Mary and Gerry Menke have been remembered as a generous and kind-hearted couple who did everything together, with a commitment to giving back to the community of their “dream home” in Mallacoota.
Flowers and condolences adorn the window of Mary’s seafront hair and beauty salon as the local community mourn the couple, who were returning from a holiday in the south of France to celebrate Gerry’s 70th birthday when MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine on Friday morning.
Tributes also flowed in on the Magnet’s Facebook page over the weekend, with Robyn Wilcox telling the story of love at first sight between a Dutchman and a New Zealander who began their life together in 1971.
“I met Gerry just after he went to Mallacoota to become an abalone diver,” she said.
“He found his way to a small coastal town of several hundred people, and I think I arrived not long after him, when the population sign still said ‘306’.
“Then Mary came with a girlfriend, travelling around Australia.
“She met Gerry and never left. Her girlfriend went on without her.”
Some 43 years later, Gerry was recognised as an industry pioneer, having been the first in Victoria to establish his Mallacoota abalone pearl business in the late 1990s, after spending 30 years diving in local waters.
It was business that first brought Mark Touzeau into contact with the Menkes, but the Mallacoota Abalone Co-op general manager quickly struck up a friendship with the couple.
Mr Touzeau said he couldn’t imagine meeting nicer people, and the local community is now struggling to come to grips with their loss.
“They did everything together and they lived very full lives,” he said.
“Mary had family in New Zealand and Gerry owned a house in France, so they used to escape part of the cold winter there.
“But they loved Mallacoota and thought it was one of the nicest places on Earth; we often used to rejoice that we had such beautiful beaches to ourselves.
“For their ages, they were very active and very fit people.
“Gerry was 70 and Mary was 65, but they were always walking, swimming, rowing.
“Throughout my time here, Gerry was a director on the board of AFCOL and he was incredibly supportive of me.
“It’s still just so hard to believe this has happened to such great people, but it’s something that we have to come to terms with.”
Mr Touzeau described Gerry's company, MAPA Pearls, as an “innovative business”, which had been acknowledged with a judge’s special award at the East Gippsland Business Awards last year.
Their success was not confined to a local level, though they had been staunch supporters of the local industry despite the promise of more lucrative business in Melbourne.
Merimbula abalone diver and industry representative John Smythe said Gerry had been at the forefront of research into abalone receding and tagging, and his views were valued by the south-east NSW industry.
“He had retired from diving and his sons had taken over that part of the business from him, but he was still very passionate and involved in trying to enhance the industry,” John said.
“He was a strong advocate of receding techniques, and at one stage we were very close to building a hatchery at Eden.
“Even though he was part of a larger fishery, he was always supportive of us up here.”
Gerry and Mary were among 37 Australians on board MH17, which was shot down over the Ukraine on Friday morning, killing all 298 passengers and crew.