Cecil and Stella Renfield are living life to the limit!
They both served in WWII, they’ve hang-glided, they claim to be the oldest couple who have skydived day and night (a fact we have no reason to dispute!), and they’ve been married for 73 years! At 96 and 91 respectively, Cecil and Stella Renfield of Tullimbar have lived a happy and spirited life together.
The couple met at a dance in May 1944, six weeks before D-Day in Southsea, England, where the allied forces were massing, before launching the combined assault on Nazi-occupied France.
In what seems a fateful coincidence, the day Cecil and Stella first glanced in each other’s direction, Stella was a South African serving in the English forces, and Cecil an Englishman in the South African forces.
Stella was born in South Africa, raised in Scotland, and served as a WREN (Women's Royal Naval Service). Cecil was born in England, but at the outbreak of war was living in South Africa. “My mum knew the war was coming so she sent me and my sister to live in South Africa with her brother,” Cecil says. “Eventually I wanted to get back to England. The only way to do so was to join the South African Navy.”
They were engaged in December, 1944, but as Stella was only 17, she needed permission from her mother to marry. It was liaised through the police force, and when the officer knocked on Stella’s mum’s door… “She fainted,” Stella says. “She thought he’d come to tell her I’d been killed.”
When Stella’s mum came to, and realised what the house call was actually for, she still wasn’t happy. “I had to phone my sister to persuade my mother to agree to the marriage,” Stella laughs.
They wed in England and were both back on duty 47 hours later.
As a wren, Stella worked in naval communications, about 12 metres underground, where they had huge switchboards. “I was in London during some of the raids,” she says. “We were bombed out of our quarters in Southsea Port. The Navy took over all the hotels on the seafront, and that’s where the wrens were then stationed.”
The day peace was declared in 1945, is one the couple will never forget. “I’d been in the barracks that morning. I was in the mess deck when Eisenhower’s voice came on…” Cecil remembers. “It’s funny, we watched a series on YouTube the other night about that day. We couldn’t believe it. We were actually there!”
When the war ended, Cecil was sent back to South Africa and eventually Stella joined him. That’s where they started their lives together – living in Johannesburg for nine years, “a big, dizzy city,” which Stella hated, before moving to Cape Town where they lived for 32 contented years.
After one of their two daughters met an Australian while travelling, she came to the Illawarra to be with him, liked it here, then moved to Australia permanently.
“I came out for my daughter’s wedding, then I came out for the first, and then second baby,” Stella says. “When Cecil retired, we decided to come out to stay. It’s been the best move we’ve ever made.”
Cecil admits they miss South Africa, but acknowledges, “We’re very lucky to be here. We love it in Australia. It’s given us peace and tranquillity compared to what we might have experienced.”
Since settling in Tullimbar, they have created a lovely day-to-day, surrounded and supported by family and a strong community. “We have wonderful neighbours – they’re so kind to us,” Stella says. “They include me in everything, and I feel quite honoured.”
Not ones to simply let these golden years pass without excitement, though, for Stella’s 90th birthday in 2016, she made the decision to hang-glide at Bald Hill, Stanwell Park. “I had wanted to do it for quite a long time. Everyone said, ‘You’re mad, you’re nuts, at your age…’”
Stella shared her wish with her granddaughter, who jumped on board, and said, “I’ll do it with you, Granny”. Cecil took a few days to think about whether he too wanted to soar off the cliff, before telling Stella: “If you’ll do it… I’ll do it.”
“I still think we’re bloody fools,” Cecil jokes.
That wasn’t the end of their extreme sporting career. For their 73rd wedding anniversary, they signed up to skydive, and kept it a secret from their family, their neighbours… everyone! They jumped at Stuart Park in Wollongong during the day, and had so much fun, that they organised to skydive again at night!
“That night dive to me was bliss,” Stella says, eyes sparkling. “The freefall, and then the parachute goes up, and it’s quiet… all you can see are all those beautiful lights. It’s unbelievable.”
When their family did find out about the skydive, their daughter posted on Facebook: Mum and Dad, you are officially crazy! Rightfully, though, the couple’s children and grandchildren were also “very proud.”
So, what’s next for the high-flying pair? Stella’s done white-water rafting and hot-air ballooning, and while they’re not against more adventures, Cecil says, “It was enough of a risk when I joined the Navy and got out.”
On top of these daredevil achievements, impressively the pair is self-sufficient, and live without help in their beautiful home. “Despite our ancient status, we still do all our housework,” Cecil says.
And I still cook him rotten meals,” adds Stella. “They’re actually getting worse, I think.
Cecil and Stella have experienced an extraordinary life filled with love and family and loss and laughter. A full, vibrant life spent by one another’s side, but the secret to a long, successful marriage, according to Stella, is a simple as this, “In 73 years, you can’t agree every day – no-one can live together every minute in bliss. It’s recognising that, getting through the ups and downs… and after about 25 years, you just stop arguing.”
“It’s been a life of happenings,” Cecil concludes, before bursting into a Frank Sinatra tune, “It’s a good life to be free, and explore the unknown.”