Legacy, it’s about helping regardless
Legacy has played a large part in Gwen Kelm’s life. Now a resident of Horsham’s Lutheran Retirement Village, she is keen for people to understand the role of Legacy and continue supporting the non-profit organisation set up after the First World War. Gwen remains a member of Horsham Laurel Club, a group for war widows. FAYE SMITH shares some of her story –
Few people could claim a tougher start to life than Gwen Kelm, 94, of Horsham.
But later in life she put that aside and alongside husband Frank, a Legatee, eagerly helped Second World War widows and their families.
An annual Christmas barbecue for war widows was one of many ways they expressed their help for the widows under their care.
Many people who know Gwen would be quick to acknowledge her as a delightful and beaming person with a wonderful, welcoming and gracious personality.
Her smile, pleasant approach and willingness to lend a hand has provided invaluable support to many war widows and their families.
But the reality is that Gwen, as a young girl, had to survive a tough existence herself and in turning personal hardship into helping others provides inspiration and reflects what Legacy is all about.
Gwen’s mother died after the birth of her 15th child. Four of the first nine children, all boys, had died.
Gwen was the next child, followed by three more boys and two more girls.
Relatives took the last baby to raise as their own.
Gwen had a happy life with the family in Ararat until six years old when her mother died.
On the morning that changed her life, a cousin arrived at her school to inform her that she had to go home immediately.
“She said to me that I had to go home with her, that my mother was dead and I was never going to see her again,” she said.
And that’s how it was. There were no farewells.
Life was tough because her father, a warden at Ararat’s J Ward jail and Aradale psychiatric hospital, was unable to cope with the burden of raising the remaining 10 children.
He was a good gardener but spent much of his time away from home.
Relatives helped at times and a relative moved in, but she was also unable to cope with the number of children and their needs.
Gwen developed health issues because of lack of care which caused her to miss much of her schooling because of hospital visits.
Head sores caused by fleas had meant she was unable to attend school regularly while receiving treatment.
She remembers the kindness of a headmaster.
It became her job to open and shut the school gate as he drove his car into the grounds. Her daily reward was a precious piece of fruit.
One winter’s day he gave her two pairs of stockings. She was grateful but had to tie them up with string as she didn’t have any other way to hold them up. But at least she was a little warmer.
“We were a neglected family,” she said.
She also remembers the bullying she received at school. And also, on leaving at 13 after a year in high school, being so ashamed of her report book that she burnt it. Her first job was house cleaning. The war broke out and a move to Melbourne followed as girls and women were recruited for the factories helping manufacture aircraft components as well as ammunition.
For a time she worked in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building.
For five years she made gas masks, worked as a fitter and turner, an oxy welder, made army jumpers and worked at other war-related tasks.
Meanwhile, three of Gwen’s brothers had enlisted and had met Frank Kelm from Wyn Wyn near Natimuk who was also stationed at Darwin.
An exchange of photographs by the soldiers of their sisters resulted in an exchange of letters and a long-distance friendship between Frank and Gwen.
One day in 1944 she returned from work to her Melbourne home to find a man waiting for her.
Frank Kelm had returned home and was eager to meet her.
The couple married 12 months later, to the day.
Frank’s sister Tot later married her brother Bert.
“The returned soldiers had experienced the bombing in Darwin by the Japanese but didn’t talk about their experiences,” Gwen said.
“But I did learn some news about their war experiences when they talked to each other.”
The couple settled on the farm at Wyn Wyn then share-dairy farmed in the Western District where together they took home seven pounds, $14, a week.
A move near Warrnambool followed before they were successful with a Soldier Settler block.
“We chose to have a dairy farm as they were easier to obtain than a grain farm,” Gwen said.
The couple farmed at Drung for 42 years and milked 120 cows. They had four children, Robert, Dennis, Glenda and Jeff.
Gwen has 13 grandchildren and 33 great grandchildren.
She has lost daughter-in-law Elaine and grand-daughter Renae to cancer. Frank died in 2010 aged 88.
Throughout all her experiences, Legacy continues to be close to Gwen’s heart and she believes the service it provides is as important today as it has ever been.
POSITIVE: Gwen Kelm, 94, is keen for people to understand the role of Legacy and continue supporting the non-profit organisation set up after the First World War. Picture: PAUL CARRACHER