Judy Bai­ley meets Cather­ine Saun­ders

Judy Bai­ley talks to PR leg­end and TV and ra­dio star Cath Saun­ders, who was sur­prised to find her­self fight­ing de­pres­sion late in life.


COME IN, COME in,” she cries, en­velop­ing me in a warm hug. “I’ve made you some of my spe­cial Beauty and the Beast cheese scones.” Cather­ine Saun­ders be­came a house­hold name in the 1970s and

80s as a reg­u­lar pan­el­list on Sel­wyn Too­good’s agony aunt dis­cus­sion show, Beauty and the Beast. She has al­ways been one of those peo­ple who in­stantly make you feel at ease. Her warm, gen­er­ous, out­go­ing per­son­al­ity has en­deared her to gen­er­a­tions of view­ers, dat­ing back to the ear­li­est days of tele­vi­sion in this coun­try.

She went on to be­come part of the fab­ric of our big­gest city – one of Auck­land’s most ef­fec­tive movers and shak­ers. It was Cather­ine Saun­ders who, as chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Auck­land Vis­i­tors Bureau, was in­stru­men­tal in mov­ing Auck­land from its Queen City brand to the more ef­fer­ves­cent and def­i­nitely more apt City of Sails.

Her skills in mar­ket­ing and PR are leg­endary. Fel­low broad­caster, Paul Holmes, was once heard to say, “No one can say no to Cath.”

I visit her at home in Free­mans

Bay, Auck­land, where she lives with her lit­tle dog, Din­gle, who is curled up on the back of the com­fort­able sofa, draped ever so del­i­cately be­hind Cather­ine’s head, keep­ing an eye on things. Din­gle’s parent­age is un­cer­tain, but there’s def­i­nitely a lot of Aus­tralian ter­rier in there, although the lit­tle dog is named for Ire­land’s Din­gle Penin­sula, from where Cather­ine’s Ir­ish an­ces­tors hailed.

Flam­boy­ant and ef­fer­ves­cent, Cather­ine Saun­ders has al­ways had the com­mon touch. She knows and loves peo­ple and, in fact, that may well be the key to her suc­cess.

It is sur­pris­ing then, that this ebul­lient woman is just re­cov­er­ing from a se­vere bout of de­pres­sion. The ill­ness came out of left field, leav­ing her feel­ing lost and help­less.

She tells me she felt some­thing “wasn’t quite right”, around Christ­mas last year. Her daughter

Amy had just given birth to a baby girl, Cather­ine’s fourth grand­child.

The fol­low­ing day Cather­ine no­ticed a lump in her breast. It turned out to be can­cer. At the very time she wanted to be sup­port­ing her daughter, she had to take her­self off to hospi­tal. It was while she was re­cov­er­ing from a lumpec­tomy that the de­pres­sion hit.

“I couldn’t sleep. I was fright­ened of be­ing around peo­ple. I was sure no one wanted to see me. I couldn’t con­cen­trate. I couldn’t even read a book or mag­a­zine. I felt like a li­a­bil­ity.”

It was her friends and, most of all, her fam­ily who helped her through it. The un­wa­ver­ing sup­port of An­thony and his wife Kate, along with Amy and her part­ner Ken­neth, was Cather­ine’s sal­va­tion. She also went to see a psy­chi­a­trist, who pre­scribed an­tide­pres­sants. “He told me they’d take six weeks to kick in. He also told me to make sure I went for a walk for at least half an hour each day.” The faith­ful Din­gle was there to keep her com­pany. Cather­ine doesn’t drive so she en­joys the walk­ing any­way.

She is a brave woman and talks openly about her de­pres­sion with the same strength, de­ter­mi­na­tion and hu­mour that has char­ac­terised her life. It has, she tells me thought­fully, made her more tol­er­ant and un­der­stand­ing of oth­ers fac­ing the same strug­gles.

CATHER­INE WAS BORN in Dunedin 74 years ago, not that she’s count­ing. Get­ting older, she says, is not for the faint-hearted. She hates it that she can’t wear high heels any more. Cather­ine is not one to ‘go gently into that good night’ though, and re­mains firmly de­fi­ant of age.

She once told me, “The older I get, the more out­ra­geous my ear­rings be­come.” She has a splen­did col­lec­tion of said ear­rings, all of them huge and flam­boy­ant, and de­lights in tak­ing me on a tour of her house to see them. One favourite pair was sent by a gen­tle­man from Bal­clutha, who had made them es­pe­cially for her – big sil­ver discs sport­ing three-di­men­sional Mark II Ze­phyrs, each with a tiny cow­boy loung­ing on the roof.

Cather­ine’s dad, An­thony Dowl­ing, was a high-pro­file Dunedin lawyer, her mother Kath­leen, a bril­liant pi­anist. Theirs was a staunchly Catholic fam­ily. Cather­ine was the youngest of three, with two older

broth­ers. A con­vent girl, she stud­ied with the nuns at St Philom­ena’s. “I loved school. The em­pha­sis was on arts, music and pub­lic speak­ing and although it was clois­tered and con­ser­va­tive, the nuns taught me that girls can do any­thing. I have much to thank them for.”

From school she went to univer­sity on a teach­ing stu­dentship. (In the 1960s the gov­ern­ment paid stu­dent teach­ers to train.) After two years she de­cided she didn’t want to teach, and her fa­ther in­sisted she pay back her tuition costs her­self. So she sold the trea­sured piano her aunt had given her – some­thing she re­grets to this day – and worked in a café to pay off the debt.

