Newling Gardens resident Thelma McCarthy has mixed with Prime Ministers, been a well-recognised advocate on women’s issues, and opened many of Armidale’s public buildings.
Thelma McCarthy with Prime Minister Bob Hawke and husband Bill McCarthy
Now, at 95, she has been recently awarded Labor Party Life Membership for more than 40 years of service.
She has already received an Order of Australia for her service to the community and New South Wales.
On top of all that, she was among eight veterans recently invited to Armidale’s Legacy House to receive a medallion marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Of a life devoted to giving back the community in various ways, she says unassumingly: “I suppose I was in the right place at the right time.
“Over the years I’ve become a voice and a face of the Labor Party in Armidale.
“With anything you are interested in, I would encourage you to try it and follow your dreams.’’
She and late husband – NSW MP Bill McCarthy – counted former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam as a family friend. She also helped run a rural property with Bill, and was Deputy Chair of the NSW Council for Bicentennial office, and has served on the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing.
Thelma with former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam
Joining the war effort
Stepping up to join the war effort after the bombing of Darwin in 1942, Thelma was posted to a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base at 17 in Canberra – becoming a wireless telegraphist.
“I was so young, so I put my age up,’’ she said. “Before we were posted our trainer said to us: “Remember, we don’t want to be the same as men, but we want to be equal to them.
“That’s something that has stuck with me over the years.’’
Rising to the rank of sergeant at the RAAF base, it was here that she met her pilot husband Bill, a flight officer in the 13th squadron, as well as navigator Gough Whitlam.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in politics at that age but Bill was – and obviously so was Gough,’’ said Thelma.
“Those men who flew together became close. They were a very tight-knit group and that’s how Gough became part of our family life – he even came to my 80th birthday party.’’
Into the fray of politics
The McCarthys became immersed in political life when Bill won the Country Party-held State seat of Armidale in 1978.
Bill and Thelma McCarthy
He later held the seat of Northern Tablelands, but resigned in 1987 – sadly passing away from cancer just three days later.
“When Australia was preparing to celebrate the Bicentennial, we received a call from the former Premier Neville Wran. He asked if I would consider being on the Board of the NSW Committee,’’ said Thelma.
“Although I initially turned it down, Bill insisted I ring him back and take the position. It was this role that kept me busy after Bill’s death, and stopped me from completely hitting the deck.’’
Among the many projects she worked on in her role as the Deputy Chair of the NSW Bicentennial Council was Armidale’s arboretum, which is a now a city landmark. She officially opened a major renovation of the 16 hectare site in 1988 – a project which drew together service clubs, schools, businesses, individuals and the City Council.
A meal with the Prime Minister
One of Thelma’s first brushes with the higher echelons of national politics came when she and a group of work colleagues unexpectedly found themselves dining at The Lodge at the request of Prime Minister John Curtin.
It arose from an incident at Canberra at the signals station during the war.
“The telephonists were always being teased by the guards saying things like: ‘The Japanese are coming and so on.
“When the operator answered a call that said: ‘This is the Prime Minister calling. I’d like to invite the Commanding Officer to lunch’, she thought it was a hoax. She replied, “Yes, and I am Mary Queen of Scots. I don’t know about lunch, but I’ll be free for dinner.
“The caller said he understood she was unconvinced about his identity and gave her a number to call back. When she called back, it was indeed the number for The Lodge.
“She started to apologise but the Prime Minister said it was his fault for not observing protocol, but asked about the dinner.
“He asked how many girls were on duty that day. There were four – so he sent his driver to pick us up after we finished our shift. We had cold meat and salad and he later took us for a tour of The Lodge.
“Years later, I was invited to The Lodge by Bob Hawke with the Chair of the Bicentenary to present to the women of Australia a banner that was painted and taken to England in 1900 in support of women’s right to vote.
“He was showing us around and I was able to say: ‘Yes, I’ve been here before.’ ”