Helen Coughlan. Photo and words contributed by Tom McVeigh.
Helen Coughlan. Photo and words contributed by Tom McVeigh. Contributed

Modern pioneer had history in her blood

EACH age has its pioneers. Circumstances and times change, but the fundamentals remain constant. Old time pioneers in Queensland, following the trail marked by Alan Cunningham established, by the dignity of hard work, initiative, self-sacrifice and determination, the capacity to feed and clothe their fellow citizens.

Modern pioneers blaze a similar trail to foretell the needs of the future, enshrine the plans into reality, follow through with patience and resolve, and with the help of others, mould a better, more caring and thoughtful society.

Helen Coughlan had history in her blood, and was a modern pioneer.

Her paternal forebears - the Deacon Family - were pioneer educators in the Allora District, establishing a shingle-roofed school in 1867, which stood until a few decades ago.

They included elected representatives in state and local governments, businesses, citizenship and civic organisations.

Helen's second cousin, Majorie Deacon, was one of the early women graduates of the Queensland University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1934.

Her maternal forebears were similarly participants in state and local governments, business and journalism in Redland Bay and Toowoomba. From her family, Helen absorbed the lessons of courtesy and care for others, her interests in community, history and the stories that shape our lives.

She was helped, too, in later life by her husband, Kep, daughter Sally and son Peter who were imbued with the same philosophy.

Allora bred Helen grew up in Allora before attending the Glennie School in Toowoomba.

During her youth, she developed an undying passion for horses, and often used to accompany local stockman George Anderson to drove cattle back from Goomburra for sale - an innocent and free life.

In an era when most young women seeking professional careers turned to teaching and nursing, Helen became a student at The Creche and Kindergarten College, and after her graduation taught at Redcliffe in Brisbane.

Helen formed a lifetime connection with many of her student teacher colleagues.

In later years, her children Sally and Peter were nurtured by one of these enduring friends when they attended kindergarten near Helen's home.

In August 1967, Helen married Kep Coughlan, a graduate in agricultural science from Queensland University.

During their 46 years together, Kep complemented Helen's pursuit of excellence in his responsibilities, and worked in Queensland and South Australia before becoming involved in international agriculture in both Canberra and Cambodia.

When possible, Helen joined Kep in Cambodia, and developed a great love of the country and its people.

She was moved by the poverty and spirit of the people, which resulted in her setting up a small charity to provide finance and material to assist children and young adults in improving nutrition, job opportunities and education in Cambodia.

Supporters in Australia were, and are still, inspired by Helen's cathedral of courage in transforming ideas into action.

She was a "doer" rather than a "talker".

As an indication of respect and love that the Cambodian people felt for Helen, the Buddhist group in Battambang, a provincial city in Cambodia, arranged to hold a special memorial service at exactly the same time as the family service was held for Helen in Australia.

Before her time

History will acknowledge that Helen, like many women of her era was "before her time".

Despite her love of education, her real passion was writing and journalism, particularly in the area of history and thoroughbred racing.

Early in her life she was introduced to the world of journalism through visits to the Tooowoomba Chronicle, where her aunt Helen Wood worked.

Helen flourished as a writer and a passionate advocate for the racing industry in both the sport and the organisation of the breeder groups. She was a meticulous researcher. Her memory of thoroughbred pedigrees was renowned in the breeding world, and she had a deep understanding of the philosophy of racing people.

Her early writing in the 1970s in racing journals under the pseudonym "John Page" was certainly indicative if her pioneer intrusion as a woman in the industry.

Helen will be long remembered for writing the book The Queensland Turf Club - a Place in History, published in 2009 and covering 146 years of the QTC, with photography provided by Noel Pascoe.

Her knowledge of the industry as an owner, breeder and patron ensured that through her writing a vibrancy was imparted to this living history. She was also one of the prime movers in the team that developed the Eagle Farm Racing Museum and the Pictorial Library at Doomben, and was the chairwoman of the Thoroughbred Racing History Association.

Helen was awarded the Governor's Heritage Award for her efforts in driving the establishment of the TRHA.

As a tribute to her, the Brisbane Racing Club will commission a portrait of Helen, which will be displayed at Doomben on a permanent basis. The Courier Mail on Monday October 7, 2013 stated in conclusion "Coughlan leaves behind a body of work which will remain wonderful resource for years to come".

Racing accolades

Helen was highly regarded in the racing industry by both government and private sectors.

She was a media advertiser to Ministers of the Crown, and provided expert advice to racing enquires such as the Review of Queensland Racing and the enquiry on Black Type Racing in Australia.

Racing writer and historian Brian Russell, the doyen of racing writers in Australia, having written about the industry and racing people over many decades, described Helen as "a luminary of racing and breeding".

Helen was known and remembered by many as a person of great elegance who had the common touch, and who knew the industry from all angles - a good knowledge gained from visits to small bush tracks and metropolitan showpieces.

Helen could not bear to see a good story go untold. With her friends, Helen published two other books - Pride of the River - the Forceful Story, a book for children on the history of the tugboat Forceful and The Brighter Side, subtitled Upbeat and offbeat yarns from home and abroad.

Helen is survived by her husband, Kep, daughter Sally and grandchildren Calum and Neve, and son Peter, who like her legion of friends has a legacy of an extraordinary woman with an adventurous spirit who had that wonderful human gift of making everyone feel at home, important and welcome.

All will be strengthened by the courage of this remarkable woman as she faced and accepted her final days the mortality which all of us face.

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