Caption: Mary Ellen in the foyer of today’s Catholic Club.
In our ‘A Drink with Jeff’ series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities. Mary Ellen Bland, who recently retired after 18 years on the Board of Directors, is his latest face-to-face.
She will forever be known to Campbelltown history as the first woman to serve on The Catho’s Board of Directors.
But that’s not a feather that sits easily on Mary Ellen Bland’s cap.
She is proud to have aided the advancement of women, but I get the feeling that she’d rather be remembered as a “good” director”, not merely a “woman” director.
To get to the bottom of that dualism, we caught up for a coffee.
Blandy — the fond nickname I’ve always known her by — met me with a warm hug at 2.30pm in the club foyer. We grabbed our lattes at Cafe Sage and headed into a quiet corner of Harvest bistro, after the lunchtime rush.
We started our chat in the year 2003, when she joined the Board. What was the spark?
“Well,” Mary Ellen smiled, “there was a pre-spark.”
“In 1972, I came to work in Campbelltown, teaching at Bradbury Public School, and the staff would socialise on Friday afternoons at The Brad [a nearby hotel] after work. After the big 1973 renovations at The Catho we started coming here instead. We’d all sit down, probably somewhere in this area [waving her finger at the bistro] and after a while I noticed this group of blokes.
“It was a Table of Knowledge, where Board members and others — all of them men — would sit on Friday afternoons.” This seemed strange to Mary Ellen. As a teacher she worked in a profession where both sexes mixed regularly. The early 1970s was also the age of women’s lib, with the song ‘I Am Woman Hear Me Roar’ topping the charts. Mary Ellen admits she got a tad annoyed as she glanced across at what looked to her like an ingrained old boys’ network. “One day, probably after a couple of wines, I spoke up and said they needed more women.”
“If you belong to a club, you should know what’s happening, so I started to attend annual general meetings. Mostly just to listen, but sometimes offering a few throwaway lines to stir the blokes up.”
As I listen I try to imagine Mary Ellen’s frustration. Group portraits of the Club Directors between the 1960s and 1990s certainly show rows of men, and men only, in suits. But that doesn’t make The Catho different to most other big institutions at that time.
And, as I’ve waded through the Club archives I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of historical cringe. For example, in the 1960s when the White Australia Policy was still a thing, the Catholic Club celebrated a long line of overseas black performers such as Winifred Atwell, while supporting Aboriginal acts such as Heathermae Reading and Jimmy Little. There wasn’t even the religious bigotry you might expect, with the early club warmly welcoming non-Catholics. Women have also proved to be the heart and soul of Club history, from senior staffers such as Chris Vardy-Thomson, and pioneer members such as Ruth McDonald, to Cynthia Scott, the first Life Member of Collegians Rugby League Club. But the Board was still the realm of blokes — and Mary Ellen was certainly the first club member without a Y-chromosome to smash through that glass ceiling.
It wasn’t easy for her, but she cautions people against judging the old boards too harshly, because Mary Ellen said it was two of those men in suits — Kevin Goonan and Paul O’Loughlan — who noted Mary Ellen’s potential.
“They rang me up one day and asked if they could come round for a chat over a cup of tea,” she recalled. “I knew them both. I’d been active on the St John’s Church parish council, I was on the Boards of St Patrick’s College, Mercy Works, and the Catholic Development Fund for Wollongong Diocese. And, as an Acting Principal of Woodlands Road Public School I’d met Kevin in his role of the Club’s schools liaison officer. It was during our chat over that cup of tea that they asked me — ‘Have you ever considered joining our board?’ ”
“That absolutely surprised me. Yes, I had considered it, and, yes, I was interested, but I was also a bit surprised that they’d raised it. The rest is history. After serving behind the scenes as a co-opted member (a sort of apprenticeship), Mary Ellen was officially elected to the Board in 2003.
That was an exciting time as The Catho was about to open Aquafit gym, Rydges hotel and The Cube entertainment centre. Mary Ellen also recalls it as a challenging time. “Probably one of the hardest things for me was that so many people were thrilled on my behalf,” she said. “I had to live up to some big expectations.”
“The Catholic Club was the only organisation I’d ever had to deal with that was all men in major governance and decision-making — and there CAN be a difference in the way that men make decisions. Women or mixed-sex groups will generally discuss the pros and cons, come to a conclusion, and then move forward. But blokes will more often look at the pros and cons themselves, come to a decision…and then discuss it. Sometimes that was hard.”
Mary Ellen did learn a lot from other Directors, particularly Leo Delissen. His gruff and monosyllabic exterior, she said, hid the exact opposite. “Leo was the person I could talk to about most things. He’d sit down with me, and point out why he believed such-and-such decision was correct, and we developed a strong friendship. Alan Scott, too, has always been a true gentleman, and I loved his presence in board meetings; he’d listen carefully, then throw in a little bomb, and remind us all of the reason such-and-such happened many years ago.”
