Humans of Aura
Val Donovan: nurse, wife, mother, historian, culture-vulture
I think I’ve had a very interesting and fulfilling life. I was born in 1934 in the Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Eumundi long before it was trendy. We lived about 15 minutes’ drive from Kenilworth in the small settlement known as Adams Town, named after my family. The photograph of the family was taken about 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression. That is the reason the ducks are hanging from the belts of my father, who is leaning against the car, and my uncle. I was the youngest with an older brother and two sisters.
I attended the small Lower Kenilworth State School a couple of kilometres away. I rode my bike to school and during the war we knitted scarfs for the troops; I would have preferred to be out with the boys gardening. My scarf was sent around the class to get it to the right size before the war ended!
When I was 13 I became a boarder at St Margaret’s School in Brisbane’s Ascot. I made lots of friends at boarding school and many came from north Queensland. During short breaks, such as long weekends, I would invite about six of my friends to our holiday house near Tewantin – I often think of the work that made for my poor mother.
I finished Senior in 1952 and in those days not many young women went to university unless they got a scholarship. I always wanted to be a nurse so started my training at St Martin’s Hospital in Brisbane city near St John’s Cathedral. The hospital is no longer there but the building is now heritage-listed.
After I finished my training, I headed overseas with two friends, one of whom, Beverley, also lives here at Kingsford Terrace Corinda – today the trip would be called a backpacker’s holiday. We were away most of 1957 and apart from having a great time touring and partying we did a bit of work like fruit picking.
On our return, Beverley and I went to the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne to do midwifery – now that was a really good year and the beginning of my education in life! We nearly got expelled one night when we went to have a coffee at the med students’ quarters and were sprung by matron. One of the students was a childhood friend of Beverley’s and we were 25 at the time - can you imagine those rules applying now?
After midwifery I came back to Brisbane and honed my golfing skills with my parents at Tewantin for a short time. I soon was back in Melbourne when an opportunity arose to work at the really wonderful cancer institute, the Peter MacCallum Clinic. I was one of the first groups of nurses to do a post-graduate course in oncology nursing at what was then Australia’s leading cancer centre. I don’t know how but I became the night superintendent and would do rounds of the whole hospital with my torch. Downstairs was the Radiotherapeutic Department where all the machines were and they would suddenly spring into action making all sorts of noises, scaring the life out of me. There were no security guards then.
I worked at the Peter Mac for several years until I married John in 1965. We met on Hayman Island. He did not usually take leave at that time of the year but was asked to change his plans by his company, where he was Financial Controller and Company Secretary. I had gone there with a nursing friend, so John and I were destined to meet. Because I was 31, we decided to start a family straight away. When I became pregnant, I had to leave the clinic because they used a lot of radium in the treatments. We used to wear a dose meter to ensure we weren’t exposed to too much radiation but I was never nervous about working there because I was confident they had safety plans in place.
In 1970 John got a job in England and we headed off with our young daughter and son to live in the wonderful village of Hurley in Berkshire, about an hour from London. We spent an amazing five years there. Recently I was reading a diary from 1971 and realised in that year we went to 15 concerts, operas and plays in London as well as a trip to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany.
We returned to Queensland to Southport and the children were in primary school and I was working as a teacher’s aide when I began to feel brain dead. So I became a mature-age student and that’s when I got into history. I did a Master of Arts in History and graduated at the time of the first native title claims in Queensland as a result of the Native Title Act 1993. I was asked to interview for a job as a historian in Native Title Services, Crown Law – so here I was starting a career in the public service at the age of 62! This was the first time that lawyers and historians had worked together in the courts. I worked there for nearly 10 years and wrote a couple of books on Aboriginal history. I’ve written three books, and co-author of another three, but the one I’m rather proud of is The Reality of a Dark History; a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland.
I was one of a couple of people who worked on the connection reports for native land claims when Aboriginal people had to prove who they were, which I think is the wrong way round – I think we should have to prove who we are because, after all, they’ve been here a lot longer. It’s a very sad history. I think if our politicians knew the history they would better understand what to do. On retiring from the public service I was asked to research and write reports for some of the Aboriginal Land Councils, so I probably didn’t retire until I was about 76 when I said no to a project that would have me appearing again in court. That is not a great experience!
My husband sadly was diagnosed with melanoma and died in 2017 – we were great culture vultures and shared a love of music. We also loved travel and toured Europe in a camper van with the two children. We even went behind the Iron Curtain into East Germany when the Wall was still up. John was very thankful that we had decided to live at Kingsford Terrace, and I was grateful that Tim Russell (Aura Holdings’ director) came to see him before he died. Kingsford Terrace is a great place to live.
Until May 2020 I had been one of the editors of the Queensland History Journal for the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, a role I held for 13 years. In 2017 I was elected as a Fellow of the Society – that was a real honour. I wrote the history of the Graceville Bowls Club for their centenary in 2019 and have prepared local histories of the Corinda district and written a book on St Martin’s Hospital.
I still lead a very busy life. I have five grandchildren, love going to the orchestra, concerts and ballet, listening to music, reading, playing lawn bowls, Scrabble and board games. An added bonus is having my friend Beverley, who I’ve known for 67 years, in the same building. Oh, and now I’m writing my memoir.
Val Donovan is a resident of Brisbane's Kingsford Terrace Corinda retirement community. For information about retirement living at Aura Holdings' southeast Queensland communities go to auraholdings.com.au