, South Australia, on 4 February 1917, she grew up during the Great Depression and left school at 13 to help support her family, later taking on cooking and waitressing work in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

Australia was already in the grip of WWII by the time she married into the Gilbert family, a day before the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Her first two children, Judith and Peter, were born before the war ended, the remaining four – Michael, Marie, Bernard and Helen – over the subsequent decade.

Like many of their generation, Jack and Jean often struggled to make ends meet, but they shared what they had with friends, neighbours, acquaintances and even strangers, hosting summer picnics for visiting nuns, taking children from the Cowper orphanage for the Christmas school holidays, and giving food and work to transient swagmen.

Barely a street stall went by without featuring donations of Jean’s baking, preserves or beautifully hand-made crafts to raise money for community projects.

Her humble house, with its rambling garden and orchard, became a special place for her sons and daughters, and later 16 grand-children and 38 great grand-children.

Jean believed strongly in the virtues of work – in the home, on the farm, in the community. She not only raised six children in a house without electricity, but also made numerous contributions to civic life during her 76 years in the Dorrigo district.

One of her great achievements was to teach dozens of children to swim each year in the bracing waters of the Little Murray River.

As well as serving on the Bostobrick School’s P&C committee, she was a member of the Red Cross, the Catholic Ladies Hospital Auxiliary and the St Vincent de Paul Society.

‘Toughest old bird I ever met’, was the simple message from a grandson-in-law on her 100th birthday card.

This comment goes to the heart of what was special about Jean Gilbert – a determination to carry on, without fuss or fanfare, no matter what the circumstances. She lives on in the memories of those who loved her as someone who lived life with boundless integrity and humanity.