Virginia Maher 1945-2007

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2007, 12:00am

Every Tuesday for the past three years, Virginia Maher compiled the Slice of Life column in this space, recounting stories published in the South China Morning Post in years gone by. For this week's column, the veteran journalist had already picked out the year on which she had wanted to concentrate - 1968 - but she was never to finish it. She died in hospital on Easter Sunday.

Whether sending a reporter on an assignment or convincing friends to visit sick children in a New Territories hospital, Virginia Maher's oft-heard phrase was 'Off you go'.

Nobody argued with her command, with its blend of bossiness and encouragement.

Born in Shanghai on New Year's Eve 1945, the feisty writer affectionately known as Ginny was just five years old when her family fled to Macau in 1951. There, she was housed with other Shanghai refugees at dog kennels at the Canidrome, along with her three sisters and parents Maria and Fausto.

After moving to Hong Kong in 1960, she attended Saint Francis Canossian College, where the Mother Superior set her on the road to her future career by introducing her to the Students' Press Group, which published students' articles for the Catholic weekly, the Sunday Examiner.

On leaving secondary school, she joined the Post as a cub reporter in 1965 and stayed for three years before joining TVB.

Journalist Reggie Rathour worked with her in the early 1970s when she returned to the Post. They both covered courts - he for the first time and she with a seasoned flair. As ever, she demonstrated her renowned knack for helping rookie reporters.

'I learned a lot from her. She was very determined. When she wanted something done, she would get it done. When she wanted to teach you something, she would get it taught. To her, nothing was impossible,' said Rathour.

She also worked tirelessly for the elderly and for disabled children. Fifteen elderly people from St Joseph's Home for the Aged in Sheung Shui, where Maher went every Tuesday, had been due to visit her at her Kam Tin home yesterday.

'A lot of people are crying in here today. Some of the old people were supposed to have lunch with her, so when we got the call that she had passed away, we were all very shocked. She helped the elderly with knitting. It kept their hands and minds active,' said Sister Angela, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order that runs the home.

She was also a regular visitor for many years to sick and disabled children at the Caritas Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po, convincing colleagues and friends to donate time and money, and taking a young boy with Down's syndrome under her wing.

Friend Con Conway said: 'She got us all together to come and visit these kids. She collected funds for them and arranged for families and other children to visit. She threw birthday parties for them and bought hats and cakes, and got the staff association at Hong Kong Telecom involved.'

Maher's journalism career took her to many of Hong Kong's newsrooms. She worked three times for both the Post and the Hong Kong Standard, twice for TVB, once for RTV which became ATV, spent six years at Commercial Radio and four years at RTHK. In between, she tried her hand at corporate affairs at the then-Hong Kong Telecom in the early 1990s and working with NGOs in East Timor in 1999. She continued to work as a freelance writer and copy editor until her death on Sunday.

In 2003, she wrote a series to mark the Post's centenary called Past Lives, which features memories and profiles of Hongkongers. The column often brought her back into contact with people with whom she had worked or about whom she had written.

Polly Edwards, widow of former POW and veterans' campaigner Jack Edwards who died last year, described Maher as 'a wonderful character and a very great friend to me and Jack. She helped us so much over the years'.

Maher said her best non-journalism job had been her East Timor NGO work. In typical fashion, during her time in Dili she befriended not just the poor in the then war-torn country but also the man who would become its first president, Xanana Gusmao - he and his wife were Maher's house guests in Hong Kong in 2001.

Maher had been plagued with ill-health for several years, suffering from acute diabetes and hypertension. She died of a suspected heart attack late on Sunday afternoon after being taken by ambulance to North District Hospital.

She is survived by her husband, Robin Barrie, and sons John-Michael and James.