Latrobe Valley’s honoured ‘activist’


When Cowwarr’s chapel was under threat of removal, this Order of Medal of Australia recipient called in reinforcements.

Helen Hoppner – a self-described activist – told the ministry to “stand back” when the heritage listed Church of England building was almost lost from the town in the late 1970s.

She remembers making a series of phone calls before “half the town” was outside to watch men rope her great aunt’s carved pews into a truck.

The Heyfield police were called in to stop her and the community from untying the ropes to which she said, “Go ahead, I’m happy to go to jail for this”.

A shipping container was later placed to block the chapel’s front door, the locks were changed and the back door nailed shut.

“You lose history really quickly if you’re not careful,” Ms Hoppner said, who is now the proud owner of the community-built chapel and former Cowwarr ‘lock up’ at the back of her Federation-inspired home.

The fifth-generation Cowwarr resident said she was very humbled and grateful to receive the Queen’s Birthday award.

“I wasn’t expecting it by any means and I do feel honoured,” Ms Hoppner said.

The list of achievements are too many to mention, her office already full of hidden certificates of appreciation and trophies.

Youngsters would remember her for her work as Gippsland region chair of Life Education Victoria, educating children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol through ‘Harold the Giraffe’.

Others would be grateful for her instigation of the Gippsland Plains Rail Trail – a 67-kilometre track from Traralgon to Stratford used by more than 3000 people a month and catered for the recent Traralgon Marathon.

She and her husband Terry have also built and run successful businesses, operating a former logging company in Glengarry, establishing Glengarry’s Bushie’s Bakery and Pizza and “retiring” as publicans at the Cowwarr Cricket Club Hotel from 2000 to 2011.

Her passion to care for the establishment and community is in her blood – her great-great grandfather built the hotel.

She described it as the community hub when “chips were down” during the 2006 fires.

“The hotel was a focal point with free nights for the people affected, because you can’t help but be involved,” Ms Hoppner said.

“When you lose 11 homes, that affects your community and everyone pulls together and helps. The day of the fire a lot of people were stashed in the hotel because they did not know where to go.”

The OAM recipient has also been commended for her contribution as a Latrobe City councillor between 1997 and 2000 and a local government representative to the Victorian Plantations Committee, Timber Committees Australia and Timber Industry Road Education Study.

In her years as a local leader she campaigned for more female councillors and worked as a government representative to highlight the impact on communities when forests were taken away for harvesting.

She has also been noted for her work on the Cowwarr Community and Historical Committee, Cowwarr Hall Committee and children’s charity, Variety Victoria Bash.