I READ somewhere that friends are the antidote to the burdens of daily life. Gaye Cleeland was my friend. She was also my second cousin. She was a beautiful soul, highly intelligent with a gentle demeanour, yet fiercely independent.
We shared a passion, which was researching the stories and history of our ancestors and the local history of Phillip Island.
Gaye was born Gabrielle Patricia Cleeland in the Warley Bush Nursing Hospital in Cowes on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March 1949. This was rather a fitting day for Gaye – as she was proud of her Irish ancestry, being Cleeland.
Gaye went to Newhaven Primary School, before leaving the Island for her secondary education at Kilbreda College in Mentone, where she boarded. I, unknowingly, lived a mere 400 metres away from her boarding house in Mentone at that time.
After Gaye finished her education at Kilbreda, she studied fashion design at Emily MacPherson College of Domestic Science, which amalgamated with RMIT in 1979. She became an expert seamstress and adept at the fine art of smocking, according to her sister, Kate. It was in 1970s that she stumbled onto a course which would feed and satisfy her lifelong passion – her love of books – and she became a qualified library technician.
Gaye’s first job in her chosen field was at the Footscray Library, where she honed her skills, and her next step, which was more of a giant leap, was a position at the library at the University of New South Wales, where she remained for the next twenty years.
It was while Gaye lived in Sydney that our friendship began. Through family connections we discovered a shared passion in researching our ancestors and a craving to discover their stories. Our communication in those days relied on the telephone (with a handset and cord) and much use of postage stamps.
When Gaye moved back to the Island in the early 2000s our friendship strengthened – but now it was face to face.
Gaye would share her thoughts and theories with a quick wit as we both contemplated and hypothesized outlandish theories as to the “goings on” of our forefathers. My memories of Gaye will always include the fun we shared as we joked about our search for skeletons in our ancestral cupboard.
Gaye also gave so much to our community, becoming involved in a vast array of groups on the Island ranging from the arts to conservation to local history. She was a strong guardian of the Island’s history and a dedicated committee member of the Phillip Island and District Historical Society and Friends of Churchill Island and others, and also dedicated to the arts. Gaye performed with the Island Harmony Singers and we heard from her brother Bill that he had the proud experience of being in the audience when she sang at the Sydney Opera House in Handel’s Messiah.
I have received countless emails from her many friends and colleagues, expressing their shock and sadness at her passing.
She was a beautiful, gentle and intelligent lady who had a quiet and clever wit.
She has left a wonderful legacy for the future generations of the Cleeland descendants – as she moved towards gaining a genuine understanding of our ancestors and their behaviours, in the endeavour to piece together tiny fragments of the huge jigsaw puzzle of family history.
She has also left a wonderful legacy to the local community due to her persistence in preserving and protecting her family’s history which is intrinsically interwoven with that of the development of Phillip Island since European settlement.
We are all richer for having known her and her passing is a great loss for our community.
My life won’t be the same without her and I am sure many within our community feel the same way.