Fiona Stuart (Tonks) Eulogy

My name is Greg Jones and I have been asked by Doug to speak about Fiona. Some here will know her better, I have perhaps known her longer than many both as a teacher and through the racing industry with my 35 years as a committeeman on the Ashburton Racing Centre.

Fiona was the youngest of three children born to Keith and Joan Tonks, with her two older brothers being Robert and Alastair. Her Mum, Joan was a Kindy teacher and she returned to the position over in Tinwald before Fiona went to primary school. I understand Fiona apparently wasn’t happy about the arrangement because she would have to attend Kindy all day while the other children only had to go for a half day. Her formal education started at Tinwald Primary School before going on to Ashburton Intermediate and Ashburton College.

I had Fiona in my science class as a third form student and it is fair to say she didn’t always engage with the intricacies of the structure and bonding of atoms or the conservation of energy or what was the difference between plant and animal cells. ‘How is this going to help me get a job’ was a question she often asked when she didn’t want to finish a task. Even back then she had the confidence to be direct and forthright. I removed her from class once for excessive talking and she reminded me of this frequently during our relationship at the racing centre.

What was fairly clear was that she was full of spirit and energy, had a good memory and the ability to learn material she was interested in, and she achieved well in the commercial subjects. What many of you will not know was that Fiona was a talented athlete at school level with real ability in the 400m event. This is well known as the hardest of the track events as it requires a combination of speed and stamina and the mind set to overcome pain. It is a tough, demanding event for strong, determined people, which was to be trademark Fiona in her life ahead.

In 1978, Fiona broke the U14 girls 400m record at the Mid South Canterbury Champs and also won the 200m. She also broke the College record in their sports that year with a time of 62.8s. This was bettered in 1985 by 0.2 s and this time of 62.6s still stands today meaning Fiona has essentially been the second best over the distance in more than 50 years.

In 1979 she broke the Mid South Canterbury shot put record. She won a silver medal at the NZSS in 1980 as part of the 4x 100m relay and then in 1981 won two bronze medals as part of the 4x100 and 4x400 m relay events. She was also an accomplished netball player at school and had success in the equestrian field from an early age when Keith would take her around the shows and help with the events. Her great, long-standing friend Nicola Lunn was also involved with these events and later they would be bridesmaids for each other. Jo Geering and Christine Barringer have been other loyal friends from an early age who shared common interests.

After leaving school in 1981, Fiona was appointed as an office junior to the recently formed Ashburton Racing Centre which consisted of the ARC, ATC and Methven Trotting Club. Originally based in the Burnett St office, the centre moved to the racecourse after the new stand was built.

Her boss for the next 30 years or so, Trevor Robertson, would be her mentor and being keen to learn the industry, she asked the necessary questions to complete the tasks required and more. It was not easy for a young woman in a predominately man’s game back then and one of her first President’s never called her by name and as an invitation to a Xmas function, once said to Trevor he could bring ‘her’ along. Acceptance of her ability would change attitudes over time. They both had input into the building committee for the new stand and race tracks with regular site meetings. Fiona often completed extra tasks with Trevor involved in admin around this aspect. Trevor’s calm demeanour and easy going nature was a good fit for a more volatile Fiona and they worked well as a team. Trevor didn’t seem to encounter heated disagreements that others would face over the years.  Their excellent working relationship extended on to their personal lives with each attending the others wedding. Trevor’s wide interest in sport meant that Fiona learnt much about rugby and cricket in particular and she would not hesitate telling you who had played a great   game and who had underperformed.

Prior to 2000 the local office grew to incorporate the organisation and affairs of the Geraldine TC and a little later the Hororata TC, the Banks Peninsula RC, Waimate RC, Waimate TC and for a time the Kaikoura TC also joined due to the success of the operation and the respect accorded to Fiona and Trevor. Fiona would become Minute secretary of Hororata and her beloved Banks Peninsula club, and she would be responsible for organising their respective racedays.

