Jane Phare recalls the life and work of New Zealand charity queen Dame Rosie Horton.
She called everyone “darling”, probably because there were so many people passing through her life she couldn’t remember all of their names. But it was also a ploy. How could you say “no” to someone who called you darling?
Charity Queen Dame Rosemary Anne Horton died, aged 83, in Auckland Hospital on Sunday night with Michael Horton, her beloved husband of nearly 40 years, by her side.
She was a dame with a line of honours - DNZM, QSO, QSM - after her name but everyone called her Rosie. She was the consummate Remuera lady, impeccably dressed and Parnell-blow waved, smiling while she shoe-horned donations out of her wealthy “darlings”. She must have persuaded her friends and contacts to part with millions of dollars of philanthropic donations over four decades of charity work.
She was most closely associated with two philanthropic juggernauts, the Starship Foundation and the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. Dame Rosie was just 23 when her mother Olga died from breast cancer, a tragedy that led her to become founding trustee of the Breast Cancer Foundation, chairing the organisation from 1995 to 2005.
She was also involved with smaller charities, many struggling for funding and recognition. Among those she supported were the Rautakauri Music Therapy Trust, World Child Cancer, Yellow Belle for New Zealand Women’s Refuge, Abbeyfield NZ, the Athlae Lyon Starship Research Trust, Macular Degeneration, Friends of Aotea, the Aotea Centre Performing Arts Trust and the University of Auckland’s Centre of Brain Research.
Dame Rosie was devastated when she learned the Laura Fergusson rehabilitation centre in Greenlane had shut three years ago. As chair of the Laura Fergusson Trust Women’s Committee in the mid-1980s she was instrumental in raising much-needed funds to “ensure the comfort and rehabilitation of the disabled in a stand-alone facility planned to remain for many lifetimes”.
Dame Rosie’s tireless and at times relentless fundraising was recognised by a string of awards, including Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2011 for her services to philanthropy and the Queen’s Service Medal for community service in1993, and she was appointed a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order for community service in 2004.
It was a meeting with the late Queen Elizabeth, back in the 1980s, that Dame Rosie would say later helped form her charitable work. She and Michael Horton were invited aboard the royal yacht Britannia to meet the Queen after attending a Commonwealth Press Conference in Trinidad.
“Her example set me on the road to be a giver, not a taker,” Dame Rosie said in an interview.
She was also influenced by Lady Margaret Myers (the late Sir Douglas Myers’ mother) who told her that she couldn’t sit around doing nothing, she had to give back.
And do something she did, employing her Master of Networking skills to raise money for those in need. She lunched and dined with New Zealand’s rich and famous but behind the socialising, her charity work was never far away. She joked that she’d sit outside CEOs’ offices until they got sick of her and agreed to help so that she’d go away. And she suspected friends and business contacts sidled out of lunch invitations because they knew they’d be hit up for a donation.
Dame Rosie met Michael, whose family owned Wilson & Horton, publishers of the New Zealand Herald until 1996, in the 1980s when she was working for packaging company UEB where she computerised the company’s library.
Dame Rosie’s stepson Matthew Horton said the experience left her with a strong suite of skills and disciplines when she transitioned to charity work.
“My overwhelming impression of Rosie’s charity work was the incredibly disciplined professionalism she brought to it.”
Horton tells a story about the year his father and stepmother took over his Remuera house when he moved to Australia. Horton’s “lovely big wine cellar” was stripped of its racking and filled with Dame Rosie’s files.
“The room was stacked wall to wall, floor to ceiling with files, all of them related to her charity work.”
Horton said charitable organisations were often joined by well-meaning people who did very little in the end. It was often only his stepmother who went out and knocked on doors.
“She was the only one who shook the can.”
Dame Rosie knew she had a role to play, knocking on corporate doors and shaking the can at society luncheons. She was famous for her wardrobe – rows of dresses, crisp blouses teamed with pearls, and shoes, lots of them. The collection filled multiple wardrobes both in her Auckland home and an apartment in Queensland’s Sanctuary Cove that she shared with her husband of 39 years.
Horton’s son Matthew said today that even when his stepmother was confined to the house in the last six months of her life, he never saw her without a pair of smart high heels. So famous was her wardrobe that the Topp Twins, once helping to host a fundraising event at the Horton home, furtively organised guided tours of the hostess’ walk-in, with members of the gathered high society paying extra for a peek, hilarious footage that was included in a Topp Twins documentary.
Matthew Horton described his father and stepmother’s 39-year marriage as “immensely successful and loving”.
Dame Rosie had recently completed a major three-year restoration of their Remuera home and hosted a party there last month celebrating 30 years since she launched Friends of Starship.
“That would have been very important to her. Two great projects in her life. She would have been able to finally sign off on them. She would have died peacefully.”
Dame Rosie is survived by her husband Michael, her daughter Vicky, her stepsons Matthew and James, and five grandchildren.
Starship Foundation’s tribute to Dame Rosie
Starship, New Zealand’s national children’s hospital, has said it wouldn’t be where it is today without Dame Rosie and her group of supporters, “who made it their mission to raise funds for the children of New Zealand”.
“Dame Rosie Horton was reluctant to get involved with Starship having other charity commitments, but it was hearing a patient’s story that changed her mind. She met a mother and child who had travelled from Southland by bus, taking them four days to get to Starship, and she thought that simply wasn’t good enough.
“The hospital, 30 years ago, was in urgent need of even the most basic paediatric equipment, and she mobilised her friends to get behind the cause and raise funds to provide the best healthcare for children.”
Friends of Starship’s first fundraising event was the TV3 telethon in 1993, raising $1.5 million for Starship. Since then more than $160m has been raised for the hospital.
Starship Foundation chair Martin Wiseman said Dame Rosie’s support for the foundation and hospital was “enduring and never-ending”.
“She was relentless in her approach to secure donors, carrying a thick skin when asking people for their support of the hospital,” he said.
Starship Foundation CEO Jo Simon said she was forever grateful to Dame Rosie for her vision.
“Dame Rosie was the epitome of compassion, backed by a relentless and unwavering dedication to helping those less fortunate than herself.
“It’s hard to believe that only six weeks ago we were at Dame Rosie’s home, where she and her husband Michael hosted a 30-year reunion of the Friends of Starship. This was such a special occasion, reconnecting and celebrating, and we will treasure these special and recent memories where we felt lucky to be in her orbit.
“At the Friends of Starship reunion event at her home, we were regaled with stories of her waiting outside the Northern Club in the ‘90s, approaching prominent businessmen for their support – only for them to complain to her husband! We are forever grateful to Dame Rosie for her vision, her feisty fundraising and her generous spirit. Her legacy will live on as we carry on the important work which she started.”