Obituary for Jean by Jane for publication in the Age

Jean Russel Yule (née Ward), OAM

Activist, Writer, Educator

20 January 1918 – 13 October 2012

by Jane Yule

Jean was born in Rose Park, Adelaide in the final year of the Great War, the second child and elder daughter of (Florence) Winnifred (née Braddock) and John Frederick Ward. The following year she moved with her parents and brother Russel to north Queensland when her father took up the position of headmaster at Thornburgh College, Charters Towers. Her sister Claire was born later that year (1919), and her younger brother John in 1926, by which time the family had relocated to Wesley College, South Perth.

In 1930, the family moved to Adelaide, where her father became headmaster of Prince Alfred College, and Jean commenced her secondary schooling at Methodist Ladies College. By her final year she had been made joint head prefect, captain of tennis and vice-captain of hockey. Sport was a life-long passion, particularly tennis and swimming, and she was rather proud of injuries incurred from games with the Veteran tennis side at Anglesea well into her seventies.

On leaving school, she entered the University of Adelaide studying English and History, graduating three years later in 1939 with second-class honours. It was at university that she and her brother Russel, later a leading Australian historian, developed political views completely at odds with their conservative background. But Jean always remained close to her parents and particularly her adored sister Claire.

In 1940 she secured a teaching position at Walford Girls School but resigned after a year to marry Alexander Yule, a marriage of true minds that sustained and nurtured her for nearly 60 years. Together they weathered a war that, as pacifists, they had opposed. But following Japan’s attack on Australia, Jean supported Alec’s decision to join the army as non-combatant. It was a war that was to claim the life of her close friend, Duncan Menzies, in the Burma campaign, and that of her brother John through misadventure while with the occupying forces in Japan. In 1947, Jean and Alec took their two young sons, Sandy and Ian, to work with the Church of Christ in China. Two years later, in a country being torn asunder by civil war, she gave birth to their first daughter Ruth. Jean later documented their experiences in her book, About Face in China.

The China experience persuaded Alec to offer for the Presbyterian ministry, like his own father and grandfather before him. Jean fully supported him in this decision and would probably have made the same offer herself if there had been openness in the church for women in ordained ministry at that time. This was undoubtedly the root of her own firm commitment to this cause in subsequent years. The long and ultimately successful campaign for women’s ordination in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, in which she was a significant player, is recorded in her book, Women in the Church: A Memoir.

The church was the centrepoint of Jean’s professional life. As a minister’s wife, she was a consummate committee member and leader among women in the Presbyterian Church. Their first parish was at Lake Rowan in north-east Victoria, where their second daughter Margaret was born in 1954. The old manse was rather rudimentary, with a wood-fire stove and only one cold water tap, and she often reflected how different her lifestyle was from that of her sister who was by then enjoying rather more luxurious circumstances in New Delhi as the wife of the Australian High Commissioner Walter Crocker.

There followed parish ministry at Winchelsea – and the birth of their third daughter Jane – then at Dandenong, Mt Gambier and Highett. For 14 years Jean edited the Women’s Page of Presbyterian Life, and from 1967–70 was President of the Presbyterian Women’s Association of Australia. She was one of three representatives of the Presbyterian Church of Australia to the East Asian Christian Conference in 1968, the same year in which she was elected as a church Elder. In 1970, Jean became the first woman to address the Presbyterian General Assembly as a member.

At the end of the Vietnam War, Jean launched herself into resettling some of the thousands of refugees who came to our shores seeking asylum. Back in the 70s, they were welcomed by a kinder Australia, among them Jean who helped so many find housing and employment, even hosting the wedding of one young Vietnamese couple in her loungeroom. From 1974–78, she worked as a Field Officer for World Christian Action, visiting hundreds of schools and churches promoting issues of social justice in the developing world, followed by a decade teaching English as a second language for the Adult Migrant English Service.

In 1983, Jean stood for the Australian Democrats in the Lower House seat of Holt as it was a party that suited her left of centre, progressively minded and non-compliant socialist ideals. The rules and regulations of the ALP and its factions were not for her (although she was always relieved when they won), but Jean was gratified to see a woman attain the Prime Ministership of Australia. Those sorts of opportunities were not readily available to women of her generation, which made her more determined that her distaff (female) line could be and do whatsoever to which they aspired.

Jean was incredibly proud of the family she had raised to be, in her words, part of the ‘counter culture’. She dedicated her life to bending the ways of the world towards the harmonious and life-giving kingdom of love. An afternoon tea with Jean could be an occasion for reviewing the state of the world and setting it to rights, with an implicit demand for renewed activism. In 2004, her unselfish vigour and dynamism was rewarded with a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘Services to the community though the Uniting Church in Australia’.

Jean spent the last 25 years of her energetic life at Anglesea, where until the age of 90 she could be seen gliding through the water beyond the break at Point Roadnight’s cliff beach. For much of this time she patiently cared for her husband Alec through his irrevocable descent into Alzheimer’s disease, which finally claimed his life in 1997. Jean was a dedicated member of the Anglesea Uniting Church and an advocate and supporter of social justice. For more than 20 years she worked tirelessly for Trading Partners, a not-for-profit fair trade organisation that sourced and sold handicrafts created by artisans in the world’s poorer communities – a passion that had begun in the 1960s when she began importing and distributing goods made by Chinese refugees living in Hong Kong.

Jean died as she lived, in control and in communication until the last. She is survived by her five children, nine grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and a large extended family of friends, who she has charged (nay commanded!) to continue her legacy of passionate and intelligent action against injustice.


With Sandy and Bec Yule

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