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Carmel Healy

Published: Mon 1st Mar 2021

"Pioneer Carmel Healy leaves a big legacy for a little woman"

Carmel Healy was shocked and scared when Queensland Police wanted to interview her about the notorious Ether Rapist who was terrorising Brisbane through the winter of 1966.

Carmel's mind immediately flew to the young girls she took on Girl Guide camps. Surely not one of them had been attacked?

Police wanted to interview Carmel, then aged 27, because she was a receptionist and teacher at Nunn and Trivetts, a leading business college in George Street in Brisbane's CBD.

One of Carmel's students was a young, good-looking recently married man named Phil Lamont. Thanks to Carmel's meticulous bookkeeping, police discovered the nights Lamont left early or didn't attend class were the same nights women had been raped, evidence that helped lead to Lamont's capture.

It scared Carmel even more knowing there'd been a rapist in her class. Together with some of the female students she'd even walked to the tram station with Lamont after night classes.

That was just one of the eventful chapters in Carmel Anne Healy's courageous life.

Carmel as a child with her older sister Kathleen.
Carmel as a child with her older sister Kathleen.

Born in 1939 with dwarfism, she only grew 117cm tall and overcame extreme prejudice, discrimination and her disability to become a well known Brisbane identity - especially in her dual careers spanning almost half a century in the taxi industry and Girl Guides Queensland.

Born the ninth child and sixth daughter in a family of 11 Healy children - 10 of whom survived their birth and the cradle - she had humble beginnings, coming into the world in the front room of a high-set weatherboard house at Third Ave in Sandgate.

It was obvious from birth that she had dwarfism and her brothers and sisters would wheel her around in a pram, including to primary school at Holy Cross Wooloowin.

Her wise mother Thelma Healy knew there was no point treating Carmel differently or she would not be able to survive on her own, let alone thrive.

With Thelma steering her, and her protective brothers and sisters standing up to the many bullies and taunters, Carmel learned to adapt, cope and flourish. She learned how to stand on a chair to wash up and to use a shoe or stick to flick the light switch. She grew up headstrong, independent, confident, extremely capable and a very hard worker.

Carmel (in sunglasses), aged 20, helps supervise a Girl Guides Qld camp in 1959.
Carmel (in sunglasses), aged 20, helps supervise a Girl Guides Qld camp in 1959.

When she finished school at St Rita's College Clayfield and her older brothers and sisters began moving away from home, Carmel found a new family.

For the next few decades she was a member of Girl Guides Queensland, working as a Leader, Camp Quarter Master, State Camping Adviser and State Council member.

It was Carmel's love of adventure and the great outdoors that drew her to the Guides. She loved going camping and learning bush craft and would head-off from the family home in Wooloowin wearing a backpack that was as big as she was.

She never let her diminutive size hold her back and at camp she would make ropes, pitch a tent, build a fire and go on hikes along with the rest of the girls. She didn't mind getting her hands dirty either, even if it meant helping to push a bogged truck out of a ditch.

Her leadership skills were quickly identified and she attained the qualifications needed to take up to 30 girls on camps, six-to-seven times a year to teach them how to enjoy the great outdoors.

Carmel became known as the best camp Quarter-Master (cook) due to her ability to make hot meals from scratch for 40 people, using only a camp fire. She'd learned these valuable skills at home sitting at the kitchen bench watching her mother feed the family of 10 every day.

Carmel as a young working woman
Carmel as a young working woman

Girl Guides Queensland Honorary Australian Associate Dallas Langdon, OAM, said there was nothing Carmel would not take-on or could not accomplish.

"Carmel made an enormous contribution to the Guides as a leader, mentor, teacher, manager and organiser," said Langdon, a friend and associate of Carmel's for about 50 years.

"She was wonderful with the girls and they loved her. She was a popular camp leader, very organized, and a hard worker. We didn't see her as disabled and she never let her size hold her back."

Carmel was just as well known in the taxi industry thanks to a career with both Black & White and Yellow Cabs.

Carmel worked as a telephone booker for many years with B&W and then as secretary to Radio Room Manager Fotis Hatzifotis.

"I put Carmel on a pedestal," Hatzifotis said. "She was highly respected, a gold-medal worker. People were surprised when I promoted her from telephone operator - because she was as small as a child - but she was better than most.

"She was very professional, super efficient and forensic like a policewoman."

To get to work Carmel would catch public transport to the city and as she walked up Adelaide Street to B&W's head office, taxi drivers would stop and offer their little champion a lift.

Carmel always thanked them with a smile and say she'd walk - even though the journey would take her twice as long as an able-bodied person - because she liked the exercise and fresh air.

Hatzifotis said Carmel was always fun and very social. "We were friends away from work too. She was like an aunt to my wife and kids."

Carmel attends a Passage to Pusan exhibition at the Sandgate & District Historical Society & Museum with her author niece Louise Evans.
Carmel attends a Passage to Pusan exhibition at the Sandgate & District Historical Society & Museum with her author niece Louise Evans.

At home Carmel was a much-loved and much-needed daughter, sister, godmother, and aunt to her 24 nieces and nephews.

Like her late mother Thelma, she was famous for making a delicious array of baked goods including jam drops, shortbread, syrup loaf, melting moments, Anzac biscuits and fruitcake.

And she'd had the confidence, skill and authority to easily step in and run a house and handle unruly kids when her brothers or sisters had to leave "Sergeant Major Carmel" in charge.

She'd also readily jump on a plane to visit family and friends whether to England, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne or Adelaide. It was easy to know when Carmel was in the house because of her unmistakable cackling laugh. She had a great sense of humour with a funny song or saying for every occasion.

In her late 70s, Carmel's life took another exciting turn when she starred in a feature-length documentary filmed in Korea and Australia, titled Passage to Pusan. The documentary focused on her eldest brother Vince who fought and died in the Korean War in 1951 and her mother Thelma, who saved for 10 years to make a solo pilgrimage to Korea to find Vince's grave.

Carmel features in the documentary Passage to Pusan about her  soldier brother Vince and her mother Thelma (pictured).  Her pinpoint recall of dates and events helped shape the Passage to Pusan narrative.
Carmel features in the documentary Passage to Pusan about her soldier brother Vince and her mother Thelma (pictured). Her pinpoint recall of dates and events helped shape the Passage to Pusan narrative.

The documentary was based on the book Passage to Pusan written by Carmel's niece, award-winning journalist Louise Evans, OAM.

The oral history Carmel provided, together with her pinpoint recall of dates and events, helped shape the Passage to Pusan narrative. She also provided revealing insights into the service and sacrifice of her brother Vince and the heavy toll his premature death at the age of 24 took on her mother and family.

Carmel was also instrumental in uniting Vince's Korean "mother" Kim Chang Keun - a local war widow who would visit his grave in Pusan - with the wider Healy clan. Her memory of the unique and enduring friendship between Mrs Kim and Thelma added critical detail to the Passage to Pusan book and documentary.

As her mobility and memory began to deteriorate, she was greatly assisted by her loving niece Margaret Armstrong who would drop everything when Carmel was in need. Margie would often take her out for coffee or ice cream and other adventures until Carmel's sudden death in February 2021 from a heart attack, aged 81.

Carmel will be remembered as a pioneer who taught a world - that too often believed disabled people shouldn't be seen or heard - that she had a voice and vocation, and to get out of her way.

It was all part of her enduringly positive attitude, her determination to enjoy life and "get on with things", and make her mark, regardless of how many hurdles she had to overcome.

Read more about Carmel and the notorious Ether Rapist here.

Carmel Healy celebrates her 80th birthday
Carmel Healy celebrates her 80th birthday

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