Mary Ellen also grew fond of the Directors appointed around the same time as her — such as Dave McDonald and John Towers. She spoke particularly warmly of Steve Carter, a cheeky larrikin by reputation, but also a compassionate and deeply-thoughtful personality. “I like to know the people I work with, not necessarily as best friends, but I do like to know what makes them tick. Steve is similar. He’ll want to know how you’re doing, how your health is, how your kids are.”
She was also impressed by the big picture vision of Tony Fitzgerald, a school teacher like herself. “I can remember Tony absolutely flaying the Board over one decision — and I listened to every word he said. I think we all did. Stripped down and bare, and it felt good. Refreshing. Boards should be challenged, they should have to avoid complacency.”
Mary Ellen took over the role of schools and community liaison officer from Kevin Goonan and it opened her up to the vast scope of the Catholic Club’s community support: everything from Catholic education and veterans groups, to youth organisations and even the Uniting Church’s charity work. “I remember when we handed a cheque to WILMA women’s health centre they were so thankful they said they wanted me to join their board,” Mary Ellen laughed.
During our chat, I pointed out that there was still only one woman on the Catholic Club’s Board — Julie Puckrin. Mary Ellen nodded her head and said it was a pleasure to mentor Julie during her time as a co-opted member. “She’s a great learner, so keen and interested, but so humble. I see how she treats people, always with respect and care. That’s not as a female thing, it’s just a decency thing. Julie, I think, is the long-term future of our Club, and I hope she can eventually mentor more women on the Board.”
Mary Ellen said the Club Board also needs to reflect the diversity of its membership in coming decades, and tap into other skills and voices. “What we really need, and I’ve been saying this for years, is a critical think tank. A group of club members who take the attitude that the sky’s the limit…we love this, can we do this, coming up with solutions and ideas in an advisory sense. To take the Board into areas it’s never looked at. Boards need to be challenged. We need to ask ourselves, what attracts people here, compared to the RSL or Wests?”
After all our discussion about present and future, our conversation makes a U-turn into the past — when Mary Ellen Mason was born in Broken Hill in 1946. A proud bush girl, she grew up in Katoomba, Glen Davis, and eventually Macksville on the north coast of NSW. “I attended boarding school at Grafton, St Mary’s College, and my school captain in 1962 was Trish Wilson [who is married to Queen Street pharmacist David Wilson]. I still love catching up with Trish.”
Caption: Mary Ellen as a young graduate teacher in the 1960s.
Did you always want to be a teacher, I asked Mary Ellen.
“No,” she replied. “I came out of school wanting to be something very different, but you didn’t have many options as a woman in 1962… it was either teaching or nursing. So I went to Armidale University and became a teacher — and I very soon learnt that this WAS a vocation I loved.”
Her career took her from Macksville to Coffs Harbour, Kempsey, and finally a promotion to Campbelltown. “They made me the deputy infants mistress at Bradbury Public School in 1972. It was a wonderful school and I have lots of happy memories.”
Mary Ellen recalled, in mock horror, that she did NOT make a good impression on her first day at Bradbury. “I was living with my sister in Parramatta, and didn’t know Sydney very well, so I looked on a map and saw where Campbelltown was and thought, ‘oh good, it looks like a trip of only 20 minutes’. But…I was used to driving country roads, not through city traffic jams. Two hours later, I finally got to Bradbury — very late, and a skinny young woman in a very short skirt (all the fashion in 1972) and I was met by the infants mistress, a very regal lady — ‘And who are you?’ Um, I’m your new deputy…well, that went down like a lead balloon.”
But Mary Ellen soon proved her worth, became known for her leadership and teamwork, and went on to become a deputy or relieving principal at many local schools such as Sarah Redfern PS, Woodlands Road PS, St Andrews PS and Eschol Park PS.
Campbelltown was also where she met the love of her life. “Bruce and I met through our volunteer work with St Vincent de Paul and we married in 1979. Bruce was a widower with two children, Sean and Angela, and then we had two more, Andrew and Katherine. “He was a wonderful and kind husband and I miss him deeply”. Bruce died in 2021.
As we wrapped up our chat, Mary Ellen got nostalgic about the old days of The Catho — all the social events, the meals in the McGoldrick Room, the family days in the old pool and barbecue area (where Kellicar Road now stands). “I have a huge admiration for this place, what it has achieved, the people who have worked here.”
As we wrapped up our chat I thought back to 2003, when Mary Ellen first joined the Board, and I remember one critic muttering “tokenism”. Then, I think of Mary Ellen’s long track record as a respected educator, her community work, and the notion that the Catholic Club was founded in 1968 to support local education and community needs. Given that context, it might be argued that Mary Ellen was no “token”, but an immensely qualified person to serve on the Board.
That doesn’t change Mary Ellen’s claim to historic fame. She will always be remembered in local history as the “first woman” director…but, in my humble opinion, she will also be remembered as a “good” director. A great one, even.
If you are a member of Campbelltown Catholic Club and have a story to share, you could be featured on A Drink with Jeff. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org