Margaret Henry battles pancreatic cancer

Margaret Henry in the thick of a Save Our Rail  rally in January.  Picture: Darren Pateman

Margaret Henry in the thick of a Save Our Rail rally in January. Picture: Darren Pateman

THERE is a long list of visitors – Greens comrades, school friends, former colleagues, current councillors, writers, artists, fellow agitators, a priest.

Time is of the essence as committed activist Margaret Henry yields to the invasive pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed in March.

A stroke extinguished her sight in July.

‘‘It’s pretty damn awful,’’ says Henry, matter-of-factly.

Marg, as she is known to her friends, is tucked up in bed at her daughter Catherine’s Hamilton South home.

The family’s small pet dog, Flossie, snuggles protectively at Henry’s left side.

‘‘To lose your sight ... you wouldn’t wish that on anyone,’’ she says, frustrated that she can’t see the crimson  and purple freesias an arm’s length away.

A stint of chemotherapy has thinned her white hair and she wears a pink knit beanie to trap the warmth.

She is not in any pain.

‘‘I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with it,’’ Catherine says tearfully.

She is overwhelmed by the mounting tributes to her outspoken, feisty mother who, at 81, has fought countless battles over inner-city development, the railway line, and the infamous figs.

Her longtime partner, Keith Parsons, is grief-stricken.

‘‘Talking about her is rather raw,’’ he says. ‘‘In fact, devastating.’’

He recalls someone once criticising Henry in front of former Newcastle City Council general manager Janet Dore.

‘‘Janet said, ‘There should be more women in local government like Margaret Henry,’’’ he recalls.

‘‘She has been a champion of less popular causes – disability access, homelessness, heritage.’’

It is not always easy sticking your head above the parapet as a woman in a town run by blokes, but Henry has never taken a backward step.

During her two terms as a Newcastle City councillor, she advocated for Indigenous recognition, refugee and migrant support, library services and Newcastle Art Gallery. 

She joined the National Trust of Australia (NSW) in 1980 and was later chairwoman of its Hunter Region committee.

In 2009, the trust made her an honorary life member.

She has served on the University of Newcastle council, the NSW Council for the Ageing, and was the local representative for the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

Her community work has been immense.

A frequent visitor to her bedside, Newcastle writer Zeny Giles, composed a poem to celebrate her dear friend’s birthday: 

 How many times I’ve envied you your boldness.

While I was floundering for words

you’d asked the question.

Never intimidated by rank you spoke out loudly whatever the risk.

Sometimes I was prompted to say Oh Marg! echoing your mother’s apprehensiveness at what might appear in tomorrow’s newspaper. 

Henry’s many supporters feel strongly that her years of community service should  be acknowledged.

‘‘She’s had a very full life,’’ offers Catherine.  

‘‘She’s an exceptional woman, really.’’ 

This afternoon, though, she is tired.

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