Working with Aunty Mary Davis, who died at the age of 67 on August 12, was working with a powerful fire, determined to rip through prejudice and create justice. "She was always at the forefront of anything, with government and non-government agencies, organisations, the community", says Aunty Mary's son, Richard.
"When something was needed for her people she'd find the ways and means. She'd knock on doors and go to the government agencies and push for what was needed. She was never shy, never scared or intimidated. People knew that and I believe they respected my mum for it. That respect was therefore brought to the whole Aboriginal community.
"Everyone always looked to Aunty Mary for guidance and she'd say, 'Keep striving for what you believe in and if you have something you feel strong enough about, you got to knock on doors'."
Born Maryann Kathleen Drumbley, in Bundjalung country (Casino), Aunty Mary grew up in Gumbayyngirr country (Nambucca Heads). She spent nearly 50 years in the Illawarra, fighting for her people. There is no doubt in the minds of many that Aunty Mary was a driving force behind continuous positive change.
In 1961, she met and started working with local trade union activist Fred Moore. The pair set up the South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League, working tirelessly in the lead up to the historic 1967 referendum. Together they epitomise Aunty Mary's favourite symbol for reconciliation— the two Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal hands held together in the fight for justice.
"Aunty Mary was my aunty", says Stan Jarrett. "She was a Bundjalung woman, a member of the Stolen Generation and they brought her down here to work. She met her husband and she's been down here ever since, probably over 40 years.
"She was very weary but at the same time very optimistic about better futures for Aboriginal people and the community. Whether it was health, housing, justice, she fought for all of them."
Working with the South Coast Labour Council and the Miners Federation, Aunty Mary and the Advancement League fought for and won six of the very first houses for Aboriginal people in the area, built on the Coomaditchie Aboriginal Community. She was a founder of the Illawarra Aboriginal Corporation (IAC) continuing the fight for equality into the future.
Aunty Mary wrote in 2002 that the IAC "was started by a group of women who wanted to have somewhere to work and where we could help our people… I'm hoping it'll be there for another 100 years. Kooris like things that make it feel like home."
"Aunty Mary was one of the most active members in the community and a co-founder or director of most organisations around", said Jarrett. The IAC, he added, "is one of the best ones — it was a little blue hut and a shed out the back. I remember when I was much younger coming up here to meetings.
"She was among the powerful women, once she spoke, you listened. Everyone listened. It didn't matter if they were senior public servants or happened to be the director of the public courts — she'd have them cringing.
"Aunty Mary commanded respect from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and she spoke for her people. She was very inspiring for a lot of young people, who'll no doubt carry on the fight and I think that's her legacy. She'll always live on for the people with passion in their hearts."
Aunty Mary didn't just touch people's lives. She changed them.