Was the late Ethel Hayton an avid arts advocate or social-climbing busybody?
This is one of the questions examined in an exhibition at the University of Wollongong Library which explores the fascinating life of a woman once described as "Wollongong's most outstanding citizