Focus on Karen Butterworth


There is a sad trend amongst the older residents of Otaki – migration to retirement villages. These establishments, mostly in the Southern reaches of Kapiti offer elderly folk options for later life. They are eroding our town. Karen and Brian Butterworth have their house on the market, and will soon migrate to a retirement village in Waikanae. They will be sorely missed.

Karen’s description of growing up during the war tells of hard but happy times in remote South Otago. Nine years old, she contracted Poliomyelitis. Polio is a viral infectious disease, which used to be known as Infantile Paralysis. In the 1960s we all had Polio vaccinations (Salk vaccine), and today Polio is virtually conquered thanks to the oral Sabin vaccine. Karen was one of around 3% for whom the virus invaded her central nervous system, resulting in a 10% permanent disability. Initially she was paralysed from neck to toe, except for her left arm. Treatment was 14 weeks in hospital, ‘rest & physio’ learning first to walk with a shuffle, then home to gradually regain around 60 percent of her former muscle function.

The Catlins is remote, so Karen’s high school education was by correspondence until the sixth form in Dunedin’s Otago Girl’s High. The family couldn’t afford her Upper Sixth form education, so she went straight to Otago University where she did 2/3 of an Arts degree, working part-time at the university library. At 21 she wanted wider horizons, and got a job on the Taranaki Daily News as a Journalism cadet. After eighteen months she had completed her cadetship and joined CORSO in Wellington as Publicity Officer.

The aid organisation concerned itself with fundraising for overseas relief,
notably in Palestine, India, Africa & China. Karen loved the work.

After a year, Karen went to Christchurch Teachers’ College but couldn’t cope with the climate, so transferred to Auckland. Here, Karen who had adopted Quaker beliefs became pregnant at the age of 25.

Marriage was out of the question and she was determined to keep the child. She fainted on the steps of the college library, and the authorities declared that she could not continue her training. In those days, most pregnant girls were pressured to have their babies adopted, but Karen sought help from the Motherhood of Man, a sympathetic charity who arranged for pregnant girls to work as ‘au pairs’.

With baby Paul, she moved to Wellington, where she enrolled at Teachers’ College, but the principal rumbled her status: “my board is not going to tolerate this” he intoned, but added that the NZEI would allow married women. With some devious chicanery, Karen became “Mrs Phillip” and completed her training. She found a state house in Naenae and began her probationary year at Gracefield Primary School, with Paul in civic day care in Lower Hutt.

When Paul was eight, Karen joined the Department of Education as assistant editor of careers leaflets, then went to the Department of Labour. In 1972 she took a year off to work for the Public Service Association and rejoined the department. Then in her mid-thirties, Karen married Brian Butterworth, a computer software engineer she had met at a Labour Party function. She finished her degree at Victoria, gaining a B.A. (Hons) in Sociology.

In the early 1980s Karen & Brian bought around three acres in Kirk Street, where they planted kiwifruit, which would hopefully give them a measure of self-sufficiency in later life. They came to live in Otaki in 1987. Brian at first commuted to work for Fujitsu in Wellington. In the weekends he helped Karen with the orchard. They had 13 neighbours, and found Kirk Street a warm welcoming village street.

They have enjoyed three decades in Otaki, and will leave with regret.

Karen first learned Maori while in Auckland, and latterly enrolled at Te Wananga o Raukawa to further her Te Reo. Surviving the first year, she ruefully says she “got lost in year two”. She recalls the “two parallel universes in Otaki, mitigated by the interrelationships that still count amongst the older people”.

Her warm view of Otaki is one of cultural richness, with intercultural understanding still on the way to full maturity.She observes that old Otaki families behave like a huge extended family: with quarrels, feuds and support, coming together for important events. It’s evident that Karen’s heart will remain in Otaki.

Karen Butterworth served three years on the Otaki Community Board from in the 1990s, was an early member of the Otaki Women’s Health Group, and has participated in many voluntary organisations.

From her early days, Karen Butterworth has always been a writer and poet. Her CV tells of published biographies, novels, short stories and poetry, fiction and non-fiction too long to mention.

Her CV notes whimsically ” Karen Peterson Butterworth is of Paleolithic British, Celtic, Viking, Anglosaxon, and god-knows-what-else, descent. She loves words , and possesses hybrid vigour, small-island cunning and stubbornness. She has published a bit and has some prize certificates on her study wall.”