Dannevirke's Elaine Swanney has given our mayor more grief than the closure of the Manawatu Gorge, those who packed out the Dannevirke Bowling Club for her civic award ceremony last Friday were told.

"I actually didn't think Elaine was going to accept her civic honour when we talked about it and I was gripped with fear," Tararua District mayor Tracey Collis said.

"She had given me more grief than the Manawatu Gorge as I tried to persuade her to accept."

Read more: Next step to new road across Ruahine Ranges
Gorge alternative routes not Tararua's highest crash areas
Tararua economy on the up despite Manawatu Gorge closure

Advertisement

Collis said Elaine was the most humble and deserving recipient of the honour.

"As a district we owe a lot to her."

Elaine's service and dedication to Tararua and especially Dannevirke, was reflected in the number of people at the awards ceremony.

Kathryn Illsley, speaking on behalf of the Dannevirke Brass Band, said Elaine has had 37 years' involvement with the band and the award was well deserved.

"It took some serious convincing for Elaine to accept this award," she said.

"At 80, Elaine is the oldest woman base player in New Zealand and it's only in recent years she hasn't marched with the band. That's because her mind is willing, but her body, not so much. She's an awesome, talented lady, who is fun to be around and she's always generous with her time.

"Elaine puts the zing into music and we're hoping retirement isn't in her vocabulary. The brass band has served the Tararua District for 137 years and Elaine joined in the early 1980s, first mastering the baritone and then the B flat base.

"Elaine is passionate and will just do it. She has been band secretary, conductor, tutored learners and also been our driver too and from concerts."

Elaine's amazing talent includes being able to write and transpose music, including two local favourites Green Door and Blue Smoke.

Gary Mitchelmore who, until recently, had a long connection with the Dannevirke Theatre Company, said Elaine's skills were unsurpassed.

"It's been great having Elaine involved with the theatre, because musical theatre isn't easy to do and the music is often taken for granted," he said.

"Elaine often has to play in the dark and then we'd blow smoke in her face and have strobe lights going."

Versatile, Elaine could put the piano aside and pick up the piano accordion, but things didn't always go smoothly.

"One evening at the Fountain Theatre in the dark on the steps, Elaine face-planted and ended up sprawled over the piano," Mitchelmore said.

"But never mind, the first chord came out on time. Elaine was a friendly, willing musician, even when she was the start, end and middle of the orchestra. She is the epitome of the saying, the show must go on."

Tracey Friend, of Tararua Funeral Services, said over the years Elaine has helped at hundreds of funerals, often tailoring the music to suit the deceased because she knew them so well, going the extra mile for families.

"We'd give Elaine a couple of days notice and even occasionally call on her on a Wednesday, her golf day," she said.

"She's our unsung hero, especially at the Anglican Church where she is hidden behind the organ, but the music still flows out. Sometimes it's just the little things, but those little things have a huge impact on our community - they ripple out."

Barbara Ferguson of Dannevirke's female choir L's Belles, said when the choir formed three years ago, they didn't have a pianist.

"Elaine stepped in and at the end of this year we'll have performed 48 times and Elaine has been with us for 47 of those times," she said.

"Once she took off to Australia, but recorded her music before she left because we couldn't be L's Belles without Elaine. She can play any song and we've been so lucky to have Elaine, so now we've renamed our choir, EL's Belles because we are Elaine's Belles. "

Elaine played with the Dannevirke Brass Band at her own civic award ceremony, sharing her gift and love of music.

"She's asked little in return and has an incredible skill and talent and those who have learnt from her are extremely grateful she's so extraordinarily generous with her time," Collis said.

Elaine said she was overwhelmed by the award.

"I learnt music when I was at primary school and went to a great teacher who knitted during lessons and if I hit a wrong note, she hit me with her needles," she said.

"When I read in the newspaper the band was asking if anyone wanted to learn to play a brass instrument, I took my son along and sat in on the first lesson. At the second lesson I asked if they could give me something to blow.

"Tutor John Thirkell had his head in his hands when we were trying to play a scale and said, 'this is terrible' but we improved. I love playing the organ, it's great fun and I'm there in church most Sundays."

Elaine said she had a great buzz when playing for productions of Chess and Evita.

"I've already had a call about next year's production of Beauty and the Beast," she said.

"You know, we are really fortunate to live in Dannevirke and it reminds me of the words of the great philosopher, Fred Dagg, 'We don't know how lucky we are'."


Jo Crosse, vicar of SHB and St John the Baptist Anglican Church, said the church would be lost without Elaine.

"She has a great gift and she puts it to good use," she said.

And while Elaine also plays at Dannevirke rest homes and for the late Miss Joan Irvine's tap students, she's been an active member of the Dannevirke Golf Club.

But arthritis causes her to throw her clubs at times, with them spinning through the air like rotor blades and on one occasion in Eketahuna, her club ended up in a tree.

Elaine joined the Dannevirke Bowling Club in 1994 and in 2012 became the fill-in secretary. She's still the fill-in secretary.