Jean Whitla is a remarkable Australian. Her parents were missionaries of the Presbyterian Church’s Inland Mission. Bruce and Jean Plowman set a cracking example for their daughter and three sons Bruce, Hugh and Cameron. Children learn by example and Jean from an early age was well grounded in a sense of community and an enduring respect and love for the ‘outback’. Her father the Reverend Bruce Plowman was the first padre to volunteer alongside the Reverend John Flynn Superintendent of the Inland Mission (now known as Frontier Services). Bruce Plowman was the first Patrol Padre based in Beltana South Australia from 1912 to 1914. His first parish from the Flinders Rangers to Tennant Creek was 100,000 square miles. The Inland Mission helped pioneer bush nursing hospitals, the School of the Air and the Flying Doctor Service all critically important to the Outback back then and today. Later Jean collected and abridged her father’s many stories in a new publication, ‘The Man from Oodnadatta’. In the 1930’s ‘The Man from Oodnadatta’, the ‘Boundary Rider’ and ‘Camel Pads’ formed a trilogy of best sellers and remain to this day very important and valuable chronicles of the people and times.
Jean learned at an early age the importance of chronicling the history of events and people as an important bridge between the past and the future, a skill she carried into her media career. The story of Jean Whitla began with her birth in Bendigo, Victoria on her father’s birthday 25 October 1926. The youngest and only girl her elder brothers imbued in their little sister Jean resilience, determination and a ‘can do’ attitude but never at the expense of others. Jean trained as journalist, ‘old school’ and it is in that capacity that she is best remembered as a recorder and chronicler of history. An accurate scribe who earned the respect and admiration of all who encountered her notwithstanding some found her a pesky investigator and at times strident critic. Jean was an average student when she left Bendigo High School, enrolled at the Bendigo Business College she became a proficient typist and shorthand writer, skills that would stand her in good stead as a working journalist. From age 20 Jean developed asthma which would impact her life often with near fatal results but never held her back from the big adventures in life. Jean was born to history and heritage. Her family antecedents were to prove invaluable in her media career. On the Plowman paternalistic side poverty, hardship and the protestant ethic draped Jean in a sense of empathy, service, integrity and compassion. On the maternal side Jean learned to mix it in with the powerful and influential. As a working journalist she was never fazed by power and position. Her maternal grandfather James Sinclair migrated from England and became Victoria’s first Overseas Commercial Agent and later Special Agent to the Far East. He was a regular around the Houses of Parliament in London advocating for the Crown Colony of Victoria. His work brought him into contact with Australia’s first Prime Minister Andrew Barton, and subsequent Prime Ministers Alfred Deakin and Andrew Fisher. He was an acquaintance of future Governor General Isaac Isaacs. James Sinclair attended the first sitting of the Australian Parliament in the Exhibition Building Melbourne in 1901. Jean and daughter Sue participated in the re-enactment in 2001 marking the Centenary celebrations. Graeme Sinclair’s reports to the colonial government are held in the Victorian State Library. His letters and diaries are in the National Library. Jean commenced her media career at Bendigo’s 3BO, a commercial radio station. It was here that Jean honed her skills as a trainee radio journalist. The station manager demanded multi-tasking, no job to big and none too small. Her jobs included copy and script writing, music selection and producing a weekly program. In 1947 Jean moved to Melbourne transferring to AWA (Amalgamated Wireless of Australia, owners of 3BO) but found herself relegated to an administrative role. Undeterred Jean made the most of her situation given she was in the cultural centre of Victoria and became a regular at the museum, galleries and State Library. Jean improved her education and enrolled in summer schools to study archaeology and anthropology both of which would stand her in good stead in her later activities in and around Australia’s ‘outback’. To enhance her earnings Jean joined the State Electricity Commission (SEC) until an opportunity beckoned with the opening of 3NE Wangaratta. Jean produced and directed the women’s and children’s programmes but the pay and conditions were poor at the fledgling new radio station. A better job opportunity presented at the Wangaratta Base Hospital in the radiology department. At around this time Jean met and married school teacher Charles aka Chas Whitla who was employed at the Wangaratta Technical School. It was also at this time that Jean’s brother Bruce gave her an Austin convertible with the directive to look after it. Jean thought the best way to do that would be to enrol at Wangaratta Technical School night classes in basic mechanics. Jean’s application was refused; this was a program for boys. Jean successfully appealed to the school board where upon she became the first female enrolee for basic mechanics. Her tenacity and determination was on full display and won the day. Chas and Jean Whitla started their family in Wangaratta; Sue and Bruce were born 1957 and 1959 respectively. In 1962 Chas was appointed Vice Principal of the new Benalla Technical College. Jean obtained casual employment with the Benalla Ensign. Owned by brother and sister Jack and Maie O’Shea Jean gained a new depth of media experience – police rounds, public meetings, coverage of visiting dignitaries and political leaders, council meetings, sports and social events. Six solid years at the Benalla Ensign honed Jean’s skill sets that were to carry her through the rest of her media career. Six years on and Chas Whitla was appointed Vice Principal of Wodonga Technical School. Casual employment was on offer with the Mott family at the Border Morning Mail covering council meetings in the Riverina NSW and North East Victoria. Later an opportunity opened at the ABC in Albury where Jean was to remain for 15 years