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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Flora (Dulcie) Johnson (1921–1999)

by John Farquharson

Dulcie Johnson, who died on New Year’s Eve was the wife of L. W. (Les) Johnson, the last Administrator of Papua New Guinea. But during her 12 years in PNG she was much more than that - a person in her own right who played a significant role in developing opportunities for Papua New Guineans as well as facilitating their transition into a newly emerging relationship with Australians, Australia and the rest of the world.

She did it in her own individual style, with great verve, flair and genuine enjoyment. And, at the wake in the house tamberan of the PNG High Commission in Canberra, after the funeral on Wednesday (5 January 2000), the contribution she made to PNG-Australian relations was formally recognised. The Acting High Commissioner, Mr Cyprian Warokra, read a message from the Prime Minister, Sir Mekere Morauta, expressing the ‘sincere appreciation’ of the Government and people of Papua New Guinea for the contribution Dulcie Johnson had made, during the formative years leading to PNG’s independence, in making contact with Papua New Guineans and building friendship with them. Mr Warokra added that the PNG people regarded her as a ‘mentor and good friend’, who would be greatly missed.

Dulcie Johnson died suddenly after a heart attack at Jervis Bay where she and her husband had driven to spend the first weekend of the new century with their dearest friends, Frank and Lois Johnson (no relation). She was 78. Born on 27 April 1921 in Narrogin, Western Australia, her first given name was Flora, though she was always known as Dulcie. She grew up on a wheat farm at nearby Dudinin, where her father, Bill Gray, struggled to make a living growing wheat through the hard Great Depression years. She and her two brothers, Alan and Lou, walked or rode a horse for several miles every day to a one-teacher school until she went to high school in Northam.

During her years boarding in Northam while she went to school, a young teacher named Les Johnson boarded with her family and lived in her room. According to their son, Ian, something about the atmosphere of the room must have affected his father because he fell in love with the then Dulcie Gray and they married in August 1940 when she was 19. They were to have celebrated 60 years of marriage this year.

World War II saw Dulcie serving in the WAAF, while Les, who had enlisted in the AIF served with the 7th Division in the Pacific, Indonesia and Borneo.  In the post-war years, Les progressed through the WA Education Department. He was director of in-service training before going to PNG in 1962 to spend six months as a deputy director of education before taking over as director when G. T. Roscoe retired.

From the outset Dulcie wanted to be involved with the people. But, as she told (Dame) Rachel Cleland, wife of Administrator (Sir) Donald Cleland, ‘I don’t think committees are my thing. ... I want to do it in my own way’. And this she certainly did, beginning with a young teacher she met named Vincent Eri and his wife, Margaret. She made dresses with Margaret, a shy village girl of limited education, cooked with her and had the Eri children to play. The open, undemanding friendship which Dulcie extended to the young couple was undoubtedly a factor in what they were later able to achieve. For Vincent Eri became Governor-General and received a knighthood.

That was the beginning of Dulcie’s involvement with the local women who she got to know quietly in a personal way, through just doing things with them. Many friendships were built in the same way with students from the Teachers’ College. She did eventually get drawn into organisations such as Red Cross, PNG Women’s Association, YWCA and Girl Guides, but her style of doing things remained the same and extended to Members of the House of Assembly and their wives. Her work with organisations began when she was asked to run a popular-girl competition for the Red Cross. This led on to organising fashion parades, for which she often made some of the dresses herself, drawing on her flair for design. Over the years she was also responsible for various debutante balls, cabarets and concerts while her enthusiasm for music found expression through her fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Junior Music School.

Her easy, eye-to-eye friendliness was never more evident than at Government House. There, as ‘Missus bilong Namba Wan Gavman’, after Les became Administrator in 1970, Ken Inglis, former PNG University vice-chancellor and noted historian, remembers her ‘putting people at ease, old and young, black and white - all were treated alike and everyone was family to her. She was a person of grace, good humour and generosity’. Superannuation Commissioner, Christine Goode, an old friend from PNG days, remembered how her ‘living sense of peoples’ equality and her warmth and interest could draw together and relax people from the most pompous international visitor to the shyest villager from the Sepik or the Highlands’. Paul Ryan, a former head of the Department of the Chief Minister in the lead up to PNG’s independence, recalled not only her love of people, but her readiness to give help and support to anyone in need. He told how Dulcie had dropped everything to assist two men who had lost their wives at a relatively young age and were left to bring up small children. Her support was not just to help them through the immediate crisis, but was maintained for years afterwards.

As both Assistant Administrator and Administrator, the Johnsons concentrated on building friendships with up-and-coming Papua New Guineans and their wives beginning to take their place in politics, the Public Service, education, business and industry. There would be long afternoon teas and dinners, invariably with music and dancing, but above all conversation and discussions which would often go on until the small hours of the morning. And Dulcie’s involvement with PNG, its affairs and people continued after retirement to Canberra. She was patron of the Wantok Association which, through cultural and social events, helped to make any PNG people who came to live or study there feel at home.

Together, the Johnsons played a pivotal part, officially and unofficially, during those crucial years leading to self-government and independence for PNG. And diminutive Dulcie, with her bubbly, indomitable spirit will live long in memory as well as in many hearts.

She is survived by husband Les, daughter Fay, son Ian and three grandchildren.

Dulcie Johnson, born Narrogin, Western Australia, 27 April 1921; died Jervis Bay, New South Wales, 31 December 1999.

Original publication

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Johnson, Flora (Dulcie) (1921–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gray, Dulcie

27 April, 1921
Narrogin, Western Australia, Australia


31 December, 1999 (aged 78)
Jervis Bay, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Military Service