Betty Lewis

Betty Lewis

Mrs Betty Lewis

A much-loved, warm-hearted, and sparkling matriarch of the St Mark’s College community, Betty Lewis (1917-2012) was appointed an Honorary Fellow of St Mark’s in 1995 in recognition of a lifetime’s enthusiastic contribution to the College.

She lived at the College for 37 of the first 43 years of its existence, first as daughter of the first Master (Sir Archibald Grenfell Price) and Lady Price, and then as wife of the Vice-Master and later the second Master, Mr R. B. (Bob) Lewis, before serving as a member of the College Council from 1985 to 1991.

A generous donor to the College through much of her life, she was also recognised as a Governor of the St Mark’s College Foundation, alongside Bob Lewis.

Yet her service to the community did not end at Pennington Terrace. Amongst much else, she served as a wartime nurse, and later on the committee of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, and was a passionate environmentalist who was particularly active in South Australia in national parks and conservation, open gardens, and the National Trust.

Pauline Elizabeth Price, known affectionately as Betty, was born on 30 December 1917, and had a unique upbringing. The firstborn child of geographer and historian Archibald (“Archie”) and Kitty Pauline (“Babs”) Price (née Hayward), she was born into a loving family, and from the age of seven grew up at St Mark’s College, after the College opened in 1925, following Archie’s appointment as the first Master.

With the College in its infancy, living arrangements were far from normal. When it became possible for the family to move from their Walkerville home into residence in the fledgeling College, she and her brothers Charles and Kenneth slept on the Downer House veranda open to the park opposite (until the family moved to their own home in Melbourne Street, North Adelaide). Despite not being allowed to speak to the older Collegians in residence when she crossed the College courtyard, Betty had fond memories of falling asleep to laughter ringing out from the dining hall (then in Downer House). It has been suggested that sleeping outdoors on the Downer House veranda contributed to the robust physical stamina Betty enjoyed throughout her long life.

Betty also had strong memories of Sunday visits, after the St Mark’s church service, to Granny Price at “Tutuila”, near Crafers in the Adelaide Hills, and of family holidays at Victor Harbor – experiences which perhaps helped shape her own warm dedication to family later as a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

She also always remembered her father telling her that he had carried her as a small infant to greet Keith and Ross Smith “as they touched down on the paddock by the North East Road” on the arrival of their epic and pioneering flight from London to Australia in 1919 – a flight she would help to commemorate over 80 years later.

Perhaps somewhat in contrast with her “irrepressible” brothers, Betty was described as a “golden-haired girl”. Indeed, she only recalled ever being reprimanded by her father once. Betty was educated at Creveen School on Kermode St, North Adelaide, and later at Woodlands. Naturally, she excelled at school, topping the state in History in Intermediate (though taking three attempts to pass Maths).

In the spirit of the times, after school she attended the Invergowrie Homecraft Hostel in Melbourne to address her poor domestic skills – the by-product of being raised in a catered residential college. Cooking never became one of Betty’s strengths.

Betty also took overseas trips with her much-loved Granny Hayward, and in 1939, she accompanied her parents on a visit to the United States and Canada, including visits to Navajo and Hopi settlements, and crossing Death Valley in California. World War Two broke out when they were in Honolulu on their return journey to Australia.

The outbreak of war saw Betty commence training as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Her father showed her bridges in Adelaide she could hide under in the event of air raids, and a cave near Tea Tree Gully where she and her mother could take shelter in the event of a Japanese invasion.

Thrust into roles of responsibility with no prior experience, Betty and the other new nurses at the Royal Adelaide Hospital had to learn on the job. Embracing the challenge with her characteristic vitality, Betty again excelled – although not without the odd mishap. She would later retell the story of the solemn day when she and another nurse were laying out a recently deceased patient. The very next morning, the patient in the adjacent bed asked where her dentures were. Betty and her colleague looked at each other before running to the morgue to retrieve the teeth!

Diligent and empathetic, Betty was awarded a gold medal during her nursing training. She and her lifelong friend Joan Goodhart later reflected that their ability to work fast and efficiently was borne out of their time together at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

It has been said that Betty Lewis “possibly inherited” and certainly learnt from the “grace, beauty and charm” of her mother Babs, and “gleaned much” from the “zest and enthusiasm for life and involvement in community” of her father Archie. Her optimistic approach to life was often expressed in the refrain “aren’t we lucky!”.

Astonishingly, by 1943, Betty recalled that she had received at least a half dozen marriage proposals. She finally found an appropriate suitor in Bob Lewis, a man who had fallen in love with her when he was a school student visiting Adelaide as part of a Geelong Grammar rowing crew. He always maintained it was love at first sight. Marrying in 1943, and sharing “a love of people, a generosity of spirit and a welcoming hospitality”, theirs would be a devoted partnership of nearly 66 years.

