Development & Alumni Relations Office 

 

Elsie Phenix, BSc, BA (died 30 November 2021, aged 75)

 

Obituary by Gerry Bell, friend and travelling companion

 

Elsie was born off the Springfield Road, 14 May 1946, and went to Grosvenor High School. She was at Queen’s 1964 - 67, a very different place then, with only a sixth of the current student population and ‘getting there at all was an achievement and a privilege’, as a contemporary, Austin Currie, said in his autobiography. After graduating BSc in mathematics, she worked for the next four years as a computer programmer, first for IBM in Dublin, then Queen’s, Belfast and Nestlé in Vevey.

 

She had a boyfriend with a Queen’s Geography degree and they set off overland to India, October 1971. There was no Lonely Planet or Rough Guide then, so they packed a few pages from an old school atlas. Their plan was for a two month trip before returning home, but they met other travellers coming in the opposite direction, on “the hippie trail” all the way from Australia, and decided to keep going. They hitch-hiked across Europe, took public transport through the Middle East, India and south-east Asia to Singapore, and from there sailed to Fremantle, arriving six months to the day after leaving Belfast. They were thrilled to see a kilted piper playing on the wharf surrounded by crowds, including Elsie’s cousins Vi and Tom, come to meet the Kota Singapura. Welcome to Australia.

 

Travel and adventure were in Elsie’s blood. She spent her Queen’s summer vacations waitressing in a tea house in Port Isaac, Cornwall. Christmas 1970 she was skiing in Switzerland, a year later was in friendly but cold Kabul where she bought wood to light under the hotel boiler for a hot shower each evening, and Christmas Day 1972 she was enjoying the sun and surf on Perth’s Cottesloe beach.

 

Australia was a different world. She became naturalised and over the next decade worked with computers in Perth, Sydney, Armidale in New England, Port Moresby in newly independent Papua New Guinea, Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, and Melbourne. In 1979 she took a break from it all and enrolled as a nurse at Armidale Hospital, following in the footsteps of her nursing sister, and was judged best student nurse of her year. However, when the year ended she gave up nursing and had spells managing an Armidale bookshop and as a bank teller in Melbourne. Her life was varied in Australia, the land of opportunity, and with her Queen’s degree and friendly personality she had no difficulty finding jobs. Her father, Sam, said she had charisma, and Australia needed skilled immigrants.

 

In 1984 Elsie made a major change of direction in life. She resigned from her computer position with BHP, the big Australian mining company in Melbourne, and began a four-year BA, Ceramic Design, course at Chisholm Institute of Technology. That was what she really loved, wearing overalls, hands covered in slip, using a wheel, glazing and firing her own work, and mixing with 22 other like-minded students. For the final year exhibition catalogue, with photos of each student and examples of their work, she included a quotation.

 

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding.

 

Elsie could have returned to computing after graduating but never did, disliked the thought of re-entering the corporate world. She went on holiday to Bali in 1987, and met the man who became her husband for the rest of her life. She started painting, enjoyed the freedom it gave her to work by herself at home, and she had her Elna Lotus to make her own clothes.

 

She loved the outdoors, went camping, swimming and bushwalking as often as she could. Not only in Australia. Bloody Bridge was her favourite youth hostel, and she joined thousands of others on the Mourne Wall Walk in 1970. In 1976 she trekked to Everest base camp where, at higher altitudes, she needed an extra sleeping bag over her own as ice formed inside her tent. Later the same year, in PNG, she walked in the heat and humidity of tropical jungle on the Kokoda Trail. Back in Aussie, Wilsons Promontory National Park, with its bush, long sandy beaches and sea, was a favourite getaway from Melbourne. She was a good breaststroke swimmer, did laps in fifty metre pools, and loved camping among gum trees, hearing the sound of the sea and colourful birds calling at dusk as they bedded down, and at dawn when they awakened. Paradise on earth.

 

Elsie returned regularly to Belfast to see her parents and siblings. After her father died she brought her mother to Melbourne for six weeks on two occasions and she loved being there with her daughter. But when Violet died, Elsie’s visits to see her brother and sister, Samuel and Hazel, and their families, became fewer and she settled in a Melbourne beachside suburb. She never changed, never lost her Belfast accent, had no airs nor graces. Her new home, surrounded by tall trees and flowering bushes, was a little piece of Belfast in Australia. However, her later years were blighted by illness, eventually dreadful motor neurone disease. She loved conversation but couldn’t speak in her last year, and succumbed two years after its diagnosis. 

 

Dear Elsie, you are greatly missed.

 

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