Bernadette (Bernie) Weller (nee Ryan) 1983 -1988
Bernie Weller, past pupil of St Peter’s College and now a member of the college’s Foundation board and on the School’s Board of Trustees, maintains that what you do today sets you up for tomorrow and her story illustrates this very well. Despite her packed schedule she makes home and family her first priority, but always has systems in place to manage her many other commitments.
An avid reader, she reads widely and well to stay abreast of the many organisations that she is involved with. Recently she took on the role of Returning Officer for the Clutha Southland Electorate for the 2017 General Election, she sits on the Southland Board of Federated Farmers and their National Water Team and is studying for a Graduate Diploma in Business Administration majoring in Dispute Resolution at Massey University. At home, she and husband Grant run an award-winning sheep and beef hill country farm, where Bernie is just as likely to be out mustering as indoors working in her office.
So, where did all this energy come from? Bernie says she aspires to be like the many strong women in her family’s past and those she admired growing up. The Ryans, of Irish heritage, farmed at Balfour and their connections with St Peter’s College go back to the 1950s when her father, who prior to joining the Air Force trained as a cabinet maker, put money towards the proposed new Catholic Boys’ boarding school, as he approved of the inclusion of a woodwork department. As the school was co-educational when it opened, Bernie and her sister were able to become boarders at the Hostel in the 1980s.
Looking back on her schooldays, she reflects that she didn’t appreciate all the opportunities offered to her at first, but in her senior years she knuckled down to work. A decision in her senior year to study calculus, statistics and physics is still hard to explain given her ineptitude in these subjects and only thanks to Mr Art Santure’s persistence and patience in explaining repeatedly did she succeed. When she went on to be one of only 20% of her class who passed calculus in her 1st year of commerce, she rang him to thank him for not giving up on her.
After university she travelled overseas, working in London and then with her farming background, as a lambing shepherd at Castle Douglas in Scotland. News that her father was planning to lease out the family farm, brought her back to New Zealand. None of her four siblings wanted to take over the farm, but Bernie had a deep love of that land and was determined to keep it in the family. Serendipity intervened – she met her future husband, Grant, working on a local farm and the two of them were able to take over management of the Ryan farm.
Sharing a keen interest in the environment and frustrated at some of the farming practices that they saw around them, Grant and Bernie entered the Balance Farm Environmental Awards in 2011 and emerged supreme winners for the Southland Region. The judges noted that they had a clear ”vision, mission and culture” and coupled a “strong family involvement with ‘buy in’ of retention of natural habitat of the Hokonui Hills” and still operated a profitable and productive farm.
They went on later that year to become the Inaugural National Winners of the competition and the first recipients of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy. Their role was to be ambassadors for the year for New Zealand agriculture, with constant media attention, speaking engagements and a trade tour to Europe for a month. (Getting away from her busy home life was only made possible by her sister Clare, moving in and “becoming her” while she was away.)
During this time, Bernie heard about the Agri-Womens’ Development Trust Escalator Course, which aims to develop the huge untapped resource of rural women with diverse skills working on farms and in the Agri-industry. She was accepted to do a 10 month course in Governance and Leadership in Wellington which was to give her life new direction.
The organization is still a source of support and development for her as an Alumni member. Furthering her ability as co-founder to two start up companies, joining Federated Farmers and continuing her lifelong love of learning.
Returning to St Peter’s College as a parent, she found that nothing and everything had changed. Things have moved on but the ethos stays the same and with her youngest child also due to start at the school next year, Bernie’s association with St Peter’s has many years to go.
In the meantime she is setting up a programme to breed green thistle beetles in collaboration with Environment Southland – she says it’s being out on the farm that keeps her grounded………