Even if you’re a long time bowler, you’d be forgiven for not knowing who has ever been feted as a Life Member of Bowls New Zealand.
In fact there’s just three of them: Jean Ashby, Peter Belliss and Martin Christensen. The ‘ABC’ of Life Members. There hasn’t been a life membership appointment for 4 years, but bowls wags expect the next appointee’s surname to start with ‘D’.
The paucity of appointments is not surprising. The standard is high. And chatting with foundation Life Member, Jean Ashby, it’s very easy to realise why appointments are few and far between.
The gracious and charming octogenarian has been involved with bowls since 1967, when she joined Mairangi Bay and has played there ever since. That’s over 50 years ago. We still used pounds shillings and pence at the start of 1967. We still enjoyed (or not enjoyed!) free milk at school during the morning break. We still had to be out of the pub by six o’clock at night.
“My grandfather and mother had been very keen bowlers,” says Jean, “so it was nothing unusual for me to take the game up as well, even though my husband wasn’t interested.”
“I was introduced to the game pretty young. Mum and Grandpa took me to the bowls at the Empire Games in Auckland in 1950. They were at the old Carlton green, and it was men’s only. I was under strict instructions not to move or talk at all … spectators, and players, had to be much more restrained in those days.”
The bowls environment was much different back then. Women and men belonged to separate club organisations. The men played in the weekends, and the women played during the week. It was assumed that the breadwinning men could only play weekends – and mum could step out of the kitchen during the week and play some bowls while dinner was cooking. Men took priority. Women played bowls around the men, at the discretion of the men. It’s unbelievable, when you think about the way men and women comfortably share the greens and clubhouse now.
Jean has no such memories of misogynism. She loved the game. But she soon found she loved umpiring more.
“I won a couple of club titles,” says Jean, “but I wasn’t a marvellous player. So I became an umpire in 1976.”
That started a career in voluntary bowls administration : stints on the match committee, as a club delegate, and as club president. Jean was a leading light in the formation of the Waitemata Centre in 1984, before the ‘North Harbour’ name was popularised, and it became the gender-integrated Bowls North Harbour Centre in 1996.
But Jean thrived on umpiring. “I loved getting around Auckland and the North Island,” recalls Jean. She also umpired bigger and better things – at the Women’s World Bowls Championship in Henderson in 1988 and the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990. Jean became President of the New Zealand Women’s Umpires Association in 1992/1993.
Jean became a go-to person for the Bowls New Zealand – taking up appointments on the Umpires Board, the Judicial Committee, the Academy Board and as an independent Board Director … culminating in life membership in 2002. She was already a life member of Mairangi Bay and the North Harbour Bowls Association. Seemingly Jean had done a lifetime of service for everyone!
More was to come. In 2004, Jean became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM). “My husband hated flying,” laughs Jean, “so we went to the investiture at Government House in Wellington by train.” A tiny roundel on Jean’s lapel commemorates the award for services to bowls.
Jean still loves her bowls. And her netball. And her tennis. And her soccer (she was manager of her kids’ soccer team once, much to their dismay). The svelte Jean has also been a jogger, a marathoner and a half-marathoner.
It makes you wonder how anyone can love sport so much, and yet still have time to love the 6 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild which she dotes over.
Ask her yourself. She was there at Carlton Cornwall at the recent Summerset National Singles & Pairs, quietly appreciating the bowling action from the sidelines, but not before umpiring for two days of section play. More than likely you’ll find her around the traps in Auckland, particularly at clubs on the Shore, enjoying the summer season of bowls.
Thanks for all your wonderfulness Jean. We love you!