For the first time in more than 50 years, Janine Cullen will have an address other than Beach Drive, Woonona.
The well-known Illawarra business and community leader is leaving her hometown – and the street where she’s lived in three homes – to start a new chapter and find new challenges on the NSW North Coast.
Janine and her partner of 19 years Gordon Critcher have been looking for a new base for a few months, testing the waters in NSW and Queensland, but it was a visit to Lennox Head, near Ballina, that captured their hearts.
“We just fell in love with the area, it’s so beautiful,” Janine says.
“My kids and grandkids are in Perth – too far – and Tasmania – too cold.”
They’ve sold up their beachside Woonona home and bought a property on 2 ha less than 15 minutes to Lennox and close to Ballina Byron Airport for regular trips back to the Gong, and for friends to visit.
“I feel like a new challenge, a new change while I’m still young enough,” Janine says.
“I can meet new people, do new things, do things I don’t know – croquet, golf, I haven’t a clue.
“The property used to be an orchard with fruit trees and vegetables and I’m not a gardener but I think I could be.”
Janine has contributed to countless Illawarra businesses, community groups and charities in various capacities during the past three-plus decades, and proudly wears an Order of Australia medal which she received in 2011 in recognition of her service and commitment to business and regional development. She was also named Wollongong Citizen of the Year in 2015.
Her contribution to the region was recognised during a farewell at The Illawarra Connection’s (TIC) gathering on Tuesday (6 February). Janine has been a TIC director since 2008 and holds life membership.
Long-time friend and TIC president Graham Lancaster told Region Illawarra Janine has a business sense and compassion that helps her relate to others and be a leader and mentor in the community.
“Janine is one of those rare people who has managed to decipher the mysteries of time in order to fit more into the day or week than most others,” he said.
Janine has been making her mark on the Illawarra since her days as the Illawarra Mercury’s first female cadet journalist, although it wasn’t her first career choice.
“My mother was a social worker and I was going to do social work,” she said.
“But when I was in Year 12, both my brothers were at uni and decided to start their own newspaper magazine and they asked me if I’d be a columnist and write the agony aunt column.
“No problem I said, I could do anything – at 17, I could tell people how to run their lives, I was so confident.”
Unfortunately the venture was short-lived – “they brought out one edition and it fell over” – but it was enough to prompt Janine to march into the Mercury and tell the then editor, John Richardson, that the paper needed her as a columnist.
He told her to come back in a week and then offered her a cadetship.
About two years after she started at the Mercury, a young journalist named Peter Cullen joined the team.
Janine was assigned to work with Peter while he donned the much-loved persona of Happy Harry, who would pop up at various Illawarra locations over the summer holiday to meet and greet and hand out giveaways.
The assignment lasted for two months and just a year later, Janine and Peter were married. They had two children and were together until Peter’s shock death in 2000, two years after he retired from the Mercury.
Janine later worked at the ABC, WIN TV, Prime and wrote for the Sun Herald and Australian Associated Press (AAP) for about 20 years.
“I loved it, loved every minute of it. I never got to do uni, never became a social worker, but I loved being a journalist.”
She started her own communications business, JC – The Power of One, in the late 1990s partnering with camera operator and editor Gonny Burns, and travelled around Australia creating corporate videos for some of the country’s leading companies.
But it’s her charity work of which Janine is most proud, particularly with the Royal Blind Society’s Vision Australia and more recently, the Illawarra Clubhouse operated by the One Door Mental Health Illawarra committee.
The committee started as the Light and Hope Committee in 2004 with the aim of improving mental health services in the area. In partnership with Schizophrenia Fellowship (now One Door) the group developed new services, the main one being the Clubhouse. Clubhouse is a model of psychosocial rehabilitation which has been pioneered in Australia by One Door Mental Health.
“We’ve raised over $2 million through events and a wonderful half a million dollar donation from the late Dr John Hogg,” Janine said.
“The Clubhouse is now expanding into other areas of mental health – mental health in the workplace, loneliness and things like that. That’s been my passion.”
She is a strong advocate for the Leadership Illawarra Program where she mentors emerging leaders.
“I mentor a lot of young people and they’re so impressive, half of them should be mentoring me!
“They’re forever trying to be a better person and they look after the Illawarra, not just themselves.”
Former MP and Lord Mayor David Campbell, her friend and fellow director on the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District Board, has long been a fan of Janine’s commitment, determination and “can-do attitude”.
“At a time when many people would put their feet up and take it easy, Janine shows courage and determination in pushing the boundary by seeking new horizons,” he said.
“After a lifetime of professional, personal and philanthropic contribution to our region, it’s sad and exciting to wish Janine well in the next stage of her life’s journey.”
Unlike David, Janine has no ambition to become a politician.
“I’ve been offered it on many occasions by both the left and the right but I decided to work behind the scenes with the development boards and the business chambers rather than go into politics,” she says.
“I’m not sure I’m tough enough to be in politics, my skin’s not that thick.”
Although Janine is confident the Illawarra’s future is in good hands, particularly with the strong next generation coming through, she says the region still faces the same challenge it has faced for the past 40 years – perception.
“You’ve got to get people kicking and screaming to come to Wollongong, to the Illawarra, and when they get here, wow, they love it,” she says.
“It’s a fabulous place. You’re so close to everything and you’ve got the lifestyle.
“I’d encourage other people to get involved in making the Illawarra great because it’s so rewarding – frustrating sometimes, but rewarding.”
Janine says she’s “not retiring as such”, but she is ending her tenures on most of her Illawarra boards and committees as she prepares to farewell the region.
“I’m leaving it to the next generation. I’m starting fresh; it’s a new era with new challenges, and although I don’t know what they’re going to be, I’m excited. Gordon and I are just looking forward to having a great time together.”