Helen Manusu retires from the Manning River Times

AFTER a career spanning six decades, the Times' senior journalist Helen Manusu retires next week.

Wednesday will be her last day on the job - and the same for Helen's husband Peter who has spent the last 23 years working at Taree's Speedflow Products.

Both will be on long service leave for some time before officially joining the grey nomad brigade.

Between them, Peter and Helen have notched up almost 100 years in the workforce, including a busy 12 year stint as self-employed service station owners, working seven days a week while raising their three young sons.

Helen, 65, has "absolutely no regrets" about her varied career, which saw her work at the Times, the Wingham Chronicle and the Great Lakes Advocate in Forster.

At 17, and straight after completing the 1964 Leaving Certificate at Taree High School, Helen became the Times' first ever female cadet journalist. She remains indebted to the then editor, the late Ken McDonald, for insisting to the paper's owners at the time that he wanted "a girl reporter" after almost 100 years with an all-male reporting staff.

The 'Noughties': As Times editor, working on a re-design of the paper with present-day editor, Toni Bell and production staff member Ruth Hammond.

The 'Noughties': As Times editor, working on a re-design of the paper with present-day editor, Toni Bell and production staff member Ruth Hammond.

She regarded herself as very fortunate to have secured a job in her home town, when most of her friends were leaving to undergo teacher training or to seek apprenticeships in Newcastle or Sydney.

As one of her first tasks, Helen was persuaded to introduce a weekly page for younger readers, called 'Teen Scene', which included her own column, dubbed 'Single Column Comments' (she was Helen Single at the time).

With only one other journo at the time, she completed her four year cadetship in 18 months, reporting Taree Municipal, Manning Shire, Wingham Municipal and Manning River County Council meetings almost every night of the working week, in between trying (not very successfully) to fit in shorthand and typing classes at Taree Technical College.

Thrust headlong into Taree's community life, she covered everything from the social jottings to the court sittings and writing sport, and recalls years of long, hard days typing agricultural show results in dingy showground back rooms.

She developed excellent working relationships with local police, even called out to take evidence photographs for them of horrific accidents, in the days when police didn't have so much as even a polaroid camera.

In those early years Helen took on extra jobs as Taree correspondent for NBN News and writing the weekly reports of Group Three Rugby League matches for the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Still to this day I have never been to a league match - I wrote my reports at home while listening to the radio match broadcasts," she chuckles.

Helen stayed with the Times - including a stint as acting editor - until the middle of 1972 when she retired "for the first time", for the birth of her first son. "It was the done thing for young women who were pregnant to give up work and become stay-at-home mums. There was no maternity leave in those days, otherwise I probably would have been here for the entire 48-and-a-half years of my working life," she says.

It wasn't until after Peter and Helen sold their service station in 1984 that Helen returned to work for Rural Press, which had by that time acquired the three local newspapers.

She had several years of travelling to Forster daily to work at the Advocate, enjoying some of her best times reporting the memorable stoushes at Great Lakes Council meetings.

"I was always invited to lunch with the councillors and senior staff, midway through each daytime meeting. Pre-lunch spirits and wines flowed freely during the gourmet spreads, resulting in the most incredible headlines coming out of the afternoon sessions!"

It was while working at the Advocate in 1993 that Helen won the prestigious Prodi award for news reporting and was named Journalist of the Year for northern NSW (central coast to the border). Her award-winning story was a poignant first-hand account of a fatal house fire at Black Head which claimed the life of an elderly family friend. Helen, Peter and their sons were part of the firefighting and attempted rescue effort, as all were attending a Black Head surf club function that night.

The award's prize was a trip to New York, which gave Peter and Helen the travel bug and they've since travelled overseas regularly, "to some pretty amazing places".

In 1994, Helen became the first female editor of the Manning River Times and Manning Great Lakes EXTRA, and during her seven years in the chair the Times was honoured with a host of media awards, including the Spicers Award for Best Country Newspaper in Australia, and over three consecutive years winning prestigious EC Sommerlad Awards for Leadership and Involvement in Local Community Affairs (twice) and Journalism, as well as awards for news reporting, editorial and feature writing, technical excellence, and photography.

The arrival of precious grandchildren saw Helen stand down as editor to become the Times’ senior journalist, while she also continued in a mentoring and training role for both Rural Press and Country Press Australia, attending live-in cadet schools and assessing post-graduate Deakin University journalism students’ works.

Helen says she has been privileged to work alongside the community of Taree and the Manning Valley, through important years of development and change.

She walked beside the pioneer of Aboriginal activism, Charles Perkins, during the visit of his freedom riders to Taree in the 1960s, and decades later marched alongside a more contemporary Aboriginal community as it sought to have its flag flown outside Greater Taree City Council headquarters.

She sat on council’s post-Taree Bypass committee, helping implement the plan to beautify and rejuvenate Victoria Street, and also on council’s heritage committee. When the city council unexpectedly closed the old Olympic Pool and Taree was left without a pool, Helen as editor, alongside Times general manager John Bulmer, spearheaded the community campaign which raised several hundred thousand dollars to convince council and kick-start its planning for the new Manning Aquatic Leisure Centre.

Also during her time as editor, the Times devised and led a positive community campaign - Can Do - which helped turn the city around after a period of unfortunate industry job losses followed by unprecedented crime and anti-social behaviour. Helen was an avid supporter of the Talking Manning River Times for people with impaired vision, which was first produced in 1994. She has continued ever since to be patron of its support body, the Taree Friends of Vision Australia.

In 2006 she was named one of the inaugural 21 ‘Strong Women of the Manning’ celebrating International Women’s Day.

“There have been happy times, but also sad times”, she says of the vast array of stories during her long career. “The most gratifying are probably those of young kids, born and educated in Taree, who’ve gone on to great heights either in their chosen careers or in sport. But there have been tragedies, and the worst moments in a job such as mine are dealing with the grieving families who have lost loved ones - even my own.”

Helen is leaving the profession at a time of major change. 

“I don’t believe for one moment that newspaper journalists will become dinosaurs,” she says.

 “We are factfinders, investigators and storytellers, and no matter what medium we use, there will always be a need for professional journalists bound by the strict code of ethics which was ‘the bible’ when I began my career nearly 50 years ago - and which I hope today’s young journalists still recognise.

“I do not, and will not, subscribe to Facebook, even though I recognise it does have a role to play in news dissemination. 

“Not all ‘news’ in social media, however, is the truth, nor it is fair and balanced. In fact it can be extremely hurtful and often downright disgusting.”

Peter and Helen are looking forward to enjoying more quality time with their family (now of four generations) and with the wonderful friends they have met since they went to live at Harrington Waters nearly nine years ago.

 “It’s a vibrant community with so many opportunities to socialise, volunteer, keep fit, enjoy sport, take up a new craft ... I don’t think we’ll be bored,” Helen says.

“Besides, I have six books either partly written or researched, which I hope to complete - if the fish aren’t biting or the surf at Crowdy’s no good.

“And Peter has a well-worn copy of ‘501 Must Visit Destinations’. We’ve crossed a fair number off, so far, but there’s still a lot to do!”