Remembering Evelyn - by Penelope Jackson
In the early 1960s a young woman from Tauranga, called Evelyn, demonstrated long poi swinging on American television. Rumour has it that it was the Ed Sullivan Show. A Fulbright Travel Grant Scholar, Evelyn was in her mid-twenties and studying geography at Syracuse University, New York.
Born in Tauranga in 1936, Evelyn Dinsdale, later Dame Evelyn Stokes, touched my life, albeit briefly. Evelyn grew up in Tauranga and at Tauranga College she was the first non-Māori to join the local kapa haka group. For me she represented a small breed of professional women who had fused family life with academia. As a role model you couldn’t wish for a finer example than Evelyn.
I first met Evelyn in 1997 when we moved into the house next door to Evelyn’s Tauranga holiday home. Though she lived in Hamilton, where she taught geography at the University of Waikato, she had a small modest holiday home in Otūmoetai. She didn’t drive but would regularly catch the bus over to Tauranga and stay for a few days at a time. Evelyn had no airs and graces and was quick to speak her mind. When an elderly neighbour married she was somewhat scathing, commenting to me that he ‘just wanted a housekeeper’.
On one of her bus trips over Evelyn was vexed that the bus now terminated its run at the Information Centre in Willow Street. She exclaimed to the driver, “How am I meant to get home from here?” The driver re-started the bus and took her as far as the Cherrywood roundabout, just a short stroll from her holiday home.
Travel between Hamilton and Tauranga became increasingly problematic for Evelyn as the bus service was reduced. Occasionally I’d give her a ride when I was commuting to teach at the University. The first time caused me a bit of pre-trip nervous anguish. I was worried about car conversation – what did I know compared to this eminent Professor of Geography! Before we’d got out the driveway the busy clicking of knitting needles filled the car with its sound. Knit one, purl one. I could do that. The professor knitted and always had a garment on the go. As we travelled through town and over the Kaimai Range, Evelyn gave me a running commentary on the history of the area and its geography. I wish I’d had the foresight to record it for it was fascinating.
Evelyn was incredibly generous both with her time and knowledge. Randomly on one occasion I mentioned wanting to plant some hydrangeas. A few months later she invited me into her Hamilton home where she had potted up several cuttings for me. And Evelyn championed causes, too. In the early 1990s the council proposed to build public toilets too close to our homes. She campaigned and they were eventually built in the adjoining park.
In 1999 Evelyn was made Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for ‘services to tertiary education and Māori’. As always Evelyn took this new honour, and the others bestowed on her, in her stride. She seemed to get busier in her latter years with the huge commitment of the Waitangi Tribunal, yet she’d come and stay and invite her siblings and their children to stay, sleeping them - as she described it - ‘marae style’ on the living room floor.
Evelyn’s mum, then in her nineties, would occasionally hover up and down the street in her aged green Honda Civic, a tell-tale sign that a visit from Evelyn was imminent. Her mother would offer to take Evelyn for a spin in the car but she’d refuse, not trusting her mother’s driving. I wouldn’t have either, given that I’d seen her on one occasion drive anti-clockwise around a local roundabout.
Evelyn’s life was full but not always easy. She had worked hard and straddled both Māori and pākehā worlds. Testimony to this was her final farewell, a tangi and a church service, both held at the University of Waikato, where she’d taught for 41 years. Breast cancer and the subsequent radiation therapy treatment took it toll on Evelyn and regularly she would have a bout in hospital. During the winter of 2005 she succumbed to her recurrent pneumonia, dying on August 11th.
Dame, professor, geographer, mother, writer, knitter.… Whatever hat she wore Evelyn was from that amazing generation of women, born pre-World War II, who were able to complete university studies before taking on the responsibilities of domesticity. Her academic career was full and her contribution to her discipline outstanding.
And yet Evelyn always made time for her family and friends. She wrote A History of Tauranga County (1980) which is a vast storehouse of information about our region. It is time to add Evelyn’s story to that history because one thing is for sure: she wouldn’t have done so herself. Her humble approach to life would have excluded such personal indulgences. Having known Evelyn, I now have a greater understanding of the word and concept of ‘mana’, an accolade she earned and deserved.