Joan Butcher holds aloft Otago's Ranfurly Shield. Photo: Supplied

Dunedin’s mayor bids farewell to Joan Butcher

Previous rumours of Joan Butcher’s demise had been as frequent as they were premature.

Not this time, sadly.

It also seemed serendipitous that news of her passing came the same day we lost Lee “Scratch” Perry. Characters you assume will always just … be there. Slightly off kilter, but perpetual forces all the same.  

They were both singular human beings, with perspectives at angles to those I can muster.

Every conversation was an adventure.

I met them both in Dunedin when I shifted here 20 years ago, well you know what I mean, and they’ve been familiar and recurring features ever since.

Her art may be somewhat less canonical, but it was at least as prolific. Mountains of handmade cards, the trademark format, mostly drawn in ballpoint pen and exchanged for whatever coins you had handy.

The cards celebrated all of the classic Hallmark Holidays, and a few more besides. Who could forget the Anzac Day Easter Bunny?

In a half-unpacked house I haven’t been able to track down my old Otago Anniversary Day card. From memory it was illustrated with some crowned animal of the introduced kind.

Fauna were a common theme, particularly the endangered kinds. We were often being implored to Save the Whales.

I heard a rumour she was making and selling her trademark headbands once, which I was never fortunate enough to verify.

The mythos had a life of its own. Tall tales and origin stories, with varying degrees of credibility, none of which would add much here.

Those all-encompassing euphemisms, with varying degrees of humanity, have since been reached for. Local Identity. Personality. Character. Icon. Ukulele enthusiast and fine proponent of the rowdy solo singalong.

The photo of Joan holding the Ranfurly Shield aloft – in the middle of the Octagon, in the middle of the night – should be in a museum.

But ultimately, like all of us, she was doing her best to get by in the circumstances in which she found herself.

There was obviously pain in her life. A crueller subset of the townsfolk would occasionally add to that, usually a few sheets to the wind, but there was also a great degree of empathy amidst the myriad acquaintances.

Smokers outside the Albar hoovering up cards and pints in equal measure. Late night revellers, having lengthy and mischievous yarns neither party would later remember, who would then give way to the next shift, the early morning coffee fetchers on their way to work.

Over 2000 people have signed a petition for a memorial plaque to Joan in the city centre. People in the wider community, in many cases complete strangers, want to know how to help.

It has been felt more deeply than I anticipated.

I’d like to acknowledge Fr Mark Chamberlain, and the team at both Holy Name and All Saints Churches, whose pastoral support right until the end was crucial.

There’s to be a small private funeral in keeping with alert Level 3 conditions. But a memorial service will be held at Holy Name once we can gather together again in numbers.

Being a university town, with the high turnover population that comes with it, the loss has ricocheted around the world.

Generations of students, and more than a few of their teachers, who have had their formative years accented by these chance encounters. It’s strange to think that next year’s intake will never have the pleasure.

Joan Butcher was a flawed human being, as we all are to a greater or lesser degree, but she was also dearly loved.

I hope she is finally at peace.

The mayor’s tribute concludes our week-long lockdown series around New Zealand, from locations in the Bay of Islands, the West Coast, South Auckland and West Auckland.


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