Cather­ine then set her sights on broad­cast­ing, au­di­tion­ing as an an­nouncer in Dunedin in 1961.

She started on the same day as Bill McCarthy, who would be­come one of our long­est-serv­ing news­cast­ers.

Broad­cast­ing in those days was not a level play­ing field. Sex­ism was alive and well. Cather­ine re­mem­bers com­men­tat­ing on the Mo­bil Song Quest the year Kiri Te Kanawa won. She says, “I was only al­lowed to talk about the women’s hair, their cloth­ing and the flo­ral dec­o­ra­tions in the hall.”

This overt sex­ism would even­tu­ally drive the feisty Cather­ine to em­bark on a fem­i­nist cru­sade that would take her the length of the coun­try.

She teamed up with a num­ber of high-pro­file, ar­tic­u­late women, among them, Dame Sil­via Cartwright, Mar­garet Wil­son and Donna Awa­tere Hu­ata, to cam­paign for equal op­por­tu­ni­ties and equal pay.

Of course broad­cast­ing bosses knew they had a tal­ent on their hands and when the new medium of tele­vi­sion ar­rived in Dunedin Cather­ine was snapped up as the first fe­male re­porter on the leg­endary re­gional news show, Town and Around. A year later she joined the Welling­ton ver­sion. She was work­ing along­side broad­cast­ing greats like John Blum­sky and Dou­gal Steven­son, do­ing ex­actly the same job but for half the pay. Yet she looks back on her early broad­cast­ing ca­reer with great fond­ness. “It was the most won­der­ful, fun, care­free time. There was a great spirit of bon­homie. We all felt we were break­ing new ground.”

After a year on the Welling­ton show she felt the work was be­com­ing rep­e­ti­tious and she wanted out. It was news­read­ing icon, Bill Toft, who sug­gested she take her tal­ents to the Dairy Board. “So I wrote to them telling them they needed help with their mar­ket­ing and they needed me. I bor­rowed a tweed Mary Quant suit and a hog-skin bag and gloves to make my­self look as agri­cul­tural as pos­si­ble,” she grins wickedly, “and they hired me on the spot.”

She went on to quadru­ple the na­tion’s cheese con­sump­tion with her ‘Big­ger Block of Cheese’ cam­paign. She then spear­headed the first ever but­ter mar­ket­ing cam­paign, thwart­ing the on­slaught from mar­garine.

And so be­gan a high-fly­ing ca­reer in mar­ket­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions, which cul­mi­nated in her run­ning her own com­pany. It’s a ca­reer she never trained for. “I don’t think you can teach en­trepreneur­ship. I’ve al­ways had tal­ented, gen­er­ous peo­ple to work with; it’s all about team­work.”

It was Cather­ine who en­cour­aged us to give on Daf­fodil Day and she played a huge part in that most Kiwi of mar­ket­ing pro­mo­tions, The New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards.

IT WAS WHILE she was work­ing in tele­vi­sion though, that she met the love of her life, jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary maker, Bill Saun­ders, on a course for an­nounc­ers in Welling­ton. They mar­ried in 1971 and had two chil­dren, An­thony, now 42 and a banker, and Amy, 41, who works for Creative New Zealand.

Bill and Cather­ine made a for­mi­da­ble team. The high-pro­file me­dia cou­ple com­ple­mented each other per­fectly – she with her trade­mark joie de vivre and him with his quiet con­fi­dence and el­e­gant wit.

They would have 25 years to­gether be­fore Bill be­came ill and sub­se­quently died on his 51st birth­day.

He had adored his fam­ily and they him, so how would they sur­vive this?

Cather­ine says that for her, the ab­so­lute pri­or­ity was her chil­dren. “It was very much ‘shoul­ders back and head high’. I was sim­ply given some phe­nom­e­nal strength that en­abled me to steer them gently through that aw­ful time and for that I will be for­ever grate­ful.” An­thony and Amy went back to univer­sity at Otago 12 days after their fa­ther’s death and Cather­ine im­mersed her­self in her work.

“I WAS ONLY AL­LOWED to talk about the women’s hair, their cloth­ing AND THE FLO­RAL DEC­O­RA­TIONS IN THE HALL.”

Not long after Bill died, Brian Ed­wards rang. “He asked me how I was do­ing and which day was the worst of the week for me. I told him it was Satur­day, the day I al­ways used to get Bill break­fast in bed,” she smiles sadly. It was then Brian of­fered her the job of pro­duc­ing his Satur­day morn­ing show on Na­tional Ra­dio, Top of the Morn­ing.

“It was a phe­nom­e­nal op­por­tu­nity to work along­side one of the finest broad­cast­ers New Zealand’s ever had.”

In the midst of an over­whelm­ing loss, Cather­ine found the strength to carry on with sup­port from fam­ily, friends and her work.

As we talk, Cather­ine’s daughter

Amy breezes in with her baby, Isla.

Isla in­stantly holds out her arms to her grand­mother, a huge smile on her lit­tle face. The de­light is mu­tual.

Cather­ine ad­mits that these days she is “very keen on be­ing a grand­mother”. Her son An­thony has three daugh­ters and al­ready his mum is tak­ing them out for lunches. She makes them feel spe­cial, as she does with pretty much ev­ery­one she meets. She is still busy and plan­ning to of­fer her con­sid­er­able skills in vol­un­teer work.

With de­pres­sion ban­ished, she says, “Cather­ine is back in town.”

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