There is a level of inspiration more subtle and yet more powerful than the boosts we receive in our everyday quests for creative stimulation. This is the degree of connectedness reached by some who think of themselves as ordinary people, but are in fact remarkable in some way. When you encounter such a person, their beacon shines, your heart sings and you feel like you can also achieve anything you set your mind to accomplish.
Dot Strong springs to mind. In 1970, Dot walked away from a drought-ridden property in western New South Wales and headed to Sydney with just an old station wagon and a few clothes. She found work as a cleaner at one of the Australian Broadcast Commission buildings, and slept in her vehicle in the backstreets of Darlinghurst for months to give herself a chance to recover financially. An executive eventually helped her into a small flat after he caught her showering in his suite early one morning, when she thought no one else was in the building.
With time, Dot took up the position of tea-lady. In this role, she served many entertainment industry personnel and other celebrities. She sang the praises of most and was smitten with Kamahl, who she said was a perfect gentleman. I agreed, having crossed paths with Kamahl myself briefly in Tasmania in 1972.
When I met her, Dot was about to retire and the ABC was moving to a new building in Ultimo, where the mezzanine cafeteria was to be named in honour of her as their last and longest-serving official tea-lady.
Dot told many interesting tales of her time at ABC, and chuckled proudly as she relayed how she gained the attention of a high-ranking politician who was intent on not communicating with her. He was scribbling away, head bowed low when she tapped on the open door and offered, ‘Tea or coffee, Sir?’ He ignored her. She waited a moment and asked again. There was still no reply, so she cleared her throat and said slowly with emphasis, ‘Tea..? or… Coffee..? Sir’. He grunted. She repeated the slow questions twice, with only a grunt in return the first time and a gruff ‘Yes’ the next. Dot quickly fetched his brew and delivered it with a smile, which he missed because he still didn’t look up.
While she was serving her next, more convivial recipient, she heard spluttering and then demands of, ‘Come here, Woman!’ from the politician’s room.
‘Yes, Sir’, she said, approaching him professionally.
‘What is in this?’ he snapped, pointing at the cup on his desk.
‘Tea and coffee, Sir’, she said with a dead-pan face. ‘I asked if you wanted tea or coffee and you said yes, so I gave you both, Sir…’
Dot was especially proud to have been one of the inspirations behind the television character Aunty Jack, created and played by Grahame Bond in the early seventies. Aunty Jack’s favourite line, ‘I’ll rip yer bloody arms off!’ was a direct reflection of Dot’s regular threat when someone was about to put a wet spoon into the sugar bowl. When cups weren’t returned, she warned the offenders they were risking broken arms. The celebration cake at Dot’s farewell party was in the shape of an arm torn from the shoulder and covered with ‘blood’ – strawberry jam, I believe.
Dot was a character in more ways than one. Her stories whisper through the memories of those who knew her. The plaque on the wall in the cafeteria on the Dot Strong Terrace reminds those who relax and dine there of the many times Dot’s trolley rattled down the corridors of the old building, and the good-nature with which she served over two-million cuppas across more than two decades.
These two claims to fame were quite an achievement for the unassuming, hard-working woman off the land who’d taken drastic measures to survive.
Dot never lost her sense of humour no matter what the world threw at her. She just ‘got on’ with her lot and lived a routine kind of life, serving her fellow-workers day-in and day-out. Yet she brought out the best in most people she met and found ways to influence others.
I like to think of her as an extraordinary ordinary person, but she didn’t like praise. ‘I’m just a simple country girl, itching to get back to Dubbo to open a little café’, she told me, when I complimented her on her achievements.
I walked away from interviewing Dot energized and ready to take on the world. I wasn’t sure how, but it seemed nothing was impossible.
Watch this space for more stories of inspiring people and other musings…