Diana, Lady Isaac dies

21:54, Nov 24 2012
Lady Diana Isaac.

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

Close friend Dame Malvina Major and niece Catherine Isaac yesterday remembered her quick wit, sense of humour, glamour and generosity.

Born and raised in England, Isaac was the eldest of three children. Catherine Isaac, former Act Party president and chairwoman of the charter schools working group, said her aunt was "apparently a very wilful young woman who never liked domestic chores.

"At 16 she told her father 'I don't want your experience, I'm going to have my own', and she did."

She joined the British Army, where she trained with Queen Elizabeth, and set sail for India.

It was on a troop ship bound for India that she met her future husband, the late Sir Neil "Torch" Isaac, whom she married in 1946 in New Delhi. Catherine Isaac said her aunt's "great love affair with her husband and soul mate" was central to her life.


The Isaacs settled in New Zealand in 1950 and established Isaac Construction.

In 1977 Isaac founded the Isaac Wildlife Trust and conservation park, Peacock Springs, at her McLeans Island home.

She made numerous and significant contributions to Canterbury, with the creation of scholarships at Lincoln and Canterbury universities, supporting the Isaac Theatre Royal and Christchurch Art Gallery. In 1982 her husband was awarded a Queen's Service Order and was knighted in 1986. He died the following year.

Catherine Isaac said: "She was devastated when she lost him so suddenly so many years ago, but she devoted herself to pursuing their joint vision with huge energy and passion."

In 1989 Isaac was awarded the Queen's Service Medal.

She became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009 for services to business, conservation and the community.

In March the same year she was commemorated as one of the Twelve Local Heroes for her work in Christchurch, with a bronze bust outside the Christchurch Arts Centre.

After more than 60 years in New Zealand she finally became a citizen in October.

Major first met Isaac at one of her performances in Christchurch in the early 1990s.

As widows, they related easily to each other and became friends.

Despite her love of opera, which once saw the pair watch four operas in two days, Isaac struggled to hold a tune, Major said.

"She always wanted to sing but she could not sing a note."

As her health slowly declined over the past few years, Isaac never complained, Major said.

"If you asked her, she was fine, absolutely fine."

If she had trouble sleeping at night, she would take one of her staff and drive around Christchurch.

"She would stop and talk to the men working on the side of the road at 3am in the morning," Major said.

Isaac never had children, but adored her grand-nieces and nephews, and friends' children. She once lent Catherine Isaac's teenage son a Mercedes.

Isaac was writing a book of memoirs when she died and her family and friends plan to finish, and publish it. Major said: 'None of us have seen it, but . . . We are going to get it sorted and get it out there so other people have an idea of the absolutely extraordinary variety she had in her life."

Prime Minister John Key said Isaac's contributions to New Zealand were "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. It is difficult to imagine anyone who was more generous or worked harder for the people of Canterbury."

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said Isaac's legacy would live on through her "amazing" contributions to Christchurch.

"She was a rare and very special spirit, who pushed the boundaries for women. She was one of those human beings others gravitated to."

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