Obituary: Sue Pickering


OBITUARY: Susan Foveran Stanhope Pickering, December 1, 1939 – September 3, 2017
By Charles Riddle

Tamahere’s Sue Pickering was a Francophile of the first order – she had a lifelong love affair with the republic, and spoke the language with such fluent ease even native French speakers were often confused into trying to pin down her dialect to a part of France.

Sue grew up in Auckland near One Tree Hill with her sister Mary and brother Jim. She went to St Cuthbert’s and then on to Auckland University, where she studied English and French.

Sue was a lifelong traveller, starting with her OE in 1964, aged 24, when she travelled first by boat to Singapore and Sri Lanka, before boarding a bus overland from India to Europe, passing through Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan (where some Lothario offered a herd of camels for her hand in marriage), Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia.

Sue Pickering spent the bulk of her married life on Pickering Rd, Tamahere

Her experience in India was seminal. After disembarking in Colombia, she and Mary spent the next month travelling through India staying with Rotary families, before picking up the bus trip in Delhi. After a protected upbringing in fairly monocultural Auckland of the 1950s this was a full-on exposure to a different culture which was to affect her for the rest of her life, not just in a future wanderlust, but in her determined work with migrants and refugees, decades later.

When she came back from London in 1966, Sue owed the government for her teacher’s training. She went to Opotiki for a period, then to Cambridge High School, where she taught, among others, future Olympic equestrian Mark Todd and All Blacks coach John Hart.

It was while teaching at Cambridge she met young Tom Pickering, a third-generation dairy farmer who ran the family establishment on Pickering Road.

Despite protesting to all and sundry that she would never make a farmer’s wife, Sue married Tom in St Andrews church, Cambridge, in 1969 – below a stained-glass window depicting the liberation by New Zealand troops of the small northern French town of Le Quesnoy.

On the agricultural front, son Martin says Sue, the well-travelled but essentially big-city girl, was true to her word, and one of the few things she ever did on the farm was make scones for haymakers.

“Good scones at that. I won first prize for a batch of cheese scones at a Tamahere Model Country School fair one year, and my brother Chris won third place. The same batch of Mum’s scones, of course.”

But it was her interest in France that provided the segue to her part in the founding of the Cambridge Le Quesnoy Friendship Society, which was instrumental in establishing the sister city relationship in 1999.

A medieval fortified town, Le Quesnoy was liberated in 1918, a week before the war’s end, by the New Zealand division who opted for the medieval option and scaled the walls using ladders. The tactic, used instead of the more usual, and destructive, softening up artillery barrage, meant the town was liberated without any loss of life of the locals.

While Sue died on Waiheke, her funeral service in St Andrews saw a return not only to the church of her marriage, but also to a site commemorating the Le Quesnoy victory. A letter from Le Quesnoy mayor, Marie-Sophie Lesne, read at the service, noted Sue’s close connection with the city.

“Sue was one of the most important characters involved in the twinning of Cambridge and Le Quesnoy … I know how she loved France, the country and the individuals, and specially the Quercitians,” the mayor wrote to Tom.

Sue and Tom spent the bulk of their 48 married years on Pickering Rd, Tamahere, and when they gave their address to people or filled out forms that required such information, it inevitably aroused interest.

Sue once joked in a Waikato Times interview that having your own road was the ultimate status symbol, although, she added cheerily, it may have counted against her on occasions when she was called for jury service and subsequently challenged by lawyers. “I think they see Mrs Pickering of Pickering Road, and say, ‘She’s probably a blue-haired old bat.'”

Sue and Tom had four children, all born in the early to mid-70s, although the eldest, Kate, was to die unexpectedly at 18. When Kate was 10, Sue and Tom took their young family (the three boys were aged eight, six, and four) out of school for six months to go on a world tour. It was 1981 and countries visited included Singapore, India, Egypt, Turkey and then most of continental Europe in a camper van.

“Everyone thought they were mad, the teachers told my parents we’d be a year behind the rest of the class when we got back. Of course, that was rubbish, with the first-hand exposure to cultures, history, and travel, we were light years ahead. She sometimes knew what she was doing,” Chris said.

The travel, and her Auckland years, meant Sue brought her big-city cultural ways with her when she settled in the Waikato. She kept a love of classical music and opera and, of course, the varied food she had experienced on her travels.

She was involved in drama and, from the time she first arrived in Cambridge, was very active in the local repertory group at Gaslight Theatre. Sue also loved singing, had lessons from Mona Ross of the Cambridge Repertory Society opera training school, and sang for some years with an a cappella choir in Hillcrest, and later a choir that focused mainly on madrigals.

As a result of her culinary bent, her husband and children ate differently to the average Waikato farming family of the 1970s. And the family followed her interests, with Tom developing a love for wine, Martin becoming a winemaker, Tim a chef, and Chris following her love of intellectual argument, to practise as a lawyer.

She was an active member of Rotary, and, in all probability, ran the annual book fair to get first crack at the authors, for future use in her book clubs. “She had a passion for literature of a huge and diverse range, classics, historical fiction, and drama, you name it, if it was good, she would have read it,” Martin said.

Among the finer things in Sue’s life was a soupçon of pretentiousness. But she was smart enough to back up the airs and graces. She competed in Mastermind twice.

First time around she chose English literature as her specialist subject. Let the scope of that sink in for a moment. At a time when other contestants were selecting topics such as Melbourne Cup winners, 1970 to 1980; Doctor Who – the first three seasons; or equally inane subjects; Sue chose big. She narrowed the challenge down a bit the second-time around, and scored highest in the competition for general knowledge. From there she was selected for the New Zealand team for Sale of the Century.

Sue started studying law in her 60s, despite Chris’s advice, but qualified in English as a second language teaching, and, through Wintec, taught English to new migrants and many political refugees from places she had once travelled through.

Sue chose a hymn in Latin for her service. “Wrap your tongue round that one when it comes up,” son Martin told those gathered in the church. “Her last laugh, I think. This is the most ‘Sue thing’ we can think of.”

Sue was the loved wife of Tom and cherished mother and mother-in-law of Martin and Brooke, Chris and Rebecca, Tim, and the late Catherine. She was Grandma Sue to Louis, Sabine, and Emily.

* The Waikato Times’ A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the Waikato community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email

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