There are certain questions one does not ask a lady, so let’s just say that nonagenarian Audrey Larsen brings a wealth of life experience to her studies at Pilgrim Theological College, and leave it at that.
Audrey, a retired court reporter started tertiary studies late in life. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Deakin University in 1994, and completed her Masters of Arts (International Relations) in 2010, again, at Deakin. Keen to study a PhD with a focus on the Middle East, Audrey decided that she couldn’t undertake the travel to the region required to get first hand knowledge so the next best option was to enrol as an audit student in courses of interest to her at Pilgrim Theological College. Audit units allow you to study without the pressure of submitting essays or sitting exams. They’re a terrific way to keep one’s mind active and engage in classes and courses that interest you.
“The Doctorate I wanted to do would involve travel and that’s beyond me these days,” Audrey said, adding that Semester One’s Introduction to Christian Scripture course delivered by Academic Dean Sean Winter was a great course.
“Sean’s an excellent teacher. It was an absolutely fascinating subject and he really knows his stuff,” Audrey said.
“Everyone is just so warm and welcoming”
As to the College itself, Audrey’s experience is shared by most students pursuing education for the love of lifelong learning.
“Pilgrim is a very charming place to go to learn and I love it there because the College has a completely different feel from a ‘normal’ university.”
“Everyone is just so warm and welcoming.”
Warm and welcoming is a description that suits Audrey herself.
“My grandfathers – one a Danish builder – the other from Cornwall in the UK, came to Queensland on sailing ships,” she said, recounting her early years growing up in Queensland where she was born.
“You’ve got to remember that in those days it was a different era. When I was born there was just bush, so I grew up close to the land.”
“I spent a lot of time in the country wandering around and for me to have survived to my age you have to be pretty tough.”
Her mother was a trained nurse and tended many of young Audrey’s bumps and scrapes on the road to adulthood. However, when aged five, Audrey and her two siblings survived an event that could have taken their lives. Audrey’s mother missed the bus to take the children to the doctors where they were scheduled to be vaccinated. Audrey recalled that a batch of vaccine that had been spoiled in transit from Brisbane resulted in the deaths of several children who were vaccinated that day and one senses that event had a significant impact on her life.
“I really shouldn’t be alive,” Audrey said, “So I’ve always thought that when you are alive, you’ve got to live every moment.”
Audrey, the middle child of three, declared herself her parents’ favourite.
“That was probably because I did what I was told and always helped out. Although doing what I’m told is probably not the case any more,” she laughed.
Audrey’s British grandfather built roads and eventually moved into farming sugar cane and ran a cattle station – hence the exposure to the rugged Queensland Central Coast around Bundaberg where Audrey spent the tough years of the Second World War. The young airmen who trained in Bundaberg were sent to Europe or saw action in the Pacific theatre and Audrey recalled with sadness that most of those men – including a potential suitor to her sister – were killed in action.
“War is such a terrible, terrible loss,” Audrey said. “They were such beautiful young men and I can still see them today in their smart uniforms.”
A natural flair for tapping away at keyboards saw Audrey train as a morse code operator but her parents refused to sign the paperwork required for her to enlist as a 17-year-old and that remains one of her life’s regrets.
“You can’t turn the clock back so live life to the fullest”
“I lived through the war years and there are certain things I would have liked to have done but things were different back then and parents had a lot of say in your life,” Audrey recalled.
But that talent for fast, accurate finger movements manifested itself in a hobby as a pianist – a hobby she pursues to this day – and a career as a court reporter with State and Commonwealth courts in Australia and Canada. Audrey travelled throughout Australia extensively for work in her role for the Commonwealth. She also recalls being in New York en route to Canada when President Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961.
“I arrived in the middle of a blizzard – the Hudson was even frozen over,” Audrey said, adding that a year as a court reporter in the western Canadian wilderness near the Alaskan border left her homesick. Whilst a job at the United Nations beckoned she returned to the Victorian court system, working on such trials as the 1966 trial of Ronald Ryan – the last man to be hanged in Australia following his conviction for shooting a prison guard when escaping from Pentridge Prison.
“You can’t turn the clock back so live life to the fullest,” Audrey said, adding that her birthday was a few weeks away and she had arranged a party with friends at the local pub where she’s known for playing the honky-tonk piano and entertaining pub patrons with her precision playing honed by years as a court reporter and her wartime experience learning morse code.
“It’s life; you’ve just got to go for it!”