As computer systems were introduced Fiona made a conscious effort to learn the technology of the time and to be at the forefront of its use and she loved the new innovations, so that the place became a mini bureau. She quickly became proficient at doing the nominations and acceptances on the computer. Trevor reports that other club secretaries from around NZ would ring Fiona for advice. Fiona and Trevor developed an intimate knowledge of the rules and regulations of the respective codes and certainly kept up to date with changes. They became indispensible for the ever changing committees over the years as a source of information. Gareth Murfitt was appointed in around 2010 due to the increased need for financial information to be online and as a more than capable typist himself, Fiona quickly gave him Trevor’s hand written notes from committee meetings to enter into the word processer.

On Trevor’s retirement after 50 years as the secretary of the clubs, Fiona was appointed to be the person in charge and she wasted no time designating her car park space as General Manager and moving her stuff into the private office. Gareth Murfitt had the main office space to himself and took the phone calls. There was a reallocation in duties for all the Clubs - Fiona took on the ATC responsibilities and Gareth the ARC. They would both be at Management meetings. Gareth would introduce XERO as an additional accounting package to go with MYOB and this would prove to be an effective way to streamline the finances, wages, IRD and ACC management.

As the allocation of funds from the respective bodies became tighter, gaining grant money was to become imperative for the balance sheet and Fiona was excellent in applying for and gaining grant money for racing from various Trusts around NZ.

The first Harness Jewels was to be a huge success, not only for the Trotting Club and Harness Racing but also for the Ashburton community. Fiona played a major part in this success and was very proud of her organisation and leadership around this large event. It was acknowledged afterwards that she had been the driving force and ‘had made others look good’. The biennial event became Fiona’s baby and to oversee such huge gatherings with only two paid staff doing the bulk of the event management is testament to her organisational abilities and the responsibility she could handle. Sometimes staying until 11pm with Gareth to finish some of the tasks was seen as an investment for ensuring a successful event. I remain unsure whether Pinot Noir affected their productivity.

Well respected by national bodies in both harness and thoroughbred racing, Fiona was awarded an Outstanding Contribution to Harness Racing Award in June 2018 reflecting the service she had given but also the consistent excellence in producing quality events and it was regarded as well-deserved by the hierarchy. She was regularly invited as a guest to events like the Harness Jewels at Cambridge and Addington which is a measure of the esteem she was held in.

What can you say about someone who devoted 36.5 years to a job. Well for a start it was more than a job to Fiona, it was more than her career, it was in many ways, her life. That was until Doug came permanently into her life anyway.

Fiona loved structure and organisation, she was highly efficient, she liked things tidy in the office and she was a stickler for time – morning tea was at 10am and not before or after. Wow behold anyone wanting or expecting stuff done at that time. She understood what worked and what didn’t through experience. She was dedicated to the job and ensured that things were done correctly. While committee meetings weren’t her favourite part of the job and explaining things over and over to new members tested her patience, she had respect that information had to be shared. Fiona was always active in meetings and never hesitated to share her thoughts and views. Over a drink afterwards, she enjoyed the informal chats, about the direction of the industry and the merits of individual horses far more. She was pretty much black and white in her beliefs and didn’t suffer fools. While she mellowed a little over the years there was no need for woman’s lib or me too movements for Fiona who was more than capable of defending her views and maintaining her rights. She had to, as there were very few females on the committees over the years, Leona Prendergast and Geraldine Stanbury being exceptions.

Fiona lived with the family for a long time and helped run the family household. She was very close to her mother and they enjoyed a very good relationship. Fiona used to get Mum to cut and bring flowers from home to the Ashburton race meetings to brighten up the place. She has also been a devoted daughter and a big help to Keith since Joan passed away despite having major issues of her own and regularly shopped for him since being married.

In fact it is fair to say she would do anything for people she cared about and had respect for. Beyond the exterior she was kind-hearted and generous. 

One of Fiona’s other great friends was Jan Hay. Jan was a highly successful trainer who prepared many horses for the syndicates Fiona was involved in over the years and shared similar interests with Fiona. It should be mentioned that Fiona provided great support for Jan when her husband Dan passed away 21 years ago and this has been reciprocated in the last few years as Jan has visited Fiona daily and provided that contact with the outside world. The first cordless phone in the office was affectionately called Jan’s phone because the main use was Fiona talking to Jan on it, out of earshot, in the birdcage!

