TIME CALLED: A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis has finally caught up with Maree McKenna who has worked at the South Grafton Ex-Servicemen's Club for 34 years. Her last day on the job is Friday.
TIME CALLED: A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis has finally caught up with Maree McKenna who has worked at the South Grafton Ex-Servicemen's Club for 34 years. Her last day on the job is Friday. Tim Howard

Maree forced to calls it quits after 34 years

WHEN it took Maree McKenna nearly two hours to button her shirt before heading off to work as the administrative officer at South Grafton Ex-Servicemen's Club, she knew it was time to call it quits.

Maree has been working at the club for 34 years and for the past 20 she and her bosses have known the degenerative disease multiple sclerosis was lurking around the corner.

"It was first diagnosed relapsing/remitting MS and in the past 12 months I have been re-diagnosed as progressive," Maree said.

"With relapsing/remitting I could go 18 months without having an exacerbation of it. But now it's changed dramatically.

"I have to get up 90 minutes earlier just to do my buttons up and get dressed to come to work."

She said she has lost a lot of balance and uses a walking stick and has found her fingers can no longer handle routine tasks, like counting money.

"I have to watch where I walk," she said. "Everywhere I walk, my head's down watching where I'm stepping."

Maree said the MS has cut years from her working life.

"I was probably going to work through to retirement age 65 or 67 whatever it is now," she said.

She said lasting 20 years with the disease at the relapsing/remitting was a better than the usual outcome.

"Usually people get through the relapsing/remitting and then it gets worse," she said.

"Twenty years is not bad to still come to work. The second person I told was my then boss. The first person, obviously, was my mum."

She said every one of her bosses at the club has been overwhelmingly supportive of her battle with the disease.

To manage the disease Maree would need five or six weeks off work every 18 months or two years for treatment.

"I would have infusions of steroids over four to five days and then about five to six weeks off to get over it," Maree said.

"I would get out of bed and sometimes my leg wouldn't work. Good friends would take me to the hospital. A couple of times I've had to use the club's courtesy bus."

Buzzing atmosphere of the early days at the South Club

A young Maree McKenna can remember her first shift at the South Club: a 10pm start in the upstairs bar, which was then the entertainment hub of the Clarence Valley.

"The club was the place to be," she said. "We did things like Jimmy Barnes over two days of the weekend and we would have 1000 people in upstairs."

"I started here as a casual in the bar in the week leading up to the July Carnival in 1982.

"It was a 10pm start and my parents had to wake me up to get me there on time.

"Staff now don't realise what it was like. We would finish at 2am, 3am. We'd sit around tables, play cards, the sun would come up.

"You'd look at your watch and think, oh my God I'm supposed to be at work at 10.

"So it would be home, have a shower, come back.

"Things like that don't happen any more. Back then we didn't have things like alarms, cameras or security."

Frightening ordeal of 1989 fire

There have been some crises at the club, but none was bigger than the fire on March 6, 1989, which completely destroyed the top floor.

"They think it was deliberate, but they're not certain," she said. "It went to a committal hearing but they basically said there was not enough evidence."

"This area (the downstairs bar) was being refurbished at the time, so we were in the back sports bar," she said.

"We could smell smoke. The guy I was working with and I thought there must be something happening, so we flew down to the kitchen.

"Nothing. We went to investigate further and we eventually made our way out to the balcony and by chance looked.

"It was fumes and smoke going everywhere. I yelled at a barfly not to go anywhere and ran upstairs to have a look.

"We didn't get very far before we found it was fully engulfed in flames. Very, very frightening."

Maree and her staff completely evacuated the club and called emergency services who were able to contain the fire to the top floor.

"Back in those days there used to be seven rooms of accommodation upstairs," she said. "Fortunately no-one was there that night.

"The entire top floor was gone. The metal was melted. There was nothing salvageable, except for a couple of glasses from the long bar that ran across it and a couple of mirrors."

The loss to the club and the region was immense.

"Upstairs was basically the same area as downstairs," she said. "It was gone. It took a lot to rebuild. A lot of time, a lot of planning. A lot of free time from some of the older staff and the board."

"The club re-opened in some areas downstairs in two to three months.

"It probably took two or three years to get upstairs rebuilt. But it's nothing like it was."

"They built a function area for meetings and dinners in preference to having bands."

Flood levels reach unprecedented heights

As well as fire, floods have also been an issue for the club, but it was only in 2013 the club had water in the bar for the first time.

 

The 2013 flood put water in the main bar at South Club for the first time, creating the need for repairs to the floor.
The 2013 flood put water in the main bar at South Club for the first time, creating the need for repairs to the floor. JoJo Newby

"I left work as the water was rising and people were saying not to worry, there had never been water in the main bar before," Maree said.

"I came to work to find everyone sitting around in water."

Netball the real passion for Maree

While Maree's dedication to the club is exemplary it would be fair to say her passion has been netball.

"I was lucky with my playing as I retired a year before I was diagnosed," she said. "The MS didn't knock me out of playing, but it knocked me around."

Maree coached and managed many Grafton representative teams of all ages and found the hours of bus travel did not go well with the disease.

"I had great managers," she said. "In preference to sitting on the bus to travel to Sydney I would fly and my manager would get the girls down there."

While she never had the pleasure of coaching her, she said national netball star Verity Simmons has been the standout player she has seen come from Grafton.

"I coached teams of all age groups, but somehow missed coaching Vez," she said.

"She would have to be the best, simply because she's gone on with her netball to fulfil her ability.

"But there have been a lot of players I have seen who have the ability, but have not gone one with it."

 

Former local coach Maree McKenna rates Verity Simmons as the best netball player to come from the region.
Former local coach Maree McKenna rates Verity Simmons as the best netball player to come from the region. Chris Hyde

She said Mary Gaudron was one she would have liked to see push on with the sport.

"She married into the (tennis playing) Beckman family," Maree said. "She was one player I thought had it all."

Maree has enjoyed travelling around the world, but her MS will curtail more trips overseas.

"I have not done much travelling in Australia," she said. "That will be one thing I will set myself to do.

"Plus my parents are still alive and not in the best of health.

"Now we will be able to support each other."


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