Vale Jillian Anne Munro Oppenheimer (Mitchell) OAM 23/11/1930 - 9/10/2019

Jillian took her last overseas trip in August 2016 - she had always wanted to travel to Iceland and finally got there.
Jillian took her last overseas trip in August 2016 - she had always wanted to travel to Iceland and finally got there.

Jillian Anne Munro Oppenheimer (Mitchell) OAM had many different roles during her lifetime.

She was a grazier (never called herself a farmer), traveller, eco-warrior, heritage consultant, historian, volunteer, friend, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

She had some stand out qualities - her vitality and zest for life. She ran like a highly wound clock, from early in the morning to finally running out in the early evening, sleeping (loudly) each night.

Everyone recognised her enthusiasm and positive nature, her leadership, her persistence and resilience against adversity. She was a strong personality, 'a force to be reckoned with'. She learnt early in her life to "take a position" as Martin Luther King said.

Above all, she placed family first. It was the focus of her private life and her public persona with her extensive knowledge of her own family history in the New England. This may help to explain why this intelligent woman whose great love was travelling the world (which she did all her life) never lived further than 60 kilometres from home. Indeed she spent the vast majority of her life living in a Walcha Shire triangle, 20 kms wide, from Mirani, to Petali, and then to Ohio, only moving in the last 10 years of her life, to Armidale.

Jillian was the second daughter of AS (Poss) Nivison and (Nancy) Grace Gordon Munro, born in 1930. She grew up at Mirani with her older sister, June and younger brother Peter. She was always drawn to the outdoors. She learnt to ride horses and liked nothing better than spending time with her father mustering sheep, listening to his stories and jokes as they rode through the paddocks. She learnt about the environment and how to preserve it, a theme that features later in her life. Taught by Correspondence School this rural, isolated childhood was peppered with beach holidays to Port Macquarie and visits from family, especially her Granny (Grace Gordon Munro, founder of the CWA) and Great Aunts who would return from their overseas adventures with stories of exotic places.

World War II brought rationing and manpower shortages. In these early years, we can see the seeds of her community volunteer work in her adult life. Her mother volunteered for the Red Cross, leading the Walcha Volunteer Aid Detachment. Jillian was the practice dummy for the Red Cross ladies as they finessed their bandaging skills.

Herbert Oppenheimer and Jillian with one of the first bales of wool produced at Petali

Herbert Oppenheimer and Jillian with one of the first bales of wool produced at Petali

In 1943, she was sent to Frensham at Mittagong. She loved it and in her senior years she played hockey in the first eleven and was a prefect. She returned for a final 'sixth year' and was Head Girl. She wanted to attend Oxford University to read English literature but much to her disappointment she fell short with her entrance exam - her Latin was not up to scratch.

Then came 1949 and a trip to England, Scotland and Europe. It was her first taste of the big wide world and she loved every minute. She returned to Australia and enrolled at the University of Sydney in a Bachelor of Arts. She lived at The Women's College and roomed with another country girl, Marie Bashir, who became a lifelong friend.

In 1953, it was decided that the family would again travel to Europe for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Jillian's honours year was put on hold but a different education continued. She did a language course at the Sorbonne in Paris, as well as a Cordon Bleu cooking course and one in flower arranging through Constance Spry School. It was during this time in London that she reconnected with Herbert Oppenheimer, a good looking, blond South African of German extraction. They had first met at Mirani the previous year and romance blossomed.

Jillian travelled to Cape Town; she was joined by her mother, an engagement followed and soon discussions turned to the young couple's future. For a variety of reasons it was decided that they should settle in Australia, on part of Mirani.

The couple were married on 14 April 1955 at St Stephens in Sydney and settled into their new home, Petali. The property had three paddocks, one set of sheep yards and no sheds. They set about developing the property with favourable seasons and markets. They started a Merino stud, a Southdown meat sheep stud and a Poll Hereford stud. In 1960 they achieved a seasonal record price for merino wool. Children arrived - their first, Alex, in January 1956, then Melanie in November 1957, Martin in May 1960 and Caroline in January 1964. Jillian taught them all via correspondence at home - just like her mother had done.

The couple were not well suited, but in the mid-1960s circumstances beyond their control put untenable pressures on their relationship. First came the sudden death of mentor and father, Poss Nivison in June 1965. Secondly, was the 1965/66 drought. However, the death of their youngest daughter, Caroline, in 1967, run over by a car, just one week after her third birthday, brought about the beginning of the end of the marriage, with Herbert leaving in 1970. The couple finally divorced in 1976.

