Stella Wilkie – 100 years and counting

By Kate Grant

Stella Wilkie was born on December 6, 1915 making her the grand age of 100, and only half way to 101.

Having never met someone of Stella’s age, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I went for a visit at her nursing home in Murwillumbah. When I arrived the nurse and I went looking for Stella in her room, but it was empty. She wasn’t sitting inside watching television with the other residents, instead we found her outside enjoying the sun by herself. I asked her about the letter of congratulations she’d received from the Queen for her 100th birthday.

Stella with her letter from the Queen

Stella with her letter from the Queen

She was quick to her feet ready to take me to her room to show me the letter she was so proud of. Within the first minute of conversation it was clear her mind was as sharp as ever and she was most definitely the boss.
“I’m the boss when I’m around, but you have to learn that. You can’t be bossy ‘til you’ve grown up. You’ve got to be sensible and have common sense. If you’re not sure, go to a person that is sensible and knowledgeable.” If I was ever unsure about anything I’m sure Stella would have a few wise words to say about it.

Evidently her smarts and directness have served her well in the past century, taking her from humble beginnings in New Zealand to travelling the world. She was born in Christchurch into a working class family with a brother and two sisters. In those days the amount of wealth your family had determined your social standing and ultimately your intelligence.
“If your people had a little bit of money it meant that the kids were smart, but if you were just working people like me you were dumb. But it was the boot on the other foot because the people that had to work, well they learnt something but the others thought that they didn’t need to learn anything.”

Stella at 50 years of age

Stella at 50 years of age

At sixteen Stella had a job working at the local YMCA for sixteen shillings a week, the equivalent today would be about $30 Australian. She was not content living off this amount and although her employers thought she was a bit dull, Stella had a bright idea. The only thing there was never going to be anymore of was land. She had no interest in going out to any of those ‘posh places’, any bit of money she earned was saved.

Eventually she became quite wealthy and started looking for a property to buy. She came across a wonderful property owned by a chap who must’ve been quite mad and had gone bankrupt.

Instead of buying the property for the $350,000 she initially offered him, she learnt that all she needed to pay was the amount he owed. Having made a decent profit on this property, she decided to use the same tactic when seeking out additional properties to purchase.
“I started to think I was not so dumb. Starting off poor I got the idea that, you know, you didn’t go silly with money.”

Having become a success in New Zealand, Stella decided she’d travel the world. There’s not many places she hasn’t been in her life, the list includes but is not limited to Greece, Spain, Russia, Germany, and Italy. She always travelled by ship, never by plane and always first class. She was particularly fond of Greece and visited many times. She recalls some friends she met there, including a Greek boy who said to her, ‘Oh your father must’ve been the baker he made a very good cake!’ to which she replied, ‘Well you’re not even getting bread crumbs!’
She is quite proud of her collection of Moorcroft pottery which she sourced direct from the factory so she knew exactly what she was getting. Once she heard that King Henry the fifth had this pottery in Buckingham Palace she had to have some, she said.

Despite her wealth, she’d opt to stay in small bed and breakfasts for a month at a time when she travelled. Not only did this help out the poorer families in the region, but she was able to learn about their way of life. When the family’s kids were sensible enough she sent them off to New Zealand to broaden their education.

One of the earliest memories Stella has is of her mother whom she got on very well with. She was always fond of and respected her, “She was a lovely little person. She had to be, I wouldn’t have had her for my mother.” Stella has always been headstrong even as a child.
“I remember my mother said to me, ‘I’ve never known a kid that answered back the way you do,’ and I remember saying ‘I’m not answering back, I’m just telling you!’” These days you wouldn’t expect anything less of her. When she learned I would be travelling to Europe at the end of the year she had some sound advice which was to “use your common sense, and keep your legs closed!” In her 100 years of worldly adventures and business success, what Stella values the most is telling the truth, good or bad. Being such a straight shooter has earnt her the respect of her peers across the globe.

It was a great pleasure being able to talk with Stella, she certainly makes an impression on you. She is a woman who commands respect and can cut to the core of things with a precision that can only be learned over time. A sign of a great person is to be remembered and I think a lot of people will remember Stella. Though don’t think for a second that she’ll be leaving us anytime soon, with the strength that woman has I bet she’ll outlive us all.