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Probus turns 40!

The first Probus club in the South Pacific was established 40 years ago. Today, there are 171,500 members across Australia and New Zealand. We spoke to some of them about their involvement in the growth of Probus.

Probus member Barbara Peters celebrates 40 years.

When Gordon Roatz of New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast was visiting family in Scotland with his wife in the early 1970s, he spoke to a family member who was part of a local Probus club, and was invited to attend a meeting.  

Gordon discovered that it was a friendship and fellowship club, sponsored by the corresponding Rotary Club. The cogs started turning in Gordon’s mind.

A member of the Paraparaumu Rotary Club, Gordon thought that the concept of Probus Clubs was excellent, and a worthwhile idea to introduce to the Kapiti Coast, a mecca for retired and retiring New Zealanders.

The first meeting

“Gordon had to do a fair bit of convincing to get his Rotary Club to sponsor the initiative of a Probus Club in Kapiti,” explains current president of the Kapiti Probus Club, Gillian Graham.

But convince them he did and, in 1974, the first Kapiti Probus Club meeting was held.

Gordon put an ad in the local paper, Kapiti Observer, stating that on Tuesday 5 November 1974, the inaugural meeting of the Paraparumu Probus Club (later re-named Kapiti Coast) would be held at the Kapiti Boating Club, in order to unite retired businessmen and foster new friendships.

Despite being a men’s only club, it couldn’t have hosted its first meeting without the assistance of Mrs Roatz and the committee member’s wives providing morning tea. Twelve men attended that meeting, where Gordon was appointed the organising chairman and a committee of three was established including Lindsay Penno, Eric Woon and Terry Ward. From there, growth was slow but steady.

“Despite the first meeting being held at the end of 1974, it was 1975 before the Kapiti Probus Club really took off,” says Gillian.

Meetings were held in local cafes and restaurants until, six years after the club’s inception, it found a semi-permanent home at the Southwards Museum in November 1980.

It remained there until 2007, where it was moved to the Kapiti Club on Marine Parade.

Even though the club’s meeting location has jumped around a bit for the past four decades, one thing has been consistent. Ever since the second meeting held in the early months of 1975, the meeting has been held at 10am on the last Thursday of each month.

Murray Jensen, a Director of Probus South Pacific, lived across the road from Gordon Roatz and is proud to be associated with the first Probus Club in the region, of which he is still a member.

“I think that the success of that first club helped pave the way for other clubs in the region. I believe that Rotary saw the success of the initial one, which led to sponsorship of further clubs,” Murray says.

Australia follows suit

As with all things between New Zealand and Australia, there is always a little friendly competition.

It’s no different for the title of the first Probus Club in the South Pacific region.

“It feels absolutely wonderful to know that the Kapiti Club was the first ever Probus Club established in the entire Southern Hemisphere – even ahead of Australia!” laughs Gillian. “We also feel that we hold a very special position in our town because of it.”

Just two years later, in 1976, the first Probus Club in Australia launched in Hunters Hill.

Pat Cox has been a member of Hunters Hill Probus Club since 1995. She’s served three terms as president, been on the committee for 14 years, and is the only female life member.

“Geoff O’Donnell was the founding member of the Hunters Hill Probus Club,” explains Pat.

It happened in much the same way the Kapiti Club began.

“Geoff was holidaying in England, saw a Probus Club in operation and brought the idea back to the Rotary Club of Hunters Hill,” says Pat. “It started with a small group of men and has only grown since then.”

Interestingly, despite being just a few years apart in their creations, the two Probus Clubs actually knew nothing of each other’s existence for some time, explains Paul Henningham, Past District Governor of Rotary, Probus member and author of The Probus Story (1974-2006).

“The Probus concept was clearly a good one,” says Paul. “It grew so rapidly.” Because of this popularity, information on how to appropriately establish and run a Probus club was required, and Paul was part of the team that wrote the instruction books.

In the early 1980s a Probus Information Centre was established to provide manuals to Rotary Clubs on how to sponsor proposed Probus Clubs, which included information on how to set up and run a Probus Club.

Bob Burnett was the first Chairman of the Probus Information Centre.

“We never dreamed that Probus would grow to the size it has. New clubs were forming so quickly. We needed to form a centre to keep track of everything and write a proper constitution for clubs to abide by,” says Bob.

While the two founding South Pacific clubs either side of the Tasman Sea seemed to have no knowledge or impact on each other, they did help kick-start the Probus movement in their own areas.

“I am sure that the first Australian club helped with the establishment of others nearby,” says Pat. “The Hunters Hill Club gave talks to other areas and helped inspire the creation of new clubs, and provided advice.”

The numbers speak for themselves, with 2186 clubs consisting of 171,500 members today, just because of those first clubs 40 years ago.

