That's the Spirit: Lester Thurston OAM - Tooraweenah NSW
He came to town to help out his uncle for “a few weeks” in the early ‘80s. Now, in nearly four decades behind the counter of his rural supplies store at Tooraweenah, Lester Thurston has seen generations of the same local families come and go - he’s farewelled old faces and welcomed new ones, kept confidences and helped save lives. He’s been mentor, friend and accidental counsellor, and has in turn earned the trust and respect of a community to which he has dedicated his adult life. JEN COWLEY had an audience with the bloke affectionately known by locals as “Lord Lester of Tooraweenah”.
Jen: How long have you been in business in Tooraweenah?
Lester: In 1983, not long after I left school, I was living in Sydney and my uncle, Geoff Rohr, asked if I could come home and give him a hand for a few weeks…and nearly 40 years later, I’m still here!
People come in to the shop now and say, “I remember coming in here as a kid and you had all these stamps on the counter and we used to put them all over ourselves!” – and I tell them I still have those same stamps somewhere.
Jen: You must have seen generations of the same families come and go and you’ve watched the town change.
Lester: Absolutely. I have people coming in who were tiny little children when I first started and now they’ve married and they have children of their own. And I’ve gone to their weddings, and family events and seen them grow up. In a way, they become part of your extended family I guess. You get to know people so well.
People often say you can’t have friends in business but I disagree with that. I do try to keep things separate, but it’s very hard in a community like this not to be friends with the people you’re doing business with. You just need to have parameters.
Jen: There’s an element of trust when you run a business like this in a small town because you often become something of an “accidental counsellor” because you get to know people so well and you know when they need a hand. Is that a role you fulfil here in Toora?
Lester Thurston OAM, Tooraweenah NSW
Lester: I think probably you fulfil it without even realising you do. For instance, we’ve sold the newspapers here, along with everything else, and suddenly you’ll see that someone’s not come in to pick up their paper. Maybe you don’t worry the first day but then the second day comes and they haven’t been in, we go looking for them. I’ve had that happen a couple of times and I think it’s great that we’re keeping an eye out. I would like to think that someone would come looking for me if I haven’t been around.
Jen: That’s happened in the shop?
Lester: Yes, a couple of times. One time, I had concerns and when a customer came in I asked them to just keep an eye on the shop for a few minutes so I could go and check on the person who hadn’t been in to pick up the paper.
I banged on the door – no answer. I banged and banged – still no answer, and I thought, “Uh-oh, this isn’t looking too good.” And just when I was thinking I’d have to do something, the door opened. I said, “Oh, thank God for that, I’ve never been so pleased to see you!” But he wasn’t well, and we had to organise an ambulance for him.
Little things like that give you a great sense of satisfaction that you’ve been able to help, although I did question myself: Why didn’t I go there yesterday? Why did I leave it until today?
Jen: The point is, though, that in the city, that bloke could’ve wound up on the news three weeks later as one of those stories about someone dying alone and forgotten.
Lester: Yes, like those people you hear about who are found six months later, dead in the armchair, and no one’s been there looking.
You do get to know the character and idiosyncrasies of the town and the people in it, and you are part of that. You get to know people very well. Some people come in and say the same thing every time they come in, so if they don’t say that same thing when they come in, you’d think, hmm, what’s wrong here? Something’s amiss. It becomes intuitive.
Take the example of a lady who used to come in periodically and buy a polyethene pipe joiner – just that very small item.
She’d lost her husband, and she’d come in and I’d say, “Would you like a cup of tea?” because she was there for a bit of a yarn (we always have a couple of chairs in the shop just for that purpose). She’d come in, have a cuppa, and actually talk to the other customers that came in. It wasn’t until probably 10 years later that she actually said to me: “You saved my sanity” and I was really taken aback because the fact is that I had just been doing what I just normally did. I wasn’t looking for a prize to do it or anything, but deep down, I felt a bit chuffed that I had made a difference to her life without even knowing. I remarked that she must have used a lot of polyethene pipe joiners, and she said “I have a big bucket full of them.”
It wasn’t that she needed poly-pipe, that was her little excuse to come in.
Jen: That was just the touch point.
Lester: Exactly – she could have done without those joiners, but she needed the contact. They weren’t the purpose for her coming to town, her purpose was to come to town and have a yarn. To get off the farm.
Lester Thurston OAM, Tooraweenah NSW
Jen: I imagine there have been ups and downs in business and there must have been times when you thought, “I’m just going to close these doors, I can’t do it anymore.” Why do you continue to do what you do here at Tooraweenah?
Lester: I was brought up with the mindset that you give to your community and I guess I have tried to do that in whatever capacity I can. It’s pretty easy for me because the shop is important for the town because of the service and goods it provides, such as the post office. Also, being in a town like this means naturally you get involved in the show society, you hold positions on committees, and like a lot of little places, if you turn up at the meeting and you’re nominated for a position, you end up with it. The only way out of it is to either die in that position or you get someone else to take it on (laughs)! You just do these things, but for me, it has been very important being part of those organisations and activities. Because, as an example, when the RSL fizzled out (here) for obvious reasons – the returned soldiers were all passing away or unable to organise the days – so the sons and daughters and other community people put on the (memorial) services and followed the RSL’s guidelines. We have a lovely ANZAC Day service here.
