Environmentalist Diana, Lady Isaac dies

Lady Diana Isaac.
Lady Diana Isaac.

Environmentalist and patron of the arts, Diana, Lady Isaac has died. 

Lady Isaac died peacefully at home last night. She was 91. 

She was widely recognised for her contributions to the business community at the Champion Canterbury Business Awards in 2006 after taking over the construction business of her husband, Neil Isaac, following his death in 1987.

She also made significant contributions to wildlife projects to save endangered species, and to the arts, including the restoration of the Theatre Royal. The theatre was renamed the Isaac Theatre Royal in 2005. 

She established a 1200-hectare conservation park on the fringe of Christchurch for recreation and scientific study. 

In May, she had signed on as patron of the Avon River Okataro Network, a group campaigning for a reserve and river park in the Avon River red zone. 

Isaac was born and raised in England and worked for the British Army in India for three years in her 20s. She settled in Christchurch in 1950.

Lady Isaac's niece Catherine Isaac, former ACT president and chair of the charter schools working group, said she was a ''wonderful woman and a particularly great role model''.

''There were two sides to Diana,'' she said.

''The tough, astute, very successful businesswoman, who did not suffer fools and who some people found quite daunting to deal with.

''And then the other side; a warm, loving and very private person with a great sense of humour.''

Growing up Catherine Isaac said Isaac was a ''very glamorous and elegant aunt who adored animals and was great at surprises and special occasions, like taking us to the theatre or the circus and having amazing Christmas parties, complete with a magician.

''It was always a great treat for my sister and I to visit their grand house, to drive through the wildlife reserve, feed the ponies, swim and catch trout in the man-made lakes.''

Isaac's late husband Sir Neil Isaac, whom she married in 1946 in New Delhi, was the ''centre of her life''.

Catherine Isaac said she would never forget when her aunt led her up the aisle on her wedding day, when she married husband Roger in a little church in Isaac's heritage village at McLeans Island.

''She hosted a spectacular party for us at her home, complete with singing by her great friend Dame Malvina Major.''

Major first met Isaac after an opera performance in Christchurch in the early 1990s and the pair became close friends.

Major said she got up to speak at Catherine's wedding with Isaac.

Instead of helping with the speech, Isaac instead made Major collapse in fits of laughter.

Catherine Isaac said she has a photograph of the pair at the wedding, ''laughing so hard they are almost crying''.

"We were called a couple of bad children on many occasions because we were playing up or being silly,'' Major said.
"She had a great sense of humour.''

Prime Minister John Key said today his thoughts are with the family and friends of Lady Isaac.

"Her contribution to Canterbury and New Zealand was truly remarkable. From her early philanthropic work with her late husband Neil, right up until the time of her death, she was an outstanding champion for Canterbury, the arts and conservation.

"Lady Isaac was also a huge patron of the arts and her legacy will endure through the Isaac Theatre Royal, the Isaac Centre for Nature Conservation, and the creation of scholarships at both Lincoln and Canterbury Universities.

"It is difficult to imagine anyone who was more generous or worked harder for the people of Canterbury.

"She will be missed immensely but her decades of philanthropy will be enjoyed for generations to come," says Mr Key.

US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, tweeted that he was "saddened" to hear of Lady Isaac's passing, adding that she was a "vibrant, gracious, witty, generous force of nature."




1945 - Met future husband Neil Isaac on a troop ship heading for India.

1946 - Married Isaac in New Delhi. 1947 - Helped build irrigation dams in north India.

1950 - Arrived in New Zealand and Isaac Construction founded.

1977 - The Isaac Wildlife Trust established. 1982 - Neil Isaac awarded a Queen's Service Order.

1986 - Neil Isaac knighted.

1987 - Neil Isaac dies.

1989 - Awarded Queen's Service Medal.

2009 - Awarded New Zealand Order of Merit.

2012 - Officially became a New Zealand citizen.

The Press