A tribute to...

Laurie Theresa Harbort

Published: 13/2/2024

Readers of the Catholic Leader during the period 1955 to 1980 would fondly remember the Uncle John's Children's Page. The page was filled with puzzles, pen pals, jokes and riddles and illuminating facts and stories for children and adults alike. What most people would not know is that the ubiquitous "Uncle John" was the pseudonym of female writer, Laurie Theresa Harbort, during a time when women writers were rare.

Laurie had dreamt of becoming a teacher, but pragmatism won out and she became a clerk-typist with the Queensland Transport Department in 1953. Her other dream of being a writer continued, however. She scrimped and saved and on 16 February, 1956, paid the princely sum of £17 10s (one month's wages) for a "portable" Royal typewriter. It was a major commitment for the young woman, not long out of school. It was also at this time that she became an enthusiastic member of the National Catholic Girl's Movement.

With a cause in her heart, notepad and pencil in one hand, Box Browning camera and typewriter juggled in the other, Laurie launched herself into part-time, independent journalism. She had already started writing the Uncle John's Children's Page for the Leader, as well as submitting other articles on topics relevant to young women at the time. She soon built a modest following, having articles published in South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales. By 1958, she was receiving offers to become a full-time journalist. She politely declined, having married Tony Harbort, and believing (like many women of the time) that married women should not work full-time.

Laurie did however continue to embrace the Uncle John's Children's Page with gusto. In 1960 Brian Thomas Doyle, (Managing Editor of The Catholic Leader from 1959 to 1981), called in part-time contributors to meet with him. He had assumed Laurie was short for Laurence and that "Uncle John" was a man. Laurie would recount in later years his momentary disarray on discovering "Uncle John" was a woman, with a babe in arms. She had been concerned that being a new mother might mean she needed to give up her beloved children's page. Brian assured her that the opposite was true, "Uncle John" was gaining popularity and he hoped she would continue contributing for "the foreseeable future".

Laurie's Uncle John's Children's Page was to continue for the next fifteen years. In 1980, after 25 years being "Uncle John" Laurie ceased writing for the newspaper. In the years following, when offered a Catholic Leader after Mass, she would modestly (and perhaps smugly) respond, "Oh, I used to write for them, they still send me a free copy in the mail."

The cessation of "Uncle John'' in no way diminished her love of children. She worked as a pre-school teachers' aide at Drillham State School, followed by five years as a teachers' aide at the Holy Cross School in Miles, and then a further five years as a part-time teachers' aide at the Miles State High School. By 1995 she had withdrawn from paid work but started tutoring children in after school care. She was also committed to religious education, gaining a Diploma in Catechetics in 1992, and in 2006 receiving a certificate of gratitude from the Catholic Education Office for 15 years of service.

Laurie's literary endeavors also continued. She wrote and published a string of short stories and articles and was shortlisted for several literary prizes.

She also undertook pastoral care training to help others. This would be further supplemented by training in indigenous health and aged care. In her later years she became a regular and much-loved volunteer at the Miles Carinya Hostel, Milton House Respite Centre, Miles Hospital and St Vincent de Paul Society. In 2023 she was awarded lifetime membership to the Society in recognition for her years of service.

Laurie Harbort was a quiet, unassuming woman. She believed everyone was amazing, in their own special way, often understating her achievements. When those achievements are taken in context with health issues that occurred throughout her adult life, they can be considered truly extraordinary.

In 1959 Laurie lost consciousness while 7 months pregnant, losing her first child. The following year she successfully gave birth by emergency Cesarean section. Upon release from hospital, she suffered chronic fatigue and dramatic weight loss and was diagnosed as an insulin dependent Type 1 diabetic. In the following years she had another four children by Caesarian. Laurie received the Kellion Medal for both 50 and 60-year diabetic anniversaries.

Laurie Theresa Harbort (aka Uncle John) died peacefully in her sleep on 23 January 2024, at Toowoomba General Hospital. We would like to thank you for the joy and love you gave to "children" of all ages throughout your life.

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