VALE: Coast loses a bright, inquisitive and quirky woman

Toni McRae in hospital after her double mastectomy in 2013.
Toni McRae in hospital after her double mastectomy in 2013. Carlie Walker

VALE: The last time I saw Toni McRae was on July 2 last year.

Toni had just had a double mastectomy and despite that, she was as bright, inquisitive and quirky as ever.

I remember she had managed to interview a couple of people on the ward.

Even then she was instinctively seeking news and was looking to share their stores.

Toni was not a journalist in name only.

It ran through her blood, it was part of who she was. And no one was better at getting a story than Toni McRae.

This week the Fraser Coast lost a wonderful person and identity and it seems only right to share my memories of Toni, who certainly inspires me every day as a journalist.

When I first started working at the Chronicle a little more than seven years ago, she was the deputy editor and I sat at her desk for the first week because she was on holiday.

The next week she was back, larger than life, and I, being a lowly cadet, was immediately in awe of her.

Unfortunately when I started working at the Chronicle, Toni was just about to depart, but happily it wasn't long before she returned to the Fraser Coast.

Gifted with enormous ability, it wasn't hard to recognise a positive difference in the quality of the newspaper when she returned.

In addition to working on the Observer with her close friend and colleague Kerrie Alexander and breaking important stories for the Chronicle, Toni wrote several books about many popular and well-known Fraser Coast identities, including Burma Railway survivor Jack Bingham and fellow Second World War veteran Con Souvlis.

She helped Long Tan commander Harry Smith fight for the recognition of the soldiers of the 6th Battalion, who distinguished themselves during the Vietnam War.

Toni also wrote a book about her own life, titled Expose: Scandals, Stars and Scoops.

To say it was a page turner would be underselling it.

She wrote the book while still working for the Chronicle, often burning the midnight oil to get it completed.

Toni loved to work, loved to create and would sometimes do so to the detriment of her own health.

She often told me she would make pacts with God, or some higher power, promising that she would slow down and relax after a difficult health episode, but I don't believe she ever did.

I had the good fortune to interview her about her book and her exploits.

It's fair to say that she lived an incredible life and had packed more in than some who live to be 100.

Born in New Zealand, Toni's mother, Caecilie Magdalene, was ill and Toni often helped out around the home.

To help her family make ends meet, Toni started writing and submitting her work to various news publications throughout New Zealand and by the age of 13 her articles were being published in newspapers around the country.

It is a rare thing for someone to find their path in life so young.

After moving to Australia, Toni worked at the Sydney Sun and was married for a time to high-powered Sydney lawyer Jack Birney.

Toni was part of the campaign to get Alan Jones elected to the Sydney seat of Earlwood in 1978 and reckons dressing Alan in a skirt to win over the traditional Greek population - she had convinced him to do a traditional Rhodes' man's dance - may have killed his political chances.

The dance costume was a pleated skirt and a blousy top.

The performance went off without a hitch, but Toni recalled she was horrified when she woke up the next day and Alan was on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, dancing in a skirt.

She met prime ministers, including Billy McMahon and Bob Hawke, interviewed The Beatles and described meeting Pope John Paul II as a special moment.

In journalism, there wasn't much Toni hadn't done, working in both print and broadcast media and travelling overseas to cover stories.

She won awards in journalism, including two she was very proud of honouring the promotion of Aboriginal reconciliation during her time at the Chronicle when she spearheaded the ground-breaking Let's Learn Butchulla series.

In the article, Toni named former Chronicle editor Nancy Bates as one of the editors she had most respected during her time as a journalist and I can say as one who saw them work together, they made a formidable team.

But back to that day on July 2 last year.

I had long considered Toni to be a friend more than a colleague, but I thought I might be pushing the friendship by suggesting we do a story about her breast cancer diagnosis and the surgery Toni had needed to undergo.

I called Toni and asked if I could pay her a visit, suggesting we do a story to spread awareness about the disease.

I remember Toni asking whether I thought she should share her story.

It was an incredibly intelligent question from a very intelligent woman.

It was a question that brought me up short because while I felt it was an important story, I wanted Toni to know her privacy was respected and that not only did I want to visit her for the sake of a story, I wanted to see her as a friend as well.

Toni agreed that it might help other women and told me to feel free to come to visit at Hervey Bay Hospital.

When I saw her in hospital, Toni was her normal cheerful self and whatever concerns she may have had were put aside.

Toni would probably be the only person in the world to use the world grateful in connection with a diagnosis of breast cancer, but that sums up her character to perfection.

Faced with a challenge, Toni turned to the positives of the situation, rather than dwelling on the negatives.

Toni said she was grateful that she lived in a country where help was readily available and said others faced with a diagnosis needed to focus on being enormously grateful that the cancer had been detected so it could be fought.

It was an outlook that was very revealing of who Toni was as a person.

Since that time Toni faced a series of health challenges but, unsurprisingly to those who knew her, she wanted to go back to work and has performed media duties on behalf of Fraser Coast MPs Ted Sorensen and Anne Maddern, doing a remarkable job.

We spoke to each other occasionally on the phone during the past few months, promising to catch up soon - Toni, Kerrie and I often caught up for our birthdays, which were close together in November, over a bottle of wine (or two).

Unfortunately I never got that last chance to see Toni, but she will always be remembered by me, and everyone at the Chronicle who knew and loved her, for her ability, her quirkiness, her sense of fun and her determination.

Thanks for being a terrific mentor and friend Toni.

Topics:  carlie walker hervey bay journalist toni mcrae vale

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