Remembering Shirley Blake
Wednesday, 6th May, 2015
By Andrew Robertson
Her family says she was an agent for change and Shirley Blake certainly made it her life’s mission to help others.
From dressing as a clown for the sick and elderly to putting on puppet shows in the middle of nowhere, Shirley Dawn Blake drew on her creativity and Christian faith to bring joy and more to many.
Ms Blake died last month at the age of 85, surrounded by her family who have spoken of her dedication and devotion to the district’s disadvantaged - particularly indigenous people, the elderly and young.
Second daughter Dianne Laurance said her mother, who was born in Dubbo but made Broken Hill her home 45 years ago, initiated many projects that brought both enjoyment and employment to people.
“My mother started dressing up as a clown and I do believe she was the original ‘Patch Adams’, as she visited kids in hospitals as well as lonely people in hospital and lonely old people in aged homes.”
Ms Laurance said her mother, who made all the outfits herself, eventually recruited others, including children, to help spread the happiness.
“The older people loved the kids and it taught the younger clowns to appreciate their health and to take care of themselves when seeing the sick kids in hospitals.”
In the 1970s she started up roller skating in the city “to keep the young off the streets and give them an interest”, according to Ms Laurance, who said yet another idea saw her mother become a puppeteer.
“She made by hand large puppets and travelled around remote areas, including indigenous communities, with her friends to set up shows in very remote areas.
“Hundreds would travel for hours with their kids to watch my mother’s puppet shows.
“They would bring their chairs and picnics and set up in the middle of nowhere. They loved Mum.
“Her puppet shows were all about being kind and being the best person you could be.”
Ms Laurance said her mother’s ideas often brought more than income and enjoyment to the people who became involved.
“She saved many young people from a life of crime. She gave them a sense of purpose, a reason to live and feel good (that) they could achieve.
“Many were at her funeral and told me stories that if it wasn’t for my mother they would not be the good person with a good life that they have today.
“Her last creation was face painting. She was so creative and designed everything.”
Shirley was a regular fixture at the St Pat’s races where she had a face-painting stall. She would recruit unemployed girls to paint children’s faces in return for money.
Ms Laurance said once a project her mother started was running well she would hand it over and move on to the next.
“She was such a teacher of goodness and kindness and Christianity.”
She also encountered some enormous challenges. Ms Laurance said when her mother was 60 years old she was seriously assaulted by a teenage boy.
“She was raped and bashed and held captive for five hours by a 17-year-old.
“This person spent 12 years in jail for this atrocity and I was told at her funeral that four days before Mum died he drove his car into a truck and killed himself in a blast of fire.“When I visited my mother in hospital after the attack, she was unrecognisable, her face so swollen.
“She smiled at me as I cried and held her and she said... ‘don’t be upset. This is such a good thing as he will now go to jail and will never be able to do this to another person’.
“Apparently so many young indigenous girls had been attacked and raped by him beforehand and this had never been reported to police.”
Ms Laurance said a song was written about her mother called ‘Shirley’s Garden’.
“This is all about how my mother encouraged the unemployed indigenous alcoholics and their families that she lived amongst to plant a garden and look after it. It became the only beautiful thing in their lives.
“The community all cared and loved the garden. It gave them a sense of purpose.
“They took ownership and the garden flourished. The song then tells of the rape; how Mum left and the garden died.”
But she said her mother, who was also years ago responsible for convincing the BDT to print its daily bible verse, would be remembered most for the help and hope she gave to others.
“She was an agent for change.”