They started young. When Rex and Meryl Packer were courting, their volunteer services focused on transporting a whole cricket team to matches – in one Holden ute.
It was the summer of 1960–61, in the days before mandatory seat belts, when Rex drove the schoolboys’ cricket team to suburban cricket pitches across north-western Adelaide.
His local Lutheran congregation, St Paul’s at Woodville Gardens, now known as Ferryden Park, sponsored the local team and that meant ferrying them in the trusty ute every Saturday during the cricket season.
Two players sat between him and Meryl, who was the team scorer, with the rest in the back. Years later, two of those boys made it into the State team.
These journeys are an early example of what would become a lifetime of community service.
This service was recognised in January when Rex, 81, and Meryl, 77, each received Order of Australia medals (OAM) for more than 40 years of service to the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA).
The pair first met while working as public servants in the Adelaide office of the Postmaster-General’s Department. Meryl was one of the first female clerks in the public service there. Both played table tennis at lunchtime and generally played doubles together. That partnership led to marriage in 1962 and they soon joined the newly established St John’s congregation in Tea Tree Gully in suburban Adelaide. As a new congregation, there was always a demand for willing volunteers. They were in the right place!
Rex became treasurer, while Meryl joined the ladies’ guild and edited the monthly church magazine. Printed on an old duplicating machine, it was posted to more than 500 contacts, requiring many a late night of hand-addressing postal wrappers.
Their move to Canberra in 1971 landed them in a new community ripe with volunteering opportunities. They became members of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Woden Valley, just after the LCA’s NSW District bought land for a youth camp. What would become the Warrambui Retreat and Conference Centre, at Murrumbateman, about 30 kilometres from Canberra, was then a bare block with a host of dead ringbarked gum trees.
Answering the call for volunteers to help construct the first building, known as the Dome, Rex organised Woden members to pour concrete. He remembers later lugging the sheets of roofing iron into place. That was the start of four decades of support for Warrambui.
Rex served as chair of the Warrambui Board from 1982 to 1992 and was treasurer for most of the past decade. Meryl was a board member from 2004 to 2014, liaising between the centre and Lutheran Women of NSW. They both have been recognised as ‘Warrambui Legends’.
Rex retired from the board in March this year but remains on its subcommittee, managing the site’s quarry, which has earnt considerable funds since 1982, enabling the building of staff housing, a retreat hut and more.
The work of these early volunteers has borne fruit, with the centre managing 151 bookings and catering for 17,000 bed nights over the past year. Even the pine trees planted by volunteers in the early 1970s as a long-term investment were recently harvested, raising about $50,000. Warrambui holds a dear place in their hearts.
‘Before Warrambui had employed staff, Meryl and I, along with a couple from Bathurst, catered for the then senior youth Australia Day long weekend camp, which included about 120 ravenous youth to feed’, says Rex.
Not only did they devise a menu, buy the food, cook and serve it, but a full house meant they slept on the floor in a large broom cupboard. ‘By the end of the weekend we were totally exhausted and very happy to have managed the challenge’, he says.
Six weeks later they returned for the Lutheran Women of NSW annual retreat. Meryl developed a menu to be prepared by Rex and his male support staff, written in meticulous detail so the team of inexpert cooks could follow it. It was a success, and surplus funds from this ‘very daunting exercise’ paid for the parquetry floor in the centrum of the Dome, which remains in excellent condition today.
‘We were both encouraged by our parents to help wherever possible and that has been our guiding philosophy throughout our lives’, say Rex and Meryl. For the busy couple, it’s simply a matter of seeing the need. ‘Rex is always the first one to nurse someone’s crying baby on the plane’, says Meryl. (And yes – that did actually happen!)
There is always a need for volunteers. ‘This means that even in retirement there is always plenty to do. We enjoy good health, are generally calm and contented in life. Volunteering has most likely contributed to this’, they say.
Their many leadership positions have included Rex’s national roles for Calisthenics Australia, Meryl’s roles with Lutheran Women, and myriad school and sports committees, utilising their accounting and organisational skills. All the while they have been supporting their four children, and later 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
While their extensive list of external volunteering is reducing, they remain deeply committed to serving their Woden congregation.
Helping brings the Packers contentment: ‘You have a circle of friends and you are never at a loss. You meet people who need help and that helps to ground you.’
They are also grounded in their faith, conscious that their God-given talents are to be used wisely for good and remain humbled and a bit embarrassed by their awards, noting the many people around them who do so much.
Helen Beringen is a Brisbane-based writer who is inspired by the many GREYT people who serve tirelessly and humbly in our community. By sharing stories of how God shines his light through his people, she hopes others are encouraged to explore how they can use their gifts to share his light in the world.
Know of any other GREYT stories in your local community? Email the editor firstname.lastname@example.org
This feature story comes from The Lutheran April 2020. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.