Page 1: Biography
McAlister, Laurel Grace Barker
Welfare worker, community leader
This biography, written by Jean Garner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Laurel Grace Barker Storey was born on 20 October 1892 at Temuka to William Storey, a tailor, and his wife, Elizabeth Wright. She was the eldest of three children: one brother was killed in the First World War and the other, Percy, later became an All Black. Laurel attended Rangitata Station and Temuka schools. She subsequently went to Waimate, where she worked for a bicycle and phonograph business. In 1914 she moved to Timaru and was employed as a book-keeper at a local garage. On 19 March 1919, in Timaru, she married Robert Randolph McAlister, a taxi proprietor; they would have two children.
Throughout her adult life Laurel McAlister gave unstinting service to the community. At the heart of her endeavours was her membership of Timaru’s Bank Street Methodist church. She was active in the Sunday school from 1916 to 1942, and over the years held numerous positions on the church’s board of trustees. Her commitment to women’s groups was largely church-based. She was an executive member of the South Canterbury Methodist Women’s Guild Fellowship from its inception in 1942, becoming president from 1947 to 1957 and dominion president of the Methodist Women’s Guild Fellowship (MWGF) from 1959 to 1962. In the latter role she headed the negotiations with the Methodist Women’s Missionary Union that led to the two bodies combining to form the New Zealand Methodist Women’s Fellowship. As the MWGF representative, she belonged to the Timaru branch of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand, serving as president of the women’s committee. She was also an office holder of the YWCA in Timaru and represented the association on the South Canterbury branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand. She was the NCW’s dominion treasurer in 1957–58, and she continued to serve on the national executive as the Methodist Women’s Guild representative.
McAlister was a founder member in 1937 of the Timaru Townswomen’s Guild, and served as the first president for eight years. During the depression she helped administer the mayor’s welfare fund and her association with the fund lasted for more than 40 years. She was also a member for 15 years of the committee that allocated state housing in South Canterbury. In the Second World War she was active on the home front: as a member of the Women’s War Service Auxiliary she trained a large number of women to be fire fighters and to deal with emergencies. By 1942 she was a member of the Timaru Patriotic Fund committee, remaining until it disbanded in 1948. She was made an MBE for her war work in 1946.
In 1943 McAlister was appointed a justice of the peace and later (1959–78) served on the council of the South Canterbury Justices of the Peace Association. She became more widely known with her election to the South Canterbury Hospital Board in 1944, a seat she held for 30 years. For most of this time she served on the social service committee, chairing it for 22 years; from 1948 to 1974 she was a member of the house committee, which dealt with staff issues. From its beginning, in 1957, until 1980 she chaired the Friends of the Hospital, whose members rolled bandages, read to patients and ran a hospital library. Her hospital board work led to her becoming a foundation member of the Timaru Elderly Citizens’ Welfare Committee executive in 1955. Two years later she began a 15-year presidency.
By 1949 McAlister was a parents’ representative on the Timaru Technical High School board of managers. She became deputy chair in 1960 and resigned in 1969. She was also a leader in various organisations devoted to helping the disadvantaged. She started working on behalf of the blind in 1945, and until pensions became more generous in the 1970s she visited each blind person to check on his or her welfare. For 20 years, from its formation in 1961, she chaired the Timaru advisory committee of the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind. In 1964 the country’s first social centre for the blind was opened in Timaru. For 25 years from its establishment in 1949 she was a member of the Timaru branch of the Save the Children Fund, being vice president for 11 years and president for two. For 10 years she was a member of Birthright New Zealand, serving on the first executive in 1967. She was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977.
Laurel McAlister gave many years of service to numerous organisations, often from the time they were formed. Because she believed in active commitment, she sought executive office. Being forthright and single-minded could make her inflexible at times, but it also made her an effective leader. She died in Timaru on 25 February 1981, survived by her children. Her husband had died in 1950.