If people in the community don’t do these sorts of things and step up and take on these roles, then those organisations and events die out.
As I said, usually the only way to get out of a position is to die or to pass it on to someone else, so in the Show Society, for instance, we’ve put some succession planning in place. We decided you could not hold positions for over 12 months – someone else goes in and when they know they go in they know they won’t be stuck in it for 10 years.
It’s important for small communities to mentor young people into these roles because that helps keep them in the community.
It’s also important for the older ones to let go and not hang onto their positions. They either have to take young people on board and mentor them, or they have to step back and let them do it and don’t criticise what they do.
Jen: Why do you think it’s important to step up and contribute to your community?
Lester: It’s important because if members of the community don’t step up, you won’t have any services left at all. We’re having services taken away from us all the time. I think we have done pretty well here in the little village to keep the services we have, but for instance we don’t have a little shop anymore, and we don’t have a petrol station.
Jen: What’s the best thing about being part of a community like this?
Lester: Oh, look I think, the best thing is that you get to know so many people so well. You know how they say that when you go to hospital, you have to leave your modesty at the door and pick it up on the way out? It’s a bit like that in a small community – you can’t have any great secrets in a small community.
That’s just typical of a small community and it’s not such a problem that people know what you are doing or not doing, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is what they do with the information, so that’s where the trust comes in. In a small community, you have to look at what you’re doing and ask yourself who is this going to affect and how? Is it yourself, is it somebody else? What are you going to do?
Jen: That’s a really good point. Being in a small community you feel a responsibility.
Lester: You feel a responsibility, very much so. You’re conscious of how your actions and reactions affect the whole community. When you are working with other people in a community organisation, you’re not all going to get along all the time. Some people just grate at you without even trying. The challenge is that if you can work with them, you are the bigger person. I think that is always a challenge.
Jen: What do you think are some of the misconceptions about life in a small community?
Lester: I think a lot of people from outside feel you are a little bit backward if you come from a small community, but there are people in small communities doing extraordinary things. They’re well travelled, well read, well educated – they’re running businesses, creating things, being successful. Just because you are in a small town or village, doesn’t mean you’re backward.
I think technology can help a lot with that, and unfortunately, that’s one of our struggles here – access to technology. The internet is not as good as it could be. Our mobile phone coverage is disastrous. All those things, I’ve been on the phone and I’ve thought I’ll just look that up and they have got it at the other end before I’m even onto Google.
Jen: So, connectivity is frustrating, but technology has enabled you to continue doing business?
Lester: Absolutely, because people still need goods and services. Things are changing with buying on the internet, but I think what we have to do instead of going crook is to work out how we work with it. There are opportunities as well as threats. In a small town, you need to be able to embrace change.
Jen: Do you think small towns are good at doing that? We’ve seen disasters come and go, fires and floods and droughts, do you think small communities are good at dusting themselves off, if you’ll pardon the pun, and is there a “can do” attitude or do people have to be dragged kicking and screaming into change.
Lester: I think you have a variety of people and approaches in a small town. I am very encouraged by the younger generation that’s coming through. I think they are taking notice of what the research has found, particularly in agriculture, and they’re adapting accordingly. I think they have realised they have to.
Jen: Are small communities resilient?
Lester: I think small communities have resilience, and you can see that more clearly in a small place because everyone knows each other. Connections, and having that network of support, can make it easier to keep going through tough times.
You pop out to a farm to visit someone, and it’s “Would you like a cup of tea? I’ll put the kettle on.” That’s what I grew up with as a child. Didn’t matter much if you had a beautiful sponge cake or tomato on a SAO biscuit. It’s about the fact that someone has asked you to come and sit at their table – it’s about that connection.
Lester Thurston OAM, Tooraweenah NSW
Jen: You received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2019 for services to the community. What are you most proud of and why do you think you were nominated for an OAM?
Lester: Well, I must say I was very humbled by it – but I thought it was only for old people (laughs)! Then somebody said “Well, you wanna have a look in the mirror!”
I guess I was nominated because of my contribution, but that contribution is not something you set out to do. You don’t have, say, a ten-year plan or an aim for a particular thing – you don’t even think about that. I still don’t even know who nominated me but (to be given the honour) for service to the community of Tooraweenah was really nice and I thought that even if I don’t do much else in my life, in the eyes of some people what I have done is worthy. That’s really very humbling.
I was given life membership of the Tooraweenah Show Society around the same time, and I thought, “Goodness gracious, what’s going on? I must be going to die soon or something!” (Laughs.)
I didn’t really think I did any more than anyone else but it’s a nice acknowledgement and if I can use it to help people or my community, that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s the way I see it.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.