Denise Knight
Sat, April 16, 2011 at 15:07
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs, Coffs Harbour, Council, Denise Knight, Interesting, Kerry Hines, People

Local politics is always interesting, I thought, so I decided to include someone from the Coffs council to fire up The Most Interesting Person I Know.  At first I considered the mayor, but then I came across then new Deputy Mayor’s profile on the council website and thought she looks interesting.  Once she’d finally agreed to be interviewed I discovered I had been right!

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Deputy Mayor a driving force for the community

 Denise Knight clicks along the footpath of Sawtell’s First Avenue in her high heeled shoes and business suit.  She smiles and nods recognition to shop keepers, stops to chat with passers by and looks every bit what she is – a neighbourhood fixture, a politician and a driving force.

Finally Denise makes it to the Split Café, apologises for being late: she had to open an aboriginal school festival and it went longer than expected, but here she is.  “I don’t know what to say,” she sighs.  “I’m not really very interesting.”  She then proceeds to prove herself wrong.

At 27, Denise was a nurse with experience in Sydney and the UK, and husband Chris was a newly qualified obstetrician, when they landed in the tiny community of Sawtell 27 years ago with a young baby and $43.  “I hated it,” says Denise.  “There was nothing here.”  The milkbar didn’t even serve milkshakes because it cost too much to refrigerate the fresh milk.

“Leaving the city wasn’t something I wanted to do, but there were not many doctors on the north coast then, and we thought that we could give something.”  The town was so desperate for doctors that the real estate agent gave them an old house behind what is now the Thai restaurant rent free.  Once they decided to stay, Denise and Chris went back to Sydney to pick up a second hand examination couch, desk and chair and a very old Carona to haul their stuff back to Sawtell:  their county practice was ready to open.

One feels that Denise probably wasn’t like other women living in small coastal towns 30 years ago.  She’d taken on her nursing career as a way of demonstrating her independence.  “My mother decided I should do a secretarial course like everybody else does.  I did shorthand and typing and failed miserably.  Mum said go out and get a job.  So I got a job and I got the sack.”  Letting her mother know who was boss, Denise chose her own profession in nursing.

She also found love and marriage her own way.  She met Chris during her nursing training at Western Suburbs Hospital.  “I met him over a patient.  I vomited on his feet, sadly.”  Having made rather a mess of things in surgery at the sight of a particularly gruesome suicide attempt, Denise then had the nerve to ask Chris out.  “I had to go to dinner and another guy stood me up, so I had to think of someone that I thought was better looking and higher up the ranks, so I rang Chris.”

Here was a woman used to making her own choices in life, a woman who had grown up in Sydney, spent time working in England, married in Paris, now taking on the role of secretary, mother to a screaming infant, nurse, receptionist and housewife.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that Denise says that she found running a country practice completely unromantic and astonishingly hard work. 

What is surprising is the fact that Denise somehow found the time and the inclination to contribute to the community.  But contribute she did, and in extraordinary ways.

It started when Denise declared that she was “over Lamington drives”, and that she would write a melodrama, dubbed ‘The Hillbillies of Sawtell’, and have parents (not kids) perform as a way of raising funds for the local school.  The more people told her it couldn’t be done, the more determined she became.  The play was a hit, and it became an annual event that eventually raised $20,000 annually for the school.  Denise’s arts career was kick started and she went on to write plays and perform at the Jetty Theatre.  Her community leadership skills were also starting to show.

In Denise’s typically impetuous fashion, it is over a couple of tequila’s that her political career took shape.  She and a friend rather drunkenly decided they should run the Sawtell Chilli Festival.  When they discovered someone else had already filled this role, Denise said “Well, Chilli Festival’s small fry, let’s run for Council”. 

Denise ran and won.  Scared and out of her depth at first, her ambition to have an Entertainment Centre in Coffs Harbour has helped her to find her voice in Council.  “Everyone else can bang on about the highway,” she says.  Denise is determined that Coffs will have a Centre that can accommodate opera, orchestras and major concerts, and will also provide a new home for the Art Gallery.  She argues persuasively about the economic potential of drawing people to Coffs for big name performers, but she’s frustrated by the grinding wheels of politics.  “I thought I’d be able to achieve something the day I got on council.  That didn’t happen.”  But she’s still there and she’s still pushing, and now that she’s Deputy Mayor she’s hoping she just might have the clout to get the Entertainment Centre over the line.

An hour with this one woman force of nature has been exhausting.  How can she think her life is not interesting?  She pays for the coffee.  “I get a discount here”, she explains.  And walking out of the café she says “oh yes, and I had breast cancer in between.”  Needless to say she’s beaten it!

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Denise refused to nominate anyone at our initial interview.  I’m not sure whether she was waiting to see if what I wrote was good enough for her to pass me on, or if she was worried about having to choose only one interesting person.  In any case, eventually she nominated Kerry Hines from Unreal Estate, who is a good friend and fellow councilor.  Denise feels that Kerry’s rags to riches success story is what makes her interesting.

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By Stephanie Hunt                                                    www.themostinterestingpersoniknow.net

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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