Gary Blackler, Probus South Pacific Chairman and a Rotary District Probus Chairman, has been involved in forming 30 Probus Clubs over the past decade, and training his Rotary colleagues in the 27 Rotary districts in Australia and New Zealand. Gary is in the process of forming another four clubs this year alone.

“There is a big need for Probus clubs, especially with all the baby boomers out there.”

It helps that he loves what he does too.

“I have a real passion for Probus. I get a tremendous sense of achievement setting up new Probus clubs because I know I’m helping people forge new friends and connections.”

The biggest change

Like Rotary, Probus started in the United Kingdom as a men’s only club, designed for retired professionals and businessmen. However, there was also a need to accommodate women within the Probus movement.

Bob remembers the first call he received from a woman when we was at the Probus Information Centre.

“A lady rang me and said she wanted to join. I was pretty young at the time and I said to her ‘No, it is for men only. You could join a women’s’ senior citizens group.’ Well, she let me have it, didn’t she! She said, ‘Look young man, I have been working my whole life with men, I am a professional businesswoman, I am not joining an old ladies club!’ I realised she had a fair point, so I took it to the board,” says Bob.

“Probus was for men only until 1982,” says Gary. “Then women’s only clubs were introduced. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Probus recognised that both genders wanted to be in the same club, so that was when combined clubs were implemented.”

It was only in the past decade that the Kapiti Club permitted women to become members. “At first there were only a few women, but now the numbers are pretty even,” says Gillian.

“The reason the Hunters Hill Probus Club has grown in strength is because it became a combined gender club,” says Pat.

Today, there are still single-gender clubs as well as combined clubs. “These days both the single gender clubs and the combined gender clubs meet the needs of their respective members, however it seems only combined gender clubs are now being formed,” says Gary.

In addition to Probus welcoming women into the fold, Murray believes there has been another big change to the clubs over the past few years. “Technology!” he declares.

“We email, send newsletters and have websites, which helps us keep in touch and up to date with what’s happening in our clubs. It also helps create interest, with the general public able to view the websites and contact us for information.”

Time to celebrate

“Being the first Probus Club in the region is of upmost importance to the members and the entire community of Kapiti,” says Gillian. “All the locals know and value our heritage and are thankful for the legacy and what we have created.”

Being around for 40 years is nothing to sneeze at, and the Kapiti Club has a party planned.

“There is a special sub-committee dedicated to organising our 40th birthday celebration,” says Gillian. “We’re having a luncheon in November with 150 guests including all the club members, the presidents and their partners from the other 11 Kapiti Clubs, people of note from Probus South Pacific, and local dignitaries.”

Gillian is working on a few special projects for the event. “All our archives are stored at the local library, right back to the minute book from the first meeting! Our archives, including our old photo albums, will be on display at the luncheon and I am going to make copies of some of the archived pieces and turn them into placemats for the lunch.”

Into the future

The future for Probus in the South Pacific is all about growth.

That one club formed in Kapiti back in 1974 with only 12 members now has 130 members and a waiting list to join, and there are now 11 more clubs in the area.

“The future is blooming for Kapiti!” says Gillian.

She attributes this success to the progression of people willing to step up and take office. “Everyone wants to contribute to the club and ensure that it continues running for years to come,” she says

General Manager of Probus South Pacific Patricia Atkinson believes that the future of Probus is guaranteed with its sound structure, good governance and the partnership with Rotary. The Board and Secretariat office are proactive with initiatives, communication, competitions, benefits, services and incentives so that Probus continues to be the social club of choice for retirees in the South Pacific, today and in the future.

“Probus really is a remarkable movement,” says Paul. “It’s like all organisations; if they don’t work they will fade away and die. But Probus works. It won’t die.” 

Scene stealer

Barbara Peters travelled to sydney for the Active Retirees cover shoot.When Barbara Peters won the Probus Cover Star Competition and headed to Sydney to pose for the cover of Active Retirees magazine's 40th anniversary cover, there was no question that her husband Lindsay was going to accompany her. The duo, who have mostly separate interests, see Probus as a way to bring them closer.

“Barb’s fully retired and I’m semi-retired, and we tend to have separate interests really, but Probus is something that we can do together,” Lindsay explains.

Barbara and Lindsay joined the Probus Club of Centenary Suburbs 18 months ago and love the social atmosphere of their club. “It’s good to catch up with people socially in a relaxed atmosphere. Plus you get the monthly activities,” says Lindsay.

When Barbara found out about her big win, there was excitement all round. “I’m at that stage in my life when you just have to go for anything you want to and enjoy life to the utmost,” she says. “I was very overawed and thought ‘oh wow, this is it.’ I was just thrilled.”

Made up and styled, Barbara had a ball throughout the photoshoot, including the Bondi to Coogee walk she and Lindsay were able to do.

“It’s one thing I will definitely always remember.”

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of the Australian Active Retirees magazine. View the digital version of Active Retirees here, or subscribe to the magazine here.