After the tragedies of the 1960s, Jillian returned to university as a single mother. Education was always important to her. She enrolled at the University of New England to complete her delayed honours degree. She found the experience exhilarating, to once again be able to read and study and participate in discussions and debates. Because of her interest in local history, she wrote a thesis, 'History of Land Use in the Walcha District'.

Bruce Mitchell and Jillian at Ohio Homestead - a place they loved.

Bruce Mitchell and Jillian at Ohio Homestead - a place they loved.

She continued to work at the university and also completed a Master of Arts Honours degree. It was not an easy time and the three children attended UNE to be closer to her.

However, Jillian never allowed personal challenges to dominate her life. It is in this period where her community activities, her volunteering, her activism emerges. She was involved with local Walcha organisations such as the Horticultural Society (now the Garden Club), Walcha Riding Club, Walcha Beautification Committee, and both the Walcha and Armidale Historical Societies. In the 1970s, she became committed to the pressing issues of environment and heritage.

Perhaps it was her father's words - 'we must leave the land in a better condition than when we received it' - she became involved with eucalyptus 'dieback'; and obsessed with the old-growth forests that were being cut down for wood chips. This led to a famous family holidays involving a camping trip to Tasmania in a Ford Cortina station wagon (they ended up camping only for one night) where the family drove round looking at the clear-felled forests and woodchip mills.

Jillian was a founding member of the Walcha Branch of the National Parks Association of NSW in 1975 and worked tirelessly with others to create the Oxley Wild Rivers & Werrikimbe National Parks.

It was in her marriage to Bruce Mitchell in 1984, where Jillian found her soulmate and true happiness. Theirs was a meeting of like minds, where a love of history and thirst for knowledge combined with animation, positive spirit and a joie de vivre. They were a great couple.

Together they renovated Ohio Homestead, the original Nivison home built by Jillian's great grandparents. She had purchased the house in 1970, and with Bruce her dream came true to live there. Moving into Ohio in December 1985, they had 25 happy years there. The house was always full of fun, laughter, music and writing.

Jillian surged through the next quarter of her life. With Bruce by her side, she began researching her Scottish forbears and travelling far. Sometimes co-authoring with Bruce, sometimes alone, they researched and wrote a number of books including - An Australian Clan: The Nivisons of New England (1989) & others featuring the Munros, the Gordons, & the Perry's.

They also shared a passion for heritage conservation. Jillian held many roles included founding chairman of the New England Regional Committee of the National Trust. She was elected to the Board of the NSW National Trust topping the poll three times; and Deputy President of the National Trust for 10 years. She was also served as a Board member at UNE.

Jillian received an Order of Australia (OAM) in 1999 in part for her work securing Saumarez Homestead for the National Trust. It is her lasting legacy.

As Anne Philp (a White family member) said: 'the Saumarez House Museum would never have got off the ground if it weren't for Jillian ... a year after the National Trust had refused the White family's offer of Saumarez Homestead, Jillian contacted me and said 'I think you should try again' and in spite of strong opposition the second attempt was successful.

Jillian brought Saumarez where it is today - one of the most well run and financially successful of any NSW Trust property...'

At Orkney in Scotland in 2016 during her last international trip

At Orkney in Scotland in 2016 during her last international trip

However, whatever was happening in her busy public life, she always had time for her family. All through her life, she was there for her children, when they needed her. She was extremely generous (even when she couldn't afford it), and she taught them 'how to travel'. They all had some wonderful adventures with her.

When Bruce passed away unexpectedly on October 12 2009, they were all bereft. But once again, Jillian showed her resilience, picking herself up and continuing with her volunteering and travel - with Col King to Vietnam, with her son Martin and daughter-in-law Cheryl to Europe and her last overseas adventure in 2016 aged 85 - when she insisted on booking a specific cruise to Iceland.

Towards the end of her life, she liked nothing better than to be taken around the paddocks at Petali with Martin. She was so proud of Martin and what he, and Cheryl, have achieved there. After her divorce, Jillian had managed Petali on her own. She had help from farm managers to do the day to day work while she brought in off-farm income. She had great support from local family and friends. She coped well with the mostly male dominated banks, agents and businesses, not an easy task for a woman back then. She held on through some difficult and lonely times.

She was a trail blazer for women in farming, a great example for the many women actively involved in farming today.