Obituary: advocate, teacher of many things

George St Normal School pupils sing with Natalie Yeoman to mark the release of a CD collecting...
George St Normal School pupils sing with Natalie Yeoman to mark the release of a CD collecting songs she had written while teaching at the school. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Teacher, patient advocate


It is telling that one of the first cards received by Natalie Yeoman’s family after her death was from the Dunedin hospital worker who made her cups of tea when she was a patient.

Natalie, who died in October aged 70, was a woman who, once met, was not easily forgotten. With her trademark smile and laughter never far away, she had the knack of being able to relate to anybody she met, and be interested in them, even when she was not feeling that great herself.

As her death notice said, her life was characterised by generous hospitality, colour, musical creativity, loving educational skill and courage in the face of her challenges. She also had a strong Christian faith, rich in contemplation.

She may first have come to the attention of many readers of this newspaper when we published a poignant and funny piece from her in 2016, "Minding the Gap" about missing her cleavage after her mastectomy.

A few years later we gave extensive coverage to the missteps in her healthcare before and after her 2015 cancer diagnosis, events which might have left a less generous person bitter and angry.

But as she said, she did not consider the "mind-boggling" number of missteps a conspiracy against her personally.

There was always going to be an element of bad luck in any healthcare, and she hoped education around issues raised in her case had resulted in some improvements. She wondered if short-staffing and high workloads were at the heart of the problems she encountered.

"I have become convinced of the power of honest information and apology. In my ‘cancer life’ these have been crucial in my emotional healing and dealing with my losses."

She wrote of her experience in A Maze of Grace, published by Cuba Press in 2019, but while it did not sugarcoat the fact Natalie was dealing with incurable cancer, it was no misery memoir.

Natalie, who always kept a journal and wrote poems, songs, letters to the editor, and occasional articles, found the book-writing process enjoyable and cathartic. She was buoyed by the response from readers who had found it helpful.

Natalie was born in 1952 in Wyndham, the daughter of Morrison and Marion (nee Miller) Yule and the fifth of eight children. Her father was the Presbyterian minister in the Edendale parish.

The church featured strongly in her background. Her mother’s father Thomas Miller was a Presbyterian minister and Mr Yule’s father, also Morrison, came to New Zealand from Scotland early last century to work as a Presbyterian Church home missionary and was later ordained into full ministry.

Morrison Yule senior had radical left-wing views because of his experience as a coal miner. His ambition to become a Church of Scotland minister in his home country had been scuppered because of the class system, prompting his move to New Zealand.

The importance of education was a formative influence on young Natalie. On her maternal side, which also had Scottish origins, both her grandparents were Master of Arts graduates of the University of Otago, her grandmother Marion Meiklem Strang graduating in 1906. Natalie’s mother had begun studies at Otago before her marriage.

In 1959, the Yule family moved to Ponsonby. It would be hard to imagine a greater cultural contrast than that between 1950s predominantly Pakeha rural Southland and the huge multicultural experience of attending Ponsonby School.

It sparked her lifelong love of te reo Māori and tikanga.

Natalie Yeoman. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Natalie Yeoman. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
She spent her high school years at Auckland Girls Grammar. When she was toying with the idea of pursuing a career in journalism, the then features editor at The New Zealand Herald advised her to do something other than a degree in English.

Accordingly, she completed a conjoint bachelor of arts and law degree at Auckland University.

During her student days, her future husband the Rev Dr Selwyn Yeoman said "she caught my attention and everybody else’s" when he saw and heard her perform Amazing Grace unaccompanied at a student concert.

The pair’s friendship through membership of the university’s Christian group, the Evangelical Union, moved on to a romance and they were married in 1974.

They shifted to Dunedin for Dr Yeoman to undertake his theological training.

Natalie did not complete her professional legal studies because the training times in the mid-1970s did not fit in with the demands of beginning a family.

In 1979 the Yeomans moved to Browns in central Southland. In the six years they were there their family grew from two to four.

At the end of 1984 they moved to Mosgiel where Dr Yeoman was a minister in the Mosgiel/North Taieri parish. Their fifth child was born there the following year.

The couple spent 21 years there. Natalie was closely involved with the church and wider community, making a major contribution musically and pastorally.

She undertook teacher training in the mid-1990s almost by accident. She had begun part-time work as a teacher-aide at Mosgiel West school and had wanted to attend a course for TAs. However, when she approached her supervisor to see if the school would support that, Dr Yeoman said she was told she should do teacher training because "you’ve got more teacher in your little finger than most of us have in our whole bodies".

Her training was fitted in around a busy family and church life. For most of their married life the Yeomans had other people living with them and extras popping in for meals. She was a generous hostess, believing, as her mother did — "you can turn an ordinary meal into a celebration by lighting a candle".

Her first teaching role was at Mosgiel Intermediate, which was soon to be merged with Taieri High School to become Taieri College.

Natalie was a vigorous advocate for the intermediate within the school structure, but it was a stressful time for her.

In 2000 she was awarded a scholarship by the Otago Primary Principals’ Association to write a show celebrating past and present life in Aotearoa at the beginning of the new millennium.

The CD and script and songbook for the show The Biggest Little Kiwiana Show Ever were given to all Otago primary schools and later marketed throughout the country. It was performed from Southland to Northland and Natalie was thrilled with the way each school gave it its own twist, "flavouring it with their own local charact. and culture ( just as I had intended)".

A prolific songwriter, she recorded five albums over several decades, her most recent one Our Songs Will Rise in 2019. It was a project financed by George Street Normal School featuring songs she used during her teaching career, some of them to assist with teaching te reo Māori. One of her sons, Emerson, ensured her music would not be lost in the digital age, transferring her albums to Bandcamp in 2022.

In 2005 the couple spent time in Tibetan China where Dr Yeoman was working on a conservation project and Natalie was teaching English, but with her husband often away she found the isolation difficult.

Returning to Dunedin, Natalie was not sure she had what it took to continue in teaching, but then principal of George St Normal School Rod Galloway prevailed upon her to join his staff to work with gifted pupils, a role which made the most of her musical talents. Later she was instrumental in developing the school’s Māori programme where one of her first proposals was moving kapa haka from a voluntary lunchtime activity to an integral part of the school programme. Another was the introduction of the Whanau iti programme to address the needs of students in the "educational tail".

Natalie retired from the school at the end of 2019, but although she had many secondary tumours by then, she retained her zest for life, enjoying walks, her garden, holidays, and time with her increasing number of grandchildren.

She advocated for the survival of the ExPinkT exercise programme for breast cancer survivors, something she described as "the silver lining to a cancer diagnosis. It’s where I go to save my life!"

The women attending developed special friendships, supported each other, had a lot of laughs, and kept each other active, she said.

Natalie was also one of the ambassadors for the Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in both 2020 and last year, but both events could not proceed as planned because of Covid-19 restrictions. Instead, last year she and Dr Yeoman hosted a Relay Your Way walk up Pine Hill for about 65 family and friends.

As her health deteriorated this year, she wanted it known that "whatever happens I’ve had a wonderful life, and life owes me nothing."

She is survived by her husband, their children Jude, Hannah, Emerson, Ollie and Monica, their partners and 14 grandchildren. — Elspeth McLean with assistance from Dr Yeoman.