Sybil celebrates 100th with grace

PRINCESS FOR A DAY: Sybil Fortune celebrates her 100th birthday with her son Gavin and his wife Diane at Metlifecare Retirement Village, Highland Park. Times Photo Marianne Kelly

By Marianne Kelly

Asked her age, 100-year-old Sybil Fortune says “21 and a hell of a lot of months”.
With grace and humour, Mrs Fortune relished the celebrations in Howick last week with family and friends.

At 100, she says she doesn’t feel any different.

“I’m just accepting of it and I have had a very good life.”

She was a music teacher. But, with World War II underway, she was seconded to the Ministry of Supply in Wellington where she met her husband Bart Fortune. A descendent of the Fortune family who came to Howick to farm in the 1850s, he was sales and promotions manager at the Wellington outpost of RCA (the Radio Corporation of America). He took a key role in the formation of TANZA Records with the mission “to assist New Zealand artists” and producing its first record Blue Smoke in 1949.

Sharing their love of music, the couple held concert parties for troops, particularly the many American servicemen stationed in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944.
They were married in Wellington in 1948.

Steeped in the American big band era (Mr Fortune was road manager for American singer Nat King Cole’s New Zealand tour in the early 1950s) the couple filled their home with music. They loved Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw. Their son Gavin says his Dad “was locked into the classics”.

“They were all marooned on the Frank Sinatra era. But when the big band era finished he couldn’t cope with rock ’n’ roll.

Mrs Fortune, however, relished its arrival and on her birthday confirmed to the Times “I love the Beatles”.

“Their lives revolved around music,” Gavin says. “On weekends I heard Swan Lake before any of the other kids.”

When Mr Fortune finished work at RCA, the couple did a stint on a sheep farm at Dargaville, a time Mrs Fortune recalls as she commands her son to “get in behind” for the Times photograph.

They moved to Auckland in 1956 building a house in Waipuna Road, the site of the Capri Clinic today.

In 1971 Mr Fortune retired as sales manager of Alex Harvey Metal Containers.
The couple sold their Waipuna Road house and moved to Piha where Mrs Fortune remained until 15 years ago. Mr Fortune died in 1998. Mrs Fortune’s family say she loved Piha, swimming every day and she loved tennis.

She also established a special rapport with the local children, always asking open-ended questions. Some of those children, now grown-up, were among the guests who celebrated the centenarian’s birthday last week. A special treat was to see her grandson Roger and his great-granddaughter Matilda who came from Newcastle, New South Wales, along with her second grandson Steven, of Auckland.