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Shepparton art icons take a bow

After helping oversee the development of Shepparton's art scene for almost 50 years, longtime residents Neil and Erna Werner are leaving town to be closer to family.

JOHN LEWIS November 21, 2012 4:20am

Erna and Neil Werner are leaving Shepparton


Long before the word ‘‘livability’’ became a buzzword for bureaucrats intent on growing the cultural life of a town, there was Neil and Erna Werner.

Erna was there when Gough Whitlam came to see a Shepparton theatre show; she was there when Shepparton Theatre Arts Group was born; as a pharmacist Neil established Shepparton’s first methadone program at his Wyndham St store.

They have sat on countless steering committees and become trustees of Shepparton institutions including the Mechanics Institute, Shepparton Performing Arts Association, Goulburn Valley Grammar School and Shepparton Retirement Villages.

They helped transform the ageing outdoor Raymond West swimming pool into an enclosed 50m facility.

Their love of piano music has seen them help bring a $240000 Steinway to City of Greater Shepparton along with a biennial competition which has matured into the prestigious Australian National Piano Award.

When they leave Shepparton for the last time this week to live nearer family at Point Lonsdale, they take with them nearly half a century of community memories and contributions.

Originally from Melbourne, the Werners arrived in Shepparton in 1964 after opening their first pharmacy in Boort an hour north of Bendigo.

‘‘One day we just got in the car and went for a drive. We had lunch in Shepparton and we liked the place. It was vibrant, it was still the country, but only two hours from Melbourne,’’ Erna said.

Neil established his pharmacy on Wyndham St, opposite the Mechanics Institute. During the next 34 years the couple ran Werner’s Pharmacy, raised two children and became prime movers in lifting the arts profile in Shepparton.

‘‘We thought it important for people who want to come here to live, for people who are looking for somewhere that’s not a cultural desert,’’ Erna said.

She helped found Shepparton Light Music Company before it merged with Shepparton Dramatic Society to become Shepparton Theatre Arts Group.

‘‘Every mother has to get away from the children once in a while,’’ she said with her characteristic quick wit.

While Erna took on acting and directing roles, Neil sold tickets from his pharmacy counter.

The shows were performed at the Town Hall on Welsford St, or at the smaller Alex Rigg Theatrette above Shepparton Art Gallery. They proved huge drawcards for a public starved of local entertainment.

‘‘When we did South Pacific, the queue for tickets stretched around the corner of the Vic Hotel,’’ Erna said.

She said the Shepparton arts scene scored national approval when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came to see an early 1970s Light Music Company production of The King and I thanks to string-pulling by local Labor party member John Riordan.

As part of his pharmacy service, Neil started Shepparton’s first methadone program for people battling drug addiction.

‘‘They walked in the front door — and we treated them just like everyone else,’’ Neil said.

The couple also helped start a 24-hour telephone counselling service. For seven years, they took phone calls, often in the middle of the night, from the suicidal and the depressed.

Erna remembers speaking to an Ardmona woman whose husband was ‘‘prowling around the house with a shotgun’’.

‘‘I rang the priest at St Mary’s in Mooroopna and he went out and sorted them out. He was a brave man,’’ she said.

Neil said he would take calls from people who were just desperately lonely.

‘‘I talked to someone who told me the only thing she’d said all day was ‘thank-you’ to the checkout girl,’’ he said.

Perhaps the Werner’s most public legacy is the Australian National Piano Award which puts Shepparton in the national and international spotlight every two years.

With the help of a local committee and pianists Professor Max Cooke and Darryl Coote, the event has grown to attract the best young players in Australia and a wide international audience including millions in China via a live ABC Radio broadcast.

Although Neil has now stepped down as board president, and Erna has retired as media officer, they are confident it has a strong future.

They are disappointed the event is not more supported in Shepparton, but they are realistic about its appeal in a country town.

‘‘It is an elitist sport really I suppose,’’ Erna said.

‘‘There are not many kids these days who are encouraged to learn classical music. I think it’s a great loss to society — there is nothing more marvellous than a Bach fugue,’’ she said.

Their move to Point Lonsdale does have its regrets.

‘‘We’re not really looking forward to going. We love Shepparton. We still have very dear friends here. But as we get older it’s wiser to be closer to family,’’ Erna said.

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