Katie Cleal believes in people and Christmas. She has some of the kindest eyes you’ve ever seen and is one of the most active listeners you’ll ever meet. When Katie Cleal turned 40, she partied like it was 1999.
The year was literally 1999 (like the Prince song).
She transformed the family’s Kerry Valley home into a beach and filled it with 100 guests, from local larrikin Major General Sandy Thomas to old college mates and local farmers.
“What an insane event that was. We trucked sand in, a friend loaned us an ice cream machine, a mate came as my lifeguard and made a proper lifeguard seat, we had volleyball, we had a jukebox, it went through the night,” she said.
Fast forward to 2021 and Katie, now 62, still loves a great party.
If you’re lucky to live in her neighbourhood, you’ll know about the Christmas party that’s been going for 7 years.
Katie’s place is at the centre of the festive chaos, but she’ll be the first to tell you it’s everyone else, not her, who makes the party.
Katie was a teacher for 40 years, including three decades in Beaudesert.
Her Irish father and Welsh mother Hugh and Dorothy Hillis were teachers of visually handicapped children, and her dad could teach blind children to play piano.
The family migrated to Australia in 1968, when Katie was 8, and she went to eight primary schools and three high schools.
At first, they lived in a migrant hostel under the Story Bridge on the Brisbane River.
“Talk about instantly falling in love with Australia,” she said.
“I remember mosquito netting – I was fine with mosquitoes but just loved mosquito netting, and the buttress roots of enormous Moreton Bay figs.”
The family changed and moved all over the country, with Katie and her two siblings in tow, plus their Welsh grandmother Claudia Alice Rees, who Katie counts as her biggest influence.
“My parents divorced, mum ran off with a German sailor and dad ended up with a Pilipino teacher, so we were a league of nations,” she said.
When Katie met her husband Chris, he listened to her stories with the same gusto she so generously dishes out and they became the best of friends.
Chris was a teacher too and when they moved here in 1987, Katie knew she’d found a place to stick around.
“I was determined the two best things I’ve done in life – our sons Tom and John (now 27 and 24) would have stability – one primary school and one high school,” she said.
The year 2022 will mark 10 years since Chris died of pancreatic cancer, and Katie counts his passing as the toughest challenge she’s faced.
“He wasn’t just a dad – he was the most astounding mentor – the boys could talk to him about anything – and he was my best mate,” she said.
“Chris to this day is the most intelligent man I’ve met in my life, although Tom’s starting to eclipse him, which is delightful to see.”