working as a news journalist. Through-out this period Jean maintained her interest in the ‘outback’ identifying and documenting areas of significance to local aboriginal people. Combined with family holidays and camping trips Jean developed an expertise that would in time be prevailed upon by the South Australian authorities. In 1988 Australia’s Bicentennial year Jean led the first all-female scientific expedition to Central Australia for the Australia New Zealand Scientific Exploration Society (ANZSES) with the support of the Australian National University and CSIRO. Jean led the 24 women team in 7 vehicles with logistic support provided by the Australian Army out of Bandiana (including the first female Army trained motor mechanic and two Unimogs). What made this field trip the more remarkable was that Jean had since her adolescence been diagnosed as a sever asthmatic yet here she was oxygen bottle and adrenalin supplies on board heading into the ‘outback’. As Jean would often remark you don’t have to be fit to be an adventurer, just well organised and prepared. Despite declining health Chas remained supportive of Jeans expeditions and forays into the ‘outback’ – Jean was very much her father’s daughter. Chas died prematurely in 1985. He was an outstanding educator, administrator and role model in the Wodonga community. He was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in 1981 and the previous year he had received the City of Wodonga Community Service Award. His work in support of Jeans lifetime time commitment to Girl Guides earned Chas the Girl Guides Thank You Badge. In Benalla he had been made a Life Member of the Victorian Field and Game Association. One of Chas’s most enduring legacies was his promotion of safe handling and use of firearms as a sports activity established first at Wangaratta Technical School, subsequently extended to Benalla and Wodonga Technical Schools – essential skill sets for country kids especially in rural areas. Chas’s story is deeply inter-wined with Jeans – as a couple they made an enduring impact on the communities in which they lived. After 28 short years of marriage Jean was alone and would remain widowed longer than she was married. Jean soldiered on and remained a strong advocate for ‘the outback’, her late father’s country and people were very much hers. She made her last visit to Beltana at age 86. Jean continued to lead expeditions for the Albury Wodonga Continuing Education Centre, became an activist on environmental issues in the Albury Wodonga area including the Murray River and its flood plains. Jean was a regular fixture at Wodonga Council Meetings much to the annoyance of some but not all councillors. Her encyclopaedic corporate memory pulled many a Mayor, Councillor and officer up on the facts. Jean was never party political, her support across the political spectrum was based foremost on the individual. She was a strong advocate and supporter of Les Stone, a member of the Country Party, Wodonga’s last Shire President and first Mayor. That support extended to Councillor Betty McLean a Democrat and Pam Stone the first female Wodonga Councillor, Deputy Mayor and Mayor. Pam would later write about Jean: ‘’as both a journalist and community spirited citizen Jean has played an important role in focusing on accountability and transparency in local government. She is widely applauded in the Albury Wodonga community for her thoughtful and constructive insights in keeping the community aware. I also owe Jean a personal debt. I was the first woman elected to the Wodonga City Council and later first woman Major. In over 100 years the Wodonga City Council had remained an exclusive male domain. Jean as a local commentator set the scene for acceptance of a woman to finally break through. Although my late husband 10 years previously had been Mayor of the Rural City of Wodonga it was Jean who helped coach me through the issues. She was never party political’’ (12 Nov 2006).
Jean remained steadfast in her support of Pam Stone as Mayor and councilor up until her retirement from public office. Jean travelled to Alice Springs with Pam Stone to campaign for Country Liberal Party candidate Shane Stone in NT General Election in 1987. The duo door knocked half the adjoining electorate before being pointed in the right direction by Roger Vale, the member for Braitling. Jean enthusiastically threw herself into the campaign for Indi in 2013 to unseat Sophie Mirabella in favour of independent Cathy McGowan. Jean always set herself the goal of living life to the fullest. Her community recognition is very much a chronology of a life well lived. On Jeans retirement from the ABC the Wodonga Police in 1990 presented a plaque in appreciation of her fair and balanced reporting. In 1995 Jean was made a Life Member of the Wodonga Historical Society and received the Commonwealth Senior Citizens Medal in 2001. Jean was declared the Wodonga Citizen of the Year in 2002 and was conferred the Commonwealth Centenary Medal in 2003. On Australia Day 2008 Jean was awarded and conferred the Medal of the Order of Australia (her citation read: ‘For services to the community of Wodonga particularly through history, youth and media organisations’). On the morning of Friday 6 September 2007, Shane Stone called on Bob McLean to pay his final respects. Bob and Betty McLean’s story are contained within this website. The family of McLean, Whitla and Stone were joined at the hip. Bob was near death in Wodonga Hospital and as Shane approached the ward the attending nurse warned Shane that Bob was unresponsive. As Shane walked into the room he sat down and held Bob’s hand, Bob opened his eyes. He had a single question for Shane; had Jean’s Nomination for an Award within the Order of Australia been lodged? Shane had received notification that it had. Bob exclaimed that was all he was hanging around for and with the cheeky smile he was known for closed his eyes. He died shortly thereafter – mission accomplished for the old soldier. Jean Whitla’s life has indeed been one well lived. Jean touched many people including the Stone Family in a way that was deeply appreciated. Her support and encouragement over the decades had been immeasurable. A remarkable women, a loyal friend and supporter and touchstone for what was right.