If Ella Ebery wasn’t working, she says she would go mad. Sounds like something many people would say, right? But get this – Ella, who is the editor of St Arnaud’s North Central News in Victoria, turns 97 in December.
So while people 35 years her junior look forward to their retirement years with visions of holidays and relaxation, Ella is intent on making sure the independently operated newspaper meets its weekly deadline. “People are inclined now to say I’m a legend because of my age,” she said. “But I’m not as good as I might look. I look fine but I’m battling a bit,” she confessed.
Ella became an overnight celebrity in 2000 when she was awarded the prestigious Shakespeare accolade for Excellence in Editorial Writing, presented by the National Country Press Association. The recognition meant news reporters from around the nation were keen to chat with her. “It was a personal Walkley Award for me and it got me lots of publicity at the time.”
Ella also featured on ABC’s Australia Story where they focused on the theme of her starting a career at the age of 60. “Only every now and then someone rediscovers me,” she told ConnectPink.
However, Ella’s writing career began well before her 60s, which has led her to live a colourful and busy life.
“I have always written,” she said. “I left school in the 1930s during the depression, which is nearly a century ago,” she said. “And there wasn’t much employment for girls in those days. I just got married and had kids. But I kept on writing and freelancing for women’s magazines and the local paper encouraged me because they like free contributions. So that’s really all the training I had in journalism.”
Ella said she joined the newspaper about 35 years ago when it was experiencing financial difficulties. “It was going down the drain and you may have noticed when that’s happening they put a woman in when the ship is sinking,” she said modestly. “They offered me the job as the editor which was a bit of a poisoned chalice but the paper was independently owned and the farmer who ran it was subsidising it from his farm income. So he took on a managing partner to put it back on its feet.”
Ella described the paper as her voice in the community. “The paper is very much community orientated in that we take up all sorts of causes, like the Minister for Education’s visit this week." She explained how the town’s primary school is involved in a particular program. “We have been trying to get him here for years and so we finally got him. He will be well written up but asked questions, questions that the community want to know. “We just put our support behind whatever the community is fighting for,” she said.
As for her lengthy working role in the community, Ella said she’s just another local. “After 30 years you create your own identity and the community fits you into it comfortably and that’s what happened to me.” Ella said she is able to see the funny side of life and when asked what the community and staff members think of her, she laughs, “Might be better not to know. I may not be universally loved but I’m well respected.”
When it comes to change, Ella has seen it all and hasn’t been afraid to be part of the transition. She explained how last year the newspaper changed management.
“We had a big printing works here that went elsewhere and we went back to a little local newspaper that takes six of us to put out. I’ve come through from the old mono types, to the paper being driven away and printed elsewhere and now it goes down the line on the computer to another town. I work with the news and I mainly work on the weekends.That’s when people do things so I go and cover it and you’ve got to cover it even if it’s 10 o’clock at night. Basically I don’t work mid-week because that’s between papers and I get a rest then."
Ella said there were so many highlights of her career she could recall. “There’s never a dull moment, there’s always something going on." She did share how one Tuesday morning in the early 1990s, the team had put the week’s paper to bed and an“unfortunate incident occurred”. “An announcement came over the radio that a motorist had been shot outside the town and our paper was just merrily going off to the printers, which was most inconvenient we thought of the shooter,” she said.
“So we contacted the local police and we asked is it was safe to send a reporter and he said yes. So I sent a young cadet I had and he came back with a collection of gory pictures of the body. So I had to go down and found out it was a bank robber known as the ‘country bandit’. He was on his way to rob a bank in the country and a policeman had pulled him up for speeding. While the policeman was writing the ticket the motorist took the policeman’s gun and the policeman turned around and was facing two guns.”
Ella explained the policeman wrestled the offender and while summoning help from his patrol vehicle the offender pulled another gun on him, so the policeman shot at him. “So what happened next was half the state’s press converged on the scene and because the body had to be left all day until the coroners got there the whole thing was a tremendous story but we didn’t have a paper."
She overcame this by producing an exclusive interview with the policeman the following week. Ella’s passion for life and her community also led her to support local causes and enter local government. “I had a varied career. I had three years in social welfare and that’s good training for journalism. I got into local government because there was a battle going on in the town and there hadn’t been a woman in the council for 120 years. Then I became the only female mayor because we got amalgamated. Because I have all that background it’s so much easier to write and to know what’s happening in the community.
Yet when it came to juggling the roles of editor and mayor, Ella kept to a strict rule. “I suggested to council that I would continue to report but anything controversial I would bring a cadet up and we worked it that way. I wouldn’t be involved and that worked very well and we didn’t have any problems,” she said.
Today Ella still retains an interest in local government. She explains how her political roles allowed her to become a voice for women’s rights. “I was also an environmentalist before that word had ever been coined.”
But her head and heart remains true to country newspapers. “The little country newspapers are one of the most valuable things that Australia has got.
“I think they are produced with passion mostly because they are so much embedded in the community. I also think in a country newspaper like ours we work very closely with each other. For instance the local councillor rings me up and says we’ve got the Minister for Education coming. We couldn’t cope otherwise and so much free information is contributed.”
Even in her 90s, Ella said she’s never felt the pressures some people experience with work. “I suppose I have been at it for so long that nothing fazes me much. It’s very relaxing and I’m not working, I’m just enjoying a holiday."
While Ella currently holds a driver’s license in the town, she also has a roster of drivers who she said, “They drive Miss Daisy around. But she was quick to add,“I’m not going to marry any of them”.
And retirement is certainly not on Ella’s cards. “Not being able to work and get around, I would go quietly insane. I’m more interested in what’s happening than being a spectator.
Ella, who now has seven great grandchildren, is adamant she won’t celebrate her forthcoming birthday. She said, “It’s another step down death row and I don’t want to be reminded I am 97.
“There is real fear - you know if you love life then you don’t want to give it up. When you get to 97 you can’t deny that you’re not going to be here for much longer. I think what I will probably do is take each day as it comes and won’t plan ahead.”