Fiona was passionate about racing and she was involved in a number of syndicates over the years. Jan trained numerous winners for the Red syndicate which included Dr Dee Bee as her favourite, and the Dream Merchants Synd which consisted of other racecourse employees. They had a few horses with Tony Lawry when he trained on course many years ago. A memorable moment was Medusa running the closest of seconds at Trentham and the video cameras focussing in on Fiona jumping up and down in the stand trying to get it home. This clip was used for about a year on TV promoting the exciting image of racing, and in the end Fiona asked them to stop using it. Photos of winning syndicate horses lined the structural columns of the office area to highlight their successes.

She also represented the Clubs with passion and wanted the best for them. On one occasion at a conference, she bailed up a business analyst who had provided an unsatisfactory reply to a request from the racing club. Fiona spied his presence at the social event after the meeting and after a couple of drinks, she engaged him in some serious conversation with him trapped in a corner and unable to extricate himself. Trevor looked on, got another drink, and wisely left it a bit until the message was truly understood before he intervened.

Of course she wasn’t always on a charm offensive when you visited the office either. She would sometimes greet me with a ‘what do you want’ knowing there was about to be a request to be actioned. This establishing or taking the high ground was just Fiona’s manner and she would half smile as she went about finding what you wanted or printing off a letter on an official letterhead. If there was something you wanted her input into, she would relish the task and quickly go about doing it. Quite often I would have a letter to be sent and would intentionally leave a mixture of single and double spacing between paragraphs that she would huff and puff about, telling me I was useless. She would then go through the whole letter and often discuss possible additions, change the format, so the end product was professional and thorough and from my perspective, double checked. Mission accomplished.

Fiona first met Doug officially back in 1988 when she went down to help with the three day Riverton Easter meeting. Doug had been appointed as secretary the previous year and was still coming to terms with race day organisation. They met frequently at various conferences over the following years and seemed to have quite a bit in common. Fiona’s personal life turned for the better when Doug made a commitment to her and she seemed more contented and rounded. I am not sure if she said ‘what do you want’ when Doug was standing there holding red roses and a ring in a box. They married in Easter 2013 at the Ashburton Racecourse.  Doug has been a tower of strength through this whole health episode and his love and support of Fiona cannot be overstated. They did indeed seem like soul mates.

After she resigned from her position at the raceway Fiona had her health issues to battle. She had been diagnosed with a carcinoma and been on chemotherapy two years before finishing up, had a tumour cut out soon after, followed by more treatment and check ups. The sad news arrived after one check up that the cancer had spread to her lungs and so a slow deterioration began, despite the best efforts of all concerned. Quite sensibly, I believe, she set targets for ticking off things she would like to do, as part of her bucket list.  Doug was instrumental in helping her achieve some of these things and overseas trips, a couple of cruises, concerts like the Eagles became things to look forward to and a special highlight was a helicopter ride over ChCh piloted by Ritchie McCaw. Just prior to Christmas they made a trip down to Bluff, Riverton and Queenstown to enjoy the sights and time together away from the mundane. She had also wanted to keep active and get out of the house and so Fiona would go and work with Doug in the gardening business. On the few occasions I witnessed them working together, Doug would thoughtfully let Fiona do the lawn mowing while he did the edges, the tidy up and lifting.

We will all have our memories of Fiona and the good ones will be very good. I will remember Fiona as someone who was a faithful servant of both racing in general and the Clubs, who wanted to make a difference in her job, whose decisiveness was an important attribute, who would give sound advice and be willing to engage in helping the clubs succeed and provide a good experience for others. She responded to challenges and has left her stamp on the place. I believe she left behind a contribution which well exceeded expectations on her initial appointment and her ability, energy, common sense and willingness to take on leadership complemented her professionalism and dedication. You can’t ask for much more.

We will miss you Fiona, Farewell. RIP


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