Lorraine Cooper - Mum of five to mayoress and meeting global icons

3 minutes read
Posted 12 July, 2023
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Lorraine, centre, with some of her 11 grandchildren, from left, Taylor, Isabella, Holly, daughter Lisa, Esmé and Cecily in front

She’s rubbed shoulders with global leaders, been Mum to five kids, two times mayoress, motelier, and wife of a NZ Cabinet Minister, but somehow Lorraine Cooper got it all done with graciousness and calm. Now 86, it’s fair to say she was a superwoman in her day.

Raised in Brisbane, Lorraine was two when World War II broke out. Japanese submarines were edging closer to Darwin and Sydney and the family had to evacuate to its backyard trench when the sirens sounded. “Our whole playground at school was trenched,” she says.

At 19 she and two friends arrived in NZ, scoring 1956-57 summer jobs at McBride’s Hotel with hotelier ‘Wicked Willie’ (Cooper).

They had a ball, nicknamed ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ by staff and joining in evening piano singalongs with guests.

Frequenting local dances, the trio ended up at the Arrowtown Fire Brigade Ball. “We got home at 4am and had to rise early to serve guests their in-room cup of tea and wine biscuit,” says Lorraine.

Willie’s sign-writer-painter son Warren Cooper had originally quipped to his dad, ‘You didn’t employ those three scatty Aussies, did you?’. By 1959 he and Lorraine were married. Australia’s heat and mozzies weren’t for Warren, so they moved back to Queenstown soon after.

Their five kids were all delivered at Bungy Backpackers – the old maternity home, Lorraine staying the compulsory two weeks each time. “They were the only holidays I ever got,” she smiles.

Life changed forever in 1968 when Warren became mayor. Back then the mayoress was in demand for civic receptions and flower shows.

By 1971 the Coopers also owned Four Seasons Motels, which they had for 19 years. As if Lorraine didn’t have her hands full enough, the Royal Family came that year, Lorraine farming the kids out locally to escort Prince Philip behind Warren and the Queen through Queenstown Gardens, Prince Charles and Princess Anne accompanied too. “My kids were all shouting out, ‘Mum!’ from the crowd and a puzzled (King) Charles said, ‘How many children have you?’”

By 1975 Warren’s political career was on the up and they moved the family to Mosgiel to raise his profile throughout the huge Otago electorate – the seat he held for 21 years from 1978.

The trajectory of Lorraine’s life took an even greater turn, as she went from door knocker support to Cabinet Minister’s wife.

“One quickly develops a thick skin and a good sense of humour in politics,” she smiles.

Rob Muldoon, nicknamed ‘Piggy’, was Prime Minister during their three years in the Labour stronghold of Mosgiel, where crowds of Labour supporters marched the streets carrying a pig’s head on a stick. One evening Warren discovered it in their letterbox, with horrified daughter Lisa also in on the unfortunate discovery next morning while collecting the milk.

When Warren entered Cabinet in 1978 as Tourism Minister the family moved to Wellington – a huge transition. Despite Joan Bolger’s welcoming efforts, it was “like living in a fishbowl”.

Lorraine travelled the world while Warren was Foreign Affairs Minister – once nine countries in nine days and loved it. She was thrown into it in Bahrain with minutes notice having to give a speech to the Bahrain Children’s Society. “I rambled on about Plunket. That was one of my worst times.”

Her best included meeting the Royals, Pope Jean Paul and Margaret Thatcher, who, with husband Denis, stayed for a few days near Glenorchy with then Lake County Council chairman Tommy Thomson. “Margaret fed out sheep with Rita (Thomson) and they became lifelong friends.”

One of Lorraine’s favourite leaders was US Secretary of State George Schultz, who always ended up next to her at dignitary dinners. “I was also seated next to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem – a fine man, sadly assassinated a year later.”

Back to Queenstown in 1991, Lorraine was a CAB volunteer, a Skyline Community Trust trustee, Wakatipu Home volunteer and developed the Millennium Time Walk on Queenstown Hill with Annabelle O’Meara.

Founding ‘Let’s Keep Queenstown Beautiful’ with June Cooper, they organised colourful planter baskets for Queenstown Mall.

At 64, Lorraine, and Jayne Kirk, took on the Child Cancer $10 Challenge, hitching to Auckland and back on $10. They raised about $10,000 – the event $50,000, John Banks escorting them through Auckland like royalty on Harley Davidsons. “People were generous and kind. Two big rig drivers on the ferry drove us to outside Christchurch dropping us off at midnight. Thankfully, a couple heading to Wanaka picked us up. It was the experience of a lifetime.” The pair documented their adventures in a book called ‘Go Grans go!’ – raising even more.

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