10 January 2023

Griffith's oldest resident Berta Johnstone dies aged 106

| Oliver Jacques
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Woman in nursing home bed

Berta Johnstone on her 106th birthday on 7 September. Photo: Carmela Naseby.

Griffith’s oldest person Berta Johnstone died aged 106 years and 126 days on Wednesday, 4 January.

Daughter-in-law Cecilia Johnstone said her family was both sad and relieved, given she’d had such an amazing innings.

“We’re all grateful for the time we had her and all she did to see us to where we are now,” she said.

Berta, who was born during World War I, died just five years younger than Australia’s oldest living person, 111-year-old Queensland woman Gwen Moore.

The Griffith resident lived to see 24 different Australian prime ministers and 32 Australian cricket captains.

The general public is invited to a service celebrating Berta’s life graveside at the Griffith Lawn Cemetery from 10 am on Wednesday, 11 January.

“We are very grateful to all of the staff at Settler’s Unit of [aged care facility] Pioneers Lodge, who took such good care of her,” Cecilia said.

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She praised the lodge’s dynamic activities coordinator Carmela Naseby.

“Carmela made Nanna up so beautiful for so long. She would put lipstick, make-up and jewellery on her, she loved that.”

Carmela said: “She always told me to make sure I did the back of her hair too,”

Cecilia said Berta had been a proud fashionista ever since she was young.

“When I first met her she didn’t like what I was wearing, so she dressed me up in a stylish blue suit … Berta also took great pride in her own appearance. Her hair was always perfect.

“But really, she would give me anything I wanted. She couldn’t do enough for me.”

Berta died the same age as her beloved town of Griffith.

She was born Berta Chester in Murrami, a small village just out of Leeton, in 1916. Her father died when she was just four, leaving her mother Mary Jane to raise her six children by herself. Her mother drew Farm 2374 Warburn in a ballot and the family moved to Griffith in 1932, where Berta lived for the past 91 years.

In 1938, Berta married Stan Johnstone at Sacred Heart Church, and soon had two sons, Barry and Graeme.

Man and woman

Stan and Berta Johnstone. Photo: Supplied.

“They were one of the earliest rice farmers in the region,” Graeme said.

Berta quickly gained a reputation for her resilience and work ethic.

“She was a very strong woman,” Cecilia said. ”I met her when I was 15 and I can’t remember a single time she was sick.”

One of the secrets to her longevity was being super fit and maintaining an active lifestyle for so long.

“She was a skilled tennis player, known for her sizzling forehand,” Graeme said. ”She was also a great runner. I don’t know any other woman who could run as fast as her.”

Woman and two young sons

Berta and her sons Barry and Graeme in the late 1940s. Photo: Supplied.

A keen royal watcher, Berta was one of the few Australians to be alive for Queen Elizabeth II’s birth and death. She also saw the monarch in the flesh during her only visit to the Riverina, in 1954.

“We got there [to Wagga] the day before and camped outside at night so we could get a glimpse of her drive past the next day,” Graeme said.

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Berta’s sister Dorrie Pitt also received a message from the Queen for reaching three figures, dying at the age of 102.

Cecilia has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Pioneers Lodge Nursing Home, where Berta had been a resident for a number of years.

Berta also has seven grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren.

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