The former film stuntman, MA and dog breeder is Bundaberg’s newest centenarian. Carinity Kepnock Grove aged care worker Gloria Benwell, a cancer survivor, broken back survivor and four-time widow, turned 100 on October 1.
Gloria Arihi Dawson was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1922 to John Dawson and Mill Burton. Her father, a mental health specialist who fought in World War I, was tragically killed in a horse-and-jinker accident shortly after Gloria was born.
Gloria, her mother and older sister Norma moved to Victoria to live with relatives. Gloria’s mother, Mill, later married the girls’ favorite Jack Bennets. The family settled in a boarding house on the outskirts of Melbourne.
“Gloria often talked about the cold nights when she slept on the porch with her sister in the winter so that they could have a regular shared bedroom at night in paying boarding houses. Both girls helped with cooking and cleaning, and Gloria was responsible for the daily milking of their cows,” said Shelley Sishton, Gloria’s niece.
When not at school or doing chores, Gloria and Norma enjoyed going to the movies and sharing ice cream because they could only afford one between them. Holidays were spent with cousins on a farm near the Dandenong Ranges, where Gloria learned the skills of bareback riding.
Growing up during the Great Depression, the Bennetts could not afford to put their children through high school. Gloria left school at the age of 14 and first worked as a florist to bring extra income to the family.
In her early 20s, Gloria met and married American GI Connie Soyken, and moved with her to California at the end of World War II. Sadly, Johnny died in a car accident two years later.
Gloria used her riding talent, worked as a horsewoman and became a stunt double in Hollywood, and gained a reputation for her skills and willingness to do anything. Tragedy struck when she fell and broke her back while acting as a stand-in for Barbara Stanwyck.
Gloria found herself in an iron lung at the hospital and doctors told her she would never walk again. She began treatments developed by Iridology pioneer, natural health physician and chiropractor Dr. Bernard Jensen, and learned to walk again on vacation in California.
“He became an advocate for her pioneering ways and adherence to philosophies of health, nutrition and well-being that were completely unknown to most people until the 1970s. Gloria developed a lifelong interest in learning about many other “unusual” health practices as well. He was definitely always ahead of his time,” Shelley said.
Returning to Melbourne in the 1950s, Gloria met and married Jack Banks-Smith, who owned wedding car hire and tour companies. Gloria turned her hand to new ventures such as breeding English Setter dogs and training racehorses.
Jack died unexpectedly and Gloria was once again a widow. She inherited the company her late husband had sold and bought land in Terrigal on the New South Wales Central Coast looking for a complete change.
“Turning his land into a small farm of sticks, ducks and a few cows, he started a market garden, growing fruits and vegetables and selling them by the roadside. Once the money came in, he built his own house and a house for his stepsister Joan and her young family,” Shelley said.
In the late 1960s, Gloria met her third husband, Gosford businessman Ron Bibb. They were married for three years before Ron died of a heart attack. Gloria later built kennels and started a dog grooming service.
“His knowledge and handling of all breeds of dogs, his rapport with animals and his talent as a dog groomer attracted clients from Sydney to Terrigal – a long way back then with no highways to travel,” Shelley said.
In the 1970s, Gloria met Ben Benwell. They were married for 30 years and enjoyed many happy trips to Asia and Europe before Ben died in 2005. Gloria was a magistrate in Terrigal at that stage and served on the town council.
Gloria sold the kennels and bought land in Woodgate, near Bundaberg. There he built a house called “Costa Plenty” because the builders “took an arm and a leg to finish.”
Aunt Shelley is “a very intelligent, bright lady, always interested in new things,” he said. She supported animal and children’s health charities and enjoyed golf, lawn bowls, a day at the horse races and travelling.
“I feel that his happiest times came when he began to travel the world he had dreamed about since he was a child. He went on many cruises around Ben and Australia and he was always interested in learning as much as he could about the history, wildlife and nature of the places they visited,” Shelley said.
Gloria loved nature, flowers and good wine, investing in a number of start-up vineyards around Australia. These days, she enjoys beauty therapy and, on rare occasions, a glass of wine with a mini tray.
She will be the first Kepnock Grove aged care resident to enter the Carinity 100 Club for centenarians in four years.
Shelley credits “love and laughter” for helping her aunt reach 100 years old. “Another thing I know he’s going to say is to look forward, not look back.”