Frank's skills boost health of community

KYLE WADSWORTH
Last updated 11:13 15/12/2012
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Frank Lowry

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When Frank Lowry catches a glimpse of New Plymouth school children playing outside on a summer's day, their faces shaded by the wide brims of their floppy sunhats, he's entitled to a glow of satisfaction.

During the 90s the former Taranaki Cancer Society executive officer oversaw education programmes and health campaigns, including the Shady School Policy, designed to keep kids safe in the sun.

"There are so many cancers that can be avoided and prevented by early detection, and we've done a lot of work keeping people safe from the sun, especially in the schools of New Zealand," says the 83-year-old.

"You only have to pass schools in New Zealand now and children are out in the playground with hats on."

Lowry should actually have been putting his feet up after a decade of service to the Christchurch Cancer Society when he arrived in Taranaki in 1990 with his wife Miriam.

But his retirement plans didn't come to fruition.

"My wife and I came up here [New Plymouth] to retire for various reasons, family being one of them, and a change of scene from Canterbury, but the Cancer Society wouldn't let me retire," Lowry says grinning.

Instead, the society wanted him to help get the Taranaki Centre into its own building and expand its services, the job he had just done for the Canterbury- West Coast division.

Twenty years later, these goals have largely been achieved and Lowry couldn't be prouder.

"When I look around here, I have a certain amount of satisfaction and I believe we've gone in the right direction," says Lowry who recently celebrated the Taranaki Cancer Society's 75th anniversary with former colleagues.

The organisation began in 1929 when the New Zealand branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign opened in Wellington, and the Taranaki branch opened in 1937.

Now known as the Cancer Society of New Zealand, it is the largest non- government funder of cancer research in the country.

Lowry had spent 20 years working as a medical laboratory technologist in the hospital laboratory service when in the 1980s he decided he wanted to make a bigger difference in healthcare.

"I just had a feeling that I wanted to break away and be able to set my own strategy on how I could contribute to the health and wellbeing of people," he says.

In Christchurch the Cancer Society was advertising for an executive officer, and Lowry knew it was the perfect position for him.

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After being appointed, he was given the task of bringing the Christchurch- based division up to date with the rest of New Zealand.

"In some respects I really started off from scratch," remembers Lowry.

"My strategy was to bring their division up to standard. I think we just about succeeded.

"I had 10 years in the post, and there was a matter of getting them on to a realistic property, mainly to house cancer patients and their families when they came to Christchurch for cancer treatment."

Lowry had just one volunteer by his side when he began work with the Christchurch branch, but by March 1986 he had five staff and about 350 volunteers.

With their help, he developed a resource centre, an after-hours support phone service, cancer education programmes for schools, clubs, doctors and nurses, and a driving service to take patients to the Oncology Treatment Centre.

Lowry says while the society's staff are important to keep day-to-day operations moving, it's the volunteers that make the advancements possible.

"I must say when I'm talking about these things that we've accomplished, that it's the volunteers that were beside us in all these things. They were the workforce."

When the Taranaki centre's president (the late) Kingsley Fletcher heard of Lowry's impending retirement in 1990 he offered him the position of executive officer.

"He said to me 'Frank you're not going to retire, we'd like you to help get us into our own building and get the programme expanded'."

Three years on from his appointment, the society bought a property on Lorna St, and thanks to an interest-free loan, from the TSB Bank, the house was renovated into a cancer centre.

"When I look back to 1993 when this property was purchased, some of those people are not with us now. However, we think of them with feelings of gratitude, as they played their part at that time. We supported each other, it was a team effort."

In 1992, Lowry became a founding trustee of the Taranaki Hospice Foundation, to advocate for a hospice run independently of the Taranaki District Health Board.

"I had some hospice experience in Christchurch and for obvious reasons the Cancer Society has always been a big supporter of hospice.

"I wouldn't say it was a battle, but we had to convince the Midland Regional Health Authority, about the necessity of setting up a standalone hospice."

This year, the Taranaki Hospice celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Lowry retired from the Taranaki Cancer Society at the end of 1993, only to join the ranks of its volunteers.

Mary Bernet, cancer survivor and society volunteer since the 1970s, describes Lowry as a "rock".

"He was always there and took our meetings, brought information to us, and supported us," says Bernet who was a founding member of the Breast Cancer Support Group.

She's worked with Lowry on and off for about 20 years, and says his confident charm is the secret to his success.

"He's just so loyal and is the same Frank no matter where you meet him, whether it's in the street or the Cancer Society rooms."

Bernet believes these qualities led to Lowry being awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the society in 2000.

Not that Lowry sees the award as his alone.

"It was really an acceptance on behalf of the society," he says.

"When I was at Government House and Sir Michael Hardie Boys pinned on my medal, I was visualising all the volunteers around me that I had worked with."

Taranaki Cancer Society branch manager Jenny Henderson says Lowry is simply "tireless".

"He will keep going until he can't keep going any more. That's just the kind of guy he is, he's a real community-minded person."

While Lowry doesn't do much work for the society these days, Henderson says he helps out when he has the time.

"I don't think he ever really retired, he just didn't get paid any more. He kept going, and that's pretty amazing."

Lowry, who is now chairman of the Taranaki/Whanganui Association of Retirement Village Residents, says the reasoning behind his "get up and go" attitude to life is simple.

"If I stop, I might not get out of bed, so I've got to keep going," Lowry jokes.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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