Jean Russel Yule (nee Ward): A Tribute
By Sandy Yule
Jean Russel Yule was born on January 20th, 1918, the second child of John Frederick Ward and Florence Winnifred Ward (nee Braddock). We may wonder what impact there is in being born into a world at war. There is presumably a visceral awareness of our human vulnerability which leads many to debilitating anxiety or fearful self-preservation. Jean seems to have been mercifully free of these reactions and was instead very sensitive to the need to overcome the many causes of war. Her guiding light was the power of love to overcome all fear.
Her father was the first Principal at two Methodist boarding schools, Thornborough College in Charters Towers, Queensland and Wesley College, Perth, before becoming Principal of Prince Alfred College, Adelaide. This meant that Jean grew up, along with her older brother Russel, younger sister Claire and younger brother John, in a very established household where responsibility and duty were well known. It can be suggested that all four siblings outgrew whatever narrowness there was in this background, but that Jean did so with the highest level of acceptance of what she saw as its good aspects.
Jean married my father, Alexander Yule (Alec), in 1940, also in the midst of war. Their relationship remained the rock on which they both built their lives thereafter. Their first thought upon surviving the war was to offer for missionary service in China, the story of which Jean has recorded in her book, ‘About Face in China’. We [Ian and I, and eventually Ruth, were with them in this venture] were heading into another war zone in this missionary effort, as the conflict between the Chinese Nationalist army under Chiang Kai Shek and the Communist army under Mao Tse Tung was played out while we were there. I have a vague memory of our journey from Amoy (now Xiamen) to Hong Kong during which the boat was shelled from the mainland by the Communists with one direct hit. I was given the job of staying in the cabin with Ian and Ruth while Jean went below to assist in caring for the wounded.
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 is 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 decision of the continuing Presbyterian Church, after the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia, to reverse this decision for the ordination of women, was always a matter of deep incomprehension to her.
There is a paradox in Jean that is worthy of comment. Her word to me during those last hours in the hospital was, ‘It is all about acceptance’. I understand this to refer to her lifelong trust in the love and care of God. She was always prepared to be fully realistic (and in that sense, accepting) about what came her way from the wider world. Yet she was also fully committed to bending the ways of the world towards the harmonious and life-giving kingdom of love. This was her specific vision that underlay all the activism and the political critique of governments of all stripes. Friends and family members will recognize the description of Jean as a consummate networker and organizer. Positive as this mostly was, there was also the shadow side where we would, on occasion, feel manipulated by the role that she would assign to us within her plans. I personally developed the ‘joke’ that whenever she would say to me, ‘Sandy, would you like to…’, I would immediately respond with ‘No’ before she could finish the sentence, in order to reach an ‘equal speech situation’ in which I could feel free to do what she was expecting as if it had been a genuinely open request.
I am most grateful for all the messages of sympathy at this time, some of which have gone on to offer their own tribute. One friend remembers Alec and Jean in ministry at Mount Gambier as ‘keen advocates of Church Union and people of great piety and integrity’. Jean was ‘an exemplary Christian woman’. Another remembers serving on committees with Jean in the 1970’s and ’always being challenged and cheered – and occasionally stirred up or mildly infuriated but always in the context of good friendship and companionship in a great cause’. A third friend has written, ‘How you will all miss Jean! But what a life, and life force, to have shared for so long!’ How true. Jean as a ‘life force’ was mostly enlivening, but not always felt to be so, if you were feeling unready for high causes. An afternoon tea with Jean could be expected to be an occasion for reviewing the state of the world and setting it to rights, with an implicit demand for renewed activism. Indeed, I can report that in her last hours, she charged my wife, Fay, with just such a task.
There is too much of real interest in her career to go into full detail – or even outline – here, and I am grateful for my sister Jane’s work on an obituary where at least a decent outline can be properly given. Time will fail me to tell of her teaching of English and History at Walford House, in the UK, at Dandenong High School and for the Australian Immigration Department; of her long involvement in the resettling of refugees; of her many political campaigns, including a tilt at a seat in parliament for the Australian Democrats; of her long work for Trading Partners (in which her entrepreneurial skills were on full display); of her membership in the Presbyterian delegation to the East Asian Christian Conference Assembly in 1968; of her Women’s column in Presbyterian Life; of her leadership in the Presbyterian Women’s Association of Australia; of her fervent advocacy for church union and for the place of women within the governance of the Uniting Church; of her lay preaching and her eldership in the Anglesea congregation; and of her trip to Government House in Melbourne to receive her Order of Australia Medal.
Let me rather dwell on her enthusiastic hospitality to all comers right up to the day of her hospitalization and death. As a family member, I can testify to the desirability of finding out who else was likely to be at Anglesea when planning a visit. If you wanted to have a quiet conversation with Jean, it was best to consult her social calendar for an opportune moment. There has been a slight diminution of her enthusiasm for crowds in her space in recent years, when her need for an afternoon nap became an institution and grandchildren were required to show some restraint of high spirits around her, but the same welcome was unfailing. She had a special capacity for creating honorary family members, many of whom are here today. Last night, Fay and I had a phone call from Princeton, New Jersey, where Charles and Ruth West are living in retirement. They formed a lifelong ‘honorary family’ relationship with Jean and Alec (and now with the rest of us) when the two families shared accommodation in Peking (now Beijing) in 1947-48.
Jean died on Saturday 13 October. It was remarkable that, apart from a treatable infection to which she was responding well, there was no overt sign of the coming end until the Friday morning of 12 October, when hospitalization was required. The time in hospital was remarkable for Jean’s clarity of mind in refusing interventions of doubtful worth and in her ability to communicate with us. She seemed to hear what was said without the assistance of her hearing aid. Those of us privileged to share this time with Jean will never forget her calm acceptance of her own death and her concern to manage such things as the cancelling of her subscription to the Age newspaper. She died while in the middle of a phone conversation with her grandson, Graeme Brown. She died as she lived, in communication and in charge. I have no doubt that she was sustained throughout by her strong faith in Christ. I shall conclude with the words of a verse of a hymn attributed to Saint Francis which express something of Jean’s acceptance of her own death.
O thou most kind and gentle death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath.
Thou leadest home the child of God
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.