'A lot of people would be worthy': Meningie couple humbled by OAMs

Bill and Jill Paterson don't see their efforts, recognised in the Queen's Birthday honours list, as anything unusual.

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An Order of Australia Medal is something deserved by any number of people in any country town, Bill and Jill Paterson say after receiving the honour on Monday.

The Meningie husband and wife were each awarded OAMs in the Queen’s Birthday honours list for service to the community and, in Bill’s case, to natural resource conservation.

The pair have been integral to the local Uniting Church, Probus Club, area school and plenty of other local organisations over the past 40 years, as leaders, committee members and volunteers.

But Mr Paterson is perhaps best known in the district as clerk of the Meningie council for 18 years prior to its amalgamation in 1997, and chief executive officer of the new Coorong council until 2005.

Mrs Paterson joked that her award really stood for “Old Aged Mother”.

“You just do what comes naturally without thinking about it,” she said.

“A lot of the volunteering I’ve done is through parenting or an extension of parenting; then it gets to the point where your kids help with your volunteer work by keeping the home fires running.”

Plenty of Meningie people did the same, she said.

“When people have a great need, everybody pulls together,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter what your background is.

“Whether whether you’re church people, whether you’re non-church people, people donate their time, donate their funds – you just do it.”

The Patersons had always been bound to settle in a country community.

She grew up on a farm at Caltowie, near Jamestown; he came from Blyth, just out of Clare; they met at a church youth camp.

But before they reached Meningie in 1979, they took an unusual detour.

On patrol in the Papuan highlands

Margarima is a village in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, perched more than 2000 metres above sea level on the Highlands Highway.

For nine years, Mr Paterson was a patrol officer there, a role he described as part policeman, part magistrate, part development officer, part health program deliverer, part engineer – a jack of all trades representing the territorial government.

He and Jill kept in touch by post all the while, and were married three weeks after he returned from his first 21-month spell.

They spent the early years of their marriage, and became parents, in the New Guinea Highlands.

“Bill had done his best to tell me what it was like, and I thought I understood, but it’s a country you can’t learn about without being there,” Mrs Paterson said.

Still, they loved it enough to stay for 15 years.

Mr Paterson even played a small part in a royal visit to Rabaul in 1974: helping organise a dance and gifts, and making sure a visitor’s book at a church was ready for Her Majesty to sign.

“I had to make sure it was open to a brand new page, because the Queen can’t sign her name underneath anyone else; and there had to be two pens, in case one didn’t work,” he recalled with a smile.

The following year they experienced the sound of a 101-gun salute echoing around the harbour town of Rabaul – built in the caldera of an old volcano – at midnight on September 16, 1975, when the nation gained its independence.

“The kids slept through it,” Mrs Paterson chuckled.

Even in retirement, the Patersons still have a passion for making themselves useful in remote areas.

Mrs Paterson has provided administrative support to Nyangatjatjara College at Yulara, near Uluru, on and off since 2011; and Mr Paterson has found himself doing odd maintenance jobs whenever he has accompanied her.

Do you know an Australian who deserves recognition?

Anyone can nominate any Australian for an award in the Order of Australia.

Photo: Peri Strathearn.