Editorial: A life of giving

18:48, Nov 26 2012

The death of Lady Isaac ends a life that had a remarkable effect for good on Canterbury.

She helped create and sustain a construction company that is a major employer and builder of the province's infrastructure. Her financial generosity to organisations and causes strengthened them and in some cases saved them. Her example of grace and achievement will remain an inspiration.

Wealth enabled the philanthropy but did not cause it. The rich are not always willing to give to the community, and few of them in New Zealand have given so generously as Diana Isaac, although the rebuilt City Mission and the expanded Charity Hospital are testament to generous giving from private people.

Her interests were wide but the arts and particularly conservation were her passion and the focus of her giving. The beneficiaries have been many - human and non-human - and range widely, but it is the Theatre Royal, the McLeans Island Recreation Park and the conservation wildlife trust, two of them bearing the Isaac name, that will continue to remind the city and province most vividly of her.

The Isaac Theatre Royal is a particularly instructive example of the power of philanthropy. It was saved from demolition and restored by a discrete group of Canterbury people, including Lady Isaac, determined to keep a building suffused with the sounds of Nellie Melba, Fritz Kreisler, Laurence Olivier and thousands of other voices and instruments.

When it was rent by the earthquakes, it was private giving that set about putting it back together while expensively retaining many cherished features.


Now, the Isaac Theatre Royal is on track to become one of the few remaining major buildings of the old Christchurch - useful and a recognisable link with the city's cultural past.

Lady Isaac's extension of her concern for old buildings into a heritage park, in which she housed 15 structures that had been headed for demolition and planned to house 50, might have been seen as eccentric in a society careless of its built heritage. Now, in the aftermath of the earthquakes and the consequent surge of destruction, the park is shown to be visionary.

Similar foresight was shown by Diana and her husband, Neil, when they turned their attention to saving and nurturing wildlife at a time when the word "conservation" was seldom heard. Envisaging a lakeland park on bleak McLeans Island was brave; expanding it into a wildlife sanctuary was odd. The wealthy lived in Fendalton and hunted.

he Isaacs' eccentric tenacity has blossomed, as the park now attracts visitors and saves species. It is likely to last because of the importance of its work and the financial security the Isaac estate provides.

In the life of the nation, let alone Canterbury, Isaac's is a rare and considerable achievement, and it was cemented by her in the 25 years since her husband's death. She was always insistent on acknowledging Neil's contribution in beginning what she expanded, but the reality is hers was for quarter of a century an individual achievement, and she will be remembered for it.

May it set a standard for philanthropy that will encourage the growing wealthy of Canterbury to use their charitable trusts not just to help their favourite organisations but to create a wider vision.

The Christchurch rebuild gives scope for major gift-giving in terms of buildings and parks that will carry the names of the donors into the future.

The Press