Following Bob Lewis’s appointment as Vice-Master of St Mark’s in 1946, Betty once again returned to live at St Mark’s College. In a way history repeated itself and Betty would raise her and Bob’s four children at St Mark’s College. Diana (born in Melbourne), David, Trish and Margie all recall their upbringing in the College, including for a time living in Downer House (with some sleeping out on the veranda) until the Lewis family moved into the Grenfell Price Lodge after the College purchased it in 1953. Family holidays were often spent happily in a “shack” acquired at Chiton, near Victor Harbor, which the children loved.

However, it wasn’t only Betty’s children and their friends who would benefit from her generosity and warmth. Ever the gracious hostess, she entertained students, visiting scholars, and other guests in the College Lodge, and generations of sick St Mark’s Collegians would be nursed back to health by her – the unofficial, yet much appreciated, College matron. In this, as in so much else in her life, she showed what have been described as her characteristic “warmth, enthusiasm, genuine interest and vitality”.

At the same time, alongside such hobbies as tennis and gardening, “Betty’s burgeoning interest in the environment and her searching for campsites for the Girl Guides” – she chaired the Campsite Committee of the Girl Guides Association of SA – “led to a long-time involvement with SA’s National Parks and Wildlife Service. She and Bob eventually purchased a cottage and land at Mt George in her beloved Adelaide Hills.”

To ensure that women had access to opportunities she never had, Betty was also a keen supporter of women’s education. Naturally, having witnessed the benefits of collegiate living, and aware that many stalwarts of St Mark’s (including her own mother) had been active in the founding and development of St Ann’s College as a college for women, Betty was a member of the St Ann’s Foundation Committee. She was also a strong supporter of the Wilderness School, an all-girls school where her three daughters were enrolled.

Then in 1967, after over twenty years in leadership roles at St Mark’s, Bob Lewis moved to become the Master of Menzies College at La Trobe University in Melbourne in 1968. Betty would flourish in Melbourne – “perhaps for the first time … in a role independent of husband and children”.

Invited by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch to join the Committee of Management of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Betty became what has been described as "the stalwart of the RCH Committee at a time of very great change”, including serving for some time as Vice-Chairman. “It proved the perfect outlet for her gifts, channelling her interest in medicine and nursing, her organisational skill and her great ability to connect with people.” Respected by all, Betty served as President of the RCH Auxiliaries from 1978 to 1982 and in typically lively fashion embraced supporting the disparate hospital support groups across Victoria, and became the public face of the Hospital’s Good Friday appeal.

Even while living in Melbourne, Betty Lewis never lost touch with St Mark’s, maintaining her interest in the College community, and particularly with those living in Victoria or visiting the State.

This impressive chapter in Melbourne would draw to a close when Bob retired in 1983, and the couple returned to South Australia, finally making their property at Mt George their home and working in earnest on its beautiful garden.

Despite being “retired’, the couple continued to live life to the fullest extent possible. Together, united in purpose, Betty and Bob supported a slew of environmental causes in the Adelaide Hills and beyond. They played a leading role in setting aside the Mt George Conservation Park and forming its affiliated Friends association.

As a member of the Council of the National Parks Foundation of SA (later the Nature Foundation) for 14 years, Betty was active in fundraising and the creation of conservation parks. It has been said that she “brought a very human feel to Council meetings” and “would raise everyone’s spirits with her sense of fun and sparkling common sense”. As the Foundation helped Government to purchase land for National Parks, Betty was “wonderful at planning” events for the formal opening of a new Park or addition to an existing one, and “was generosity and common sense personified who understood the human dimension of nature conservation”.

In 1991, Betty was awarded Life Membership of the National Parks Foundation, and in 2001 was recognised as a Fellow of the Nature Foundation. In part for their leadership in Mt George conservation as well as other work, Betty and Bob Lewis were also recognised in a record of One Hundred Notable Supporters of National Parks in South Australia, 1891-1991, which was published as part of the centenary of National Parks in SA. In 2015, after her death in 2012, the Nature Foundation named a walking trail on the Hiltaba Nature Reserve on the Eyre Peninsula the “Betty and Bob Lewis Walking Trail”.

With Bob as State President of the National Trust during the 150th anniversary of European settlement of South Australia, Betty and Bob visited groups across the State. They took a particular interest in Old Government House in the Belair National Park in the Adelaide Hills. They were both members of the Friends of Old Government House for many years, and were recognised as Patrons of the Friends of Old Government House. Betty was also the instigator of the laying of a plaque at “Raywood”, another historic home with extensive gardens in the Adelaide Hills, to honour its original owner, Tullie Wollaston (1863-1931), who did much to propagate the claret ash (also known as Raywood ash).

An avid gardener herself, Betty had been one of the earliest selectors for the Open Garden Scheme in SA, and served as the Chair of Selectors in its early years.

Sharing a strong interest in geography with other members of the Price and Lewis families, Betty Lewis also took an active role in the Royal Geographic Society of South Australia, supporting the Lewis Prizes offered yearly by the Society, and regularly attending the Society’s monthly lectures. Its President, Rod Shearing, wrote after her death in 2012: “Betty believed that to encourage interest and endeavour through life one had to lead by example and Betty threw herself into causes with gusto and enjoyment.”

This zest for life was evident also in her life-long connection with St Mark’s. In 1985, three years after St Mark’s went coeducational, Betty Lewis became only the second woman elected to the College Council, joining the renowned educator Mrs Diana Medlin. She served two three-year terms on the Council, from 1985 to 1991.

At her last Council meeting, in March 1991, Betty Lewis “asked that a well-respected, prominent female be considered when an appointment is next made to Council” (and in fact two women joined the Council over the following year). The minutes of the same meeting record that the Chairman of Council, Justice R. G. Matheson, “thanked Mrs. Lewis very much indeed for her contribution” to the Council. “Mrs. Lewis had been a most valuable and industrious member of Council. The College owed a great debt to her.”

Gavin Walkley, who had served from 1961 to 1982 as Chairman of the College Council, later recorded that Betty Lewis not only maintained a friendly influence at the College over many years, but “was extremely generous to the College” financially: “Like her parents she was a quiet, unobtrusive and usually anonymous giver. Few would be aware of the constant stream of gifts she made, not only at the time of formal appeals but at other times, whenever she saw a need.”

In 1993, Betty and Bob Lewis began a series of generous donations which endowed the R. B. and P. E. Lewis Scholarship. The Lewis Scholarship remains one of the highest honours in the College, and is awarded on the basis of academic excellence, contribution to community activities (at College or in the wider community), and financial need. The names of recipients of this prestigious award are recorded on an honour board in the Junior Common Room.

Amongst many other acts of philanthropy over many years, in 1973 Betty had also helped to endow the Pauline Price Scholarship at the University of Adelaide for a top student of geography there or at Flinders University. The scholarship honours Betty’s mother’s contribution to the University of Adelaide, including through its affiliated colleges, especially St Mark’s and St Ann’s.

In 1995, Betty Lewis became only the second women to be appointed an Honorary Fellow of St Mark’s College – the first being her mother, Lady Price, in 1982. The announcement of Betty’s Honorary Fellowship, drafted by Gavin Walkley, said that in addition to her service on the College Council and her remarkable generosity to St Mark’s, “Mrs Lewis’s support for her father and mother, and then for her husband, has been outstanding for a period of about 60 years. She thus contributed significantly to the development of St Mark’s for most of its life.” Betty’s photographic portrait, along with those of other Honorary Fellows, hangs in the College’s Dining Hall.

Unfortunately, as Bob’s health ailed in 2002, the couple were forced to move reluctantly down from the Hills closer to the Adelaide CBD. Symbolic of the enduring legacy they left, the Mt Barker Courier described their departure in these terms: “passionate environmentalists leave their mark on the Hills”. A difficult day for both, Betty remained characteristically upbeat, remarking that the removalists were “such nice men” – nothing could get her down.

Over many years, Betty and Bob Lewis were frequent attenders of the College’s annual lunch in the Downer House Ballroom for those who had been in College 50 years or more before. To enable Bob to get upstairs to the Ballroom, in 2003 Betty and he initiated the installation of a lift, made possible through generous donations from them, Ian and Pamela Wall, and many other donors.

The last years of her life would see Betty demonstrate remarkable attention and care for her husband, while maintaining the relationships with environmental and other organisations she had built over a lifetime. She served on the Committee of the Walkerville Historical Society for several years from her and Bob’s move to the city.

Her family were astonished to learn that in her late 80s Betty petitioned Rann Government Minister, Jane Lomax-Smith, on behalf of the Walkerville Historical Society, for the relocation of Keith and Ross Smith’s plane – the plane which had completed the marathon England to Australia flight, and which she as an infant had been taken to see. When asked by her family if she had gone alone to see the Minister, Betty replied “of course I did!”

Indeed, Betty simply refused to accept the vagaries of age. At 92, when she discovered she couldn’t get up unaided at a beach, she promptly resolved to commence weekly classes to maintain her fitness. At the same age, “she capped a lifelong love of travel with a trip to Rome”. Someone who met her on that trip described her as having “that wonderful social ease of an experienced hostess capable of putting everyone at ease and involving them”.

This steadfast commitment to living life to the fullest is reflected in the schedule of her final weekend. At age 94, she attended the 30th anniversary dinner celebrating coeducation at St Mark’s College, drove herself to the AGM of the Friends of Old Government House, then back to St Mark’s “to regale them with stories of early days in the College’s life”, attended Church on Sunday and had drinks with her sister-in-law and dear friend Ann Price. She passed away gently in her sleep the following morning, 5 March 2012.

As well as with a photographic portrait in the Dining Hall, the prestigious Lewis Scholarship, and on honour boards and plaques, Betty Lewis’s memory is honoured at the College in the naming of the Lewis flats in grateful recognition of her and of Bob Lewis, and with the nearby sculpture by Silvio Apponyi donated by them which was unveiled in February 2010.

Betty’s life – and her involvement with St Mark’s from its infancy – was truly extraordinary. When asked about the secret to her long and happy life, she replied in her unassuming way, “it is because I have been loved all my life”.

We may not see her like again.

Researched and written by Oliver Douglas, with kind assistance from Ms Margie Richardson.