Dame Rosie Horton is not one to shy away from telling the truth, discovers Penny Lewis

Anybody who thinks charity is a hobby has not met Rosie Horton - or Dame Rosie - as she became in 2011 for services to philanthropy. Not that the honorific is one this dame insists on. "No, no, please call me Rosie," she says. "The 'dame' is for formal occasions."

Being honoured as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit was "the biggest shock". "It was overwhelming then and still is."

The investiture recognised Rosie's 40-year volunteering career. Numerous causes have benefitted from her energy and perseverance, especially those involving women and children. Her charity work is no casual dalliance, either. She enjoys the camaraderie and considers it her job, despite the fact she doesn't get paid a salary. She admits she's lucky to have the choice and acknowledges the "100 per cent support" of her husband Michael Horton, whose family publishing interests as part of Wilson & Horton owned the New Zealand Herald until 1996. "I am so lucky he is happy I do what I do."

Rosie's current roles include patronage of Starship Children's Hospital and the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation, as well as ambassador roles with the Auckland Medical School's Brain Research Trust and raising awareness of macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in New Zealand and of which English actress Dame Judi Dench is a sufferer).


While in the past Rosie's charity work has been about raising money, her focus these days is mentoring. "It's about helping charities find ways of surviving. There are too many charities these days and some of them, quite frankly, should close their doors and combine with others if they can't make any money or fulfill their mission statements."

Rosie says she doesn't shy away from telling the truth if that's what people need to hear.

Something Rosie heard is why her and Michael's Victoria Ave, Remuera, home will be part of Diocesan School's house tour on Friday, November 1. Rosie is not an old girl, but has family connections to the school - Michael's mother attended, while granddaughter Ella, 12, is a current pupil. "At one stage we had four granddaughters at Dio," she says, referring to Ella and her older sister, Milly, 15, her daughter Vicki's children. The daughters of Rosie's step-son Matthew and his wife Roxane, Imogen and Anabelle, were also Dio girls before they moved to Brisbane three years ago.

The Horton home is elegant, with sumptuous silk curtains, antique furniture and impressive art, but Rosie didn't agree to include her home in the 'Dio House Tour: Houses for Causes' for the sake of demonstrating her impeccable taste. She agreed to the request straight away because she believes in the causes the house tour is raising money for. As well as proceeds from the $60 tickets going towards participating homeowners' nominated charities, funds raised will also benefit Diocesan's pastoral care programme.

Rosie explains she heard speeches made by two girls at the school about the "fake industry", a lucrative trade producing goods such as knock-offs of designer hand bags.

The affordable prices for label-hungry consumers come at a cost. "People need to be aware that children overseas are the workers," says Rosie. "It's absolutely heart-breaking that these tiny children have such a lack of basic human rights. Society everywhere has to take responsibility. People are saving money with the fake industry but it comes at a huge cost."

Rosie says she would like to see labels on clothing and goods promoting they're ethically made. "I know people will criticise me and say 'oh, it's okay for her, she can afford it [the real thing]', well save up or go without. People are proud of their fake gear but they should think about how it's produced."

She grew up in Ashburton and says her mother had a social conscience. "It was drilled into us that you put into life what you expect to get out of it," Rosie recalls. "Have a generosity of spirit in the way you live your life and always try your best for whatever you've been asked to do - as much as humanly and ethically possible."

Giving Dio House Tour attendees some background, Rosie says her home of two years is approximately 110 years old. "It's lovely living in an old home with high ceilings. It's been lived in as a family home for years and because of that, it has a warm and cozy feel to it."

The family who lived in the house immediately before the Hortons bought it were, in fact, immediate family. Rosie and Michael were looking to buy after their home nearby (also on Victoria Ave) sold unexpectedly and their solicitor suggested they buy Matthew and Roxane's house.

"I said we have to stay in Vicky Ave," Rosie recalls. "We have the butcher, the fishmonger and the dairy which I am always in and out of because I am the crappiest housewife. I am happy to be close to the dairy and the fishmonger because they make me appear to be not a bad housewife when in secret I am crap. I feel very connected in Remuera. I know a lot of people up the road. It's my village and I like to stay in my village."

Not that you'll find Rosie walking in her village. "If I can't park somewhere handy I can't cope. I don't want to park far away and hike somewhere. I loathe exercise and don't do a thing except occasionally walk to the letterbox. My doctor was very excited I've got stairs now."

Although exercise isn't part of her daily routine, Rosie's not one to sit around. "I think I'm genetically wired to be busy. It's been a life of fun and a lovely, busy life."

Nights to remember
Although fund-raising is serious business, Rosie's had some fun along the way. Some of the best parties have included a Royal Jubilee dinner at Skycity in November 2012, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. "It was a magical night. There were 700 people in the big room at Skycity. Prince Charles and Camilla were extraordinarily friendly and engaging." Dame Kiri Te Kanawa came from London to sing and the Topp Twins performed.

An Out of Africa-themed fundraiser for Starship Hospital at Waimauku a few years ago was memorable. Two generators were brought in as a backup in case of power failure.

The power failed and so did both the generators. "People thought we really were in deepest darkest Africa and it was all part of the fun. The chef couldn't cook - dear oh dear."

Rosie was on the women's committee to fundraise for the building of Auckland's Aotea Centre. The opening ball for 1200 people was in a My Fair Lady theme, with the venue like a Covent Garden flower market. A film crew from the BBC was in New Zealand and expressed interest in filming the event. "But their philosophy was 'out in the colonies you don't do it quite like we do it in London'," Rosie recalls. "Well, they were blown away and kept asking if we'd had people out from Europe to help us. It was an amazing night and we made heaps of money. It was a major - we had to sell tickets for the building fund."

A fundraiser for the Laura Fergusson Trust decorated the old railway station to resemble a Viennese ballroom. The Minister of Transport at the time (Rosie can't remember who it was) asked her how she had gained permission to use the station and more importantly, how had they managed to clean it. "That's a secret," she replied.

Making a difference

If you want to make a difference by supporting a charity but don't know where to start, Rosie advises looking at causes that tug on your heartstrings. Alternatively, you may help right what you feel are injustices. Read about registered charities through the Charities Commission. If you can't give money, give your time. You can also leave a bequest to a charity in your will (see includeacharity.org.nz). "The rewards are a million-fold," Rosie says.

The Dio House Tour

Houses for Causes, takes place 10am-4pm on Friday, November 1. Tickets, $60, can be purchased at iticket.co.nz. Funds raised will go towards pastoral care programmes for Diocesan School for Girls, as well as the homeowners' nominated charities, including: The Cancer Society, Caniwi Capital Trust, CanTeen, Child Cancer Foundation, Kidz First Children's Hospital, Mercy Hospice Auckland, Ronald McDonald House, SPCA Auckland, Shine, Starship Hospital's Orthopaedic Ward and Sweet Louise.