Helen Stead: A life serving North Otago

2023 Citizen’s award winner Helen Stead. PHOTO: JULES CHIN.
2023 Citizen’s award winner Helen Stead. PHOTO: JULES CHIN.
Born a block away from the iconic Oamaru Basilica, Helen Stead has dedicated her life to serving the North Otago community and conserving its heritage.

Mrs Stead helped set up the Whitestone Civic Trust, completed conservation histories for several historic buildings and was the founder of the Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations.

She was the third woman to be elected councillor to the Oamaru Borough Council and the first woman to ever be re-elected during those years.

She later served on the Waitaki District Council for nearly a decade and was a board member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, where she was one of three people who set up the North Otago branch of the Trust.

Today, aged 84, she continues to care about heritage management and conserving the history of the district and is proud of her recent Waitaki Citizens’ award.

"It is with pride . . . I do feel privileged that I’ve got the knowledge, the contacts and the understanding of the place," Mrs Stead said.

She did, however, almost miss out on attending the awards ceremony.

Her recipient letter was sent to a wrong address, she says with a laugh.

During the late 1970s, Mrs Stead helped blaze the trail for women in local government in Waitaki.

In her first year as a borough councillor, aged 38, a male councillor was made chairman of the planning committee and she was made his assistant.

Mrs Stead said the appointment did not go down well with him, but worked out well for her.

"He was so miffed about having a woman be part of it, that he refused to take the role. So, I became the chairwoman, but was referred to as chairman," she laughs.

"I loved [the role]".

Being a councillor was a challenging role, but Mrs Stead enjoyed the opportunities it gave to work collaboratively.

"The real pleasure of being a councillor was the interesting people that I met, who were doing interesting things".

As a board member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust she was charged with looking after buildings in the lower South and North Island.

"People there had done restoration, conservation across all of New Zealand.

"I learnt more about that — engineering, architecture and history combined — from those people.

"That made me much more enthusiastic."

Mrs Stead was chairperson of the steering group to redevelop the Forrester Gallery & North Otago Museum & Waitaki Archive.

She was also part of a group that helped develop what is known today as the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.

"I believe when I’m on the make, I’m not on the make to make money.

"I want it to be fairer, kinder and of value in the future, whatever I do," Mrs Stead said.

Mrs Stead, who separated from her husband Tony during the 1980’s, juggled her professional roles and that of being a mother to their three children.

"I'm proud of the three of them. They made their own way in the world,’ she said.

Mrs Stead is still involved in promoting and enjoying the Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations. She believes the ethos of the event she started, in 1987, is still alive.

"It gets a lot of people to come together and appreciate what we have got here," she said.

A historian and researcher, she is also well known as a tour operator, running walking tours of the Historic Precinct, the Old Cemetery and Moonlight Promenades, through which she communicates her passion for the rich history of the district.