Perhaps the signal observation to be made about Neil McNamara, a self styled dairy farmer of Broke, is that he wanted this story to be all about his wife of almost sixty years, Joan. The life of either of the McNamaras is fodder for a story; together, they are a formidable force!
Very early in our conversation, Joan volunteers, "When I saw Neil it was love at first sight and that's still how I feel." Their first meeting was in unlikely circumstances: Joan was visiting her mother in hospital, and offered to run errands for another patient, Mrs McNamara. The McNamaras were dairy farmers at Broke so they were unable to visit every day. When Mrs McNamara's son Neil visited, the two were introduced, and when Joan was invited by the McNamaras to a New Year's Eve dance at Singleton, the partnership was sealed.
They married at St John the Evangelist Lambton, and Joan recalls the Sisters of Mercy at the nearby convent having a cup of tea ready after the wedding. Those were the days when fasting from midnight was required and the wedding was at ten in the morning! "I had four bridesmaids who were all well known to the nuns so they had a real field day." The couple honeymooned in Melbourne, and couldn't understand why it was so difficult to find a hotel room, until someone said, "Did you come from Mars? It's the AFL Grand Final!"
The young Mr and Mrs McNamara moved to the home in the village of Broke where they still live, although they spent many years at the family dairy farm, "Harrowby", outside Broke. Neil is quick to acknowledge that country life meant a significant adjustment for Joan: "We had no electricity, no sealed roads, a toilet fifteen yards down the track, we only went to Singleton once a month, our fruit and vegetables arrived on the milk lorry and the mail car and we had no shop. I have been very fortunate to have had this girl from Bridges Road New Lambton."
Neil gave many years to local government and began serving early, considering his growing family. It's not easy for him to articulate the reason he agreed to stand for the then Patrick Plains Shire Council, but Joan tells a story of a hairy incident during the '55 flood that may well have been a precursor.
"I was sitting on the verandah, about eight months pregnant with Chris, watching coal miners from Cessnock who had come to Broke to help clean up after the flood. We didn't have much traffic usually. All of a sudden the cars started veering off the road and heading to the river. I thought there must be something going on, so I drove down. Here were all these men pulling Neil in the flying fox, which was the only way to cross the river at that time. The flying fox had 'jumped' off the wire rope! I just about collapsed when I saw what was happening, but when I came home I wrote a letter to the council asking why the flying fox hadn't been better maintained."
Neil recalls that he remained "pretty steady" during the ordeal, but when the opportunity to run for Council came, he feels that the much needed bridge was at the back of his mind. "We opened up a lot of country when we built that bridge."
Neil's career in local government was a long one, 43 years in all, with 27 years as Shire President/Mayor. He freely acknowledges that the many meetings and events he had to attend meant that Joan took most of the responsibility for rearing their six children - and taking many phone calls in his absence. "I would come home and three or four constituents might have rung. Touchingly, Neil recalls that Joan, "never went to bed until I was home".
The loss of their youngest, Angela, at only four years was a devastating blow and the sense of loss remains. She was diagnosed with bone cancer and the prognosis was never good. When she died, Joan said of her faith, "it was the only thing that kept me going". This rock solid faith is the cornerstone of Neil and Joan's marriage, and it is expressed most visibly in their dedication to the Immaculate Conception Church, not far from their home at Broke. For many years Joan was the organist and, with others, maintained the church. She has compiled a history of the brick church which opened in 1904. (It had been preceded by a wooden church which had decayed badly.) Along with other parishioners, the McNamaras have donated furniture in memory of deceased members of their family. Angela and Joan's parents lie in well tended graves in the church cemetery, and this no doubt has much to do with Neil and Joan's allegiance to the church.
While they are committed Catholics, the McNamaras are also committed ecumenists, and when I spoke to them, they reported that an Anglican funeral would soon take place in the Catholic church, due to the Anglican church no longer being in use. For some 30 years, Joan taught scripture in the local state school. She tells a story of granddaughter Kelly, when she was quite young, asking, "Grandma, why do we have two churches? We've only got one post office, one shop, one school." Joan said to Kelly, "Look at the cows over there!"
Readers of a certain vintage will know that ecumenism has not always supplanted tribal loyalties, although smaller communities tend instinctively to support each other. Neil and Joan maintain a deep loyalty to Broke, and although they have a residence in Newcastle, they return to Broke for Mass, unfortunately only celebrated monthly. Joan also contributed significantly to establishing the annual Broke Fair which benefits a variety of community groups and brings large crowds to the village.
Many activities and interests that occupied Neil in past years - sport, politics, dairying, membership of a variety of boards and community groups - have receded and it's now family, faith and friendship that dominate the McNamaras' time and thoughts. When Neil was honoured recently with a portrait which now hangs in Singleton's Library, Joan and their children Tony, Bernadette, Therese and Philip were proudly on hand. Son Christopher, who in Neil's words, "was not blessed with many of life's gifts" has lived at Morisset Hospital for many years, and remains very much part of the family.
Neil likes to quote Roman statesman Cicero: "Old age, if lived with dignity, is of more value than all the sensual pleasures of youth." In a society that does not always value the wisdom and experience that come with age, Neil and Joan McNamara are shining exemplars of living life to the full and holding fast to promises made almost sixty years ago.