NO words were spoken as Vera Deacon quietly relished every bite of her favourite treats the day before she died.
Her friend, Gionni Di Gravio, visited her in hospital on Saturday after she suffered a fall at her Stockton home.
"I took her in a couple of her favourite cakes - a chocolate eclair and a lemon meringue," Mr Di Gravio said.
"She just ripped the lid off that box and gobbled them up. She was really enjoying them. She gave us a big hug and a kiss and was telling us these anecdotes about how her mother had told her not to be a big show off and had put her in her place.
"But nothing could keep that light down. She was just such a wonderful human being."
Mrs Deacon - who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle in 2020 - died on Sunday afternoon. She was 94.
The Newcastle writer, historian, environmentalist and philanthropist had become known as the "voice of the Hunter River".
She had been raised on the islands in the Hunter River estuary before it gave way to heavy industry, and she spent much of her life promoting and conserving the region's history, its culture, and environment.
She also advocated for women's rights, social justice issues, and Indigenous rights and education.
I have planted trees on Kooragang wetlands, riding on the idea that if someone plants a tree, if they are fortunate, and look after it, it will live on long after them, and endure.Vera Deacon, OAM, in December, 2020
Mr Di Gravio said he had come to know Mrs Deacon via the University of Newcastle's history archives.
"She would turn up dressed in this beautiful white dress, a lovely white flowing hat - she was always very glamorous. She looked like an actress. I always used to call her Scarlett O'Hara," he said. "She always made a big impression.
"When her husband died a few years later she decided to relocate from Sydney to Stockton, because she wanted to be closer to the Hunter River. She had a real connection with Newcastle, and the river especially."
The Vera Deacon Regional History Fund was named in her honour in 2008 after she philanthropically "outgunned" corporations in donation dollars to support the preservation of the region's history.
"She had started donating money to us to support various little projects," Mr Di Gravio said.
"Then the donations just kept coming. Once we added it up, we realised she'd donated more than Coal & Allied at the time ... pretty good for a pensioner from Stockton. And it inspired others to donate what they could too. I think everyone that got to know her was really charmed by her stories and inspired by them, and I feel very grateful for having known her."
Marilla North - Mrs Deacon's close friend and biographer - said Vera had "started something amazing" at the University of Newcastle's "Cultural Collections" by encouraging others to contribute whatever they could to the cause.
Her passing on Sunday had been "quick".
"Probably too quick for us," she said. "But she went without anguish or pain.
"She was happy. She'd eaten her favourite cakes from Mayfield, and a bowl of her favourite red grapes, before she went through the pearly gates."
From the archive: Vera Deacon in profile
Mrs Deacon is survived by two daughters - Daria Ball and Deb Harris, as well as her grandson, Ben Harris.
Ms North said her friend, who had lived through the Great Depression, was passionate about preserving history "so that the future knows about the past".
"She taught me to always be respectful of the women of the past and their contribution to the quality of life and work we have today, because we stand on their shoulders," she said.
"I think we stand on Vera's shoulders."
Mrs Deacon had a "deep, deep love" for the Hunter River and its islands - particularly Dempsey and Moscheto - also later known as "Mosquito" - islands, where she had spent most of her formative years.
"She was so angry when she came back home - after so many years away, to see how they had been 'reclaimed' - which meant they had disappeared," Ms North said.
"They had been turned over into a big industrial wasteland. Where, as a child, it had been a fertile place where her father had farmed oysters and grown all sorts of plants and vegetables.
"Her mission was to teach the people of Newcastle the lost memories of that beautiful place."
The "ruthless exploitation" of the Hunter River's islands and a desire to see the area remediated motivated Mrs Deacon to spend more than 25 years planting trees as part of the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project. Peggy Svoboda, who ran the project, said Mrs Deacon would arrive at each of the monthly planting days wearing her signature bright pink pants and gum boots.
She said Mrs Deacon had been "unfailingly kind and polite" - always with a gentle sense of humour.
"The Hunter River had no better friend," Ms Svoboda said. "She was very concerned that it was looked after.
"She was a volunteer with us from the very beginning.
"She loved going out and being part of the group, and she was like the Pied Piper - people would gather around her because she was just so open and so much fun."
Mrs Deacon's connection to the Hunter and its history ran deep, as did her desire to preserve its future.
As she told the Newcastle Herald in December 2020, she used to row her boat to work during the war.
"I'd row towards the steelworks and up to Ingall Street, get on my bicycle, and ride up into Mayfield where I had a job," Mrs Deacon said. "We loved the river, and we loved the islands, and I saw a lot of the pollution of the river. It was not only me that it upset. It upset a lot of people, because they were just using the river as a sewer.
"I think people should care about their local environment. I have planted trees on Kooragang wetlands, riding on the idea that if someone plants a tree, if they are fortunate, and look after it, it will live on long after them, and endure."
Mrs Deacon had lived through the Great Depression.
For a time, her family lived in the Mayfield West unemployment camp.
Her experiences, her observations, and her empathetic nature had motivated her to become an advocate for those less fortunate.
She was an inspiration to many.
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes, who named Mrs Deacon a "freewoman" of the city in 2019, said she had been a trailblazer for women and always on the right side of history in the fight for equality and fairness for all.
"She made Newcastle a more egalitarian place to be," she said. "While she was gentle and considered in all that she did, she used her immense intellect and ability to organise and join people together to fight for the oppressed, always.
"Vera's passion for our local Novocastrian history and our rich heritage was infectious, and I remain inspired by her unwavering progressive values and her ability to help others see the importance of weaving the stories of our past into the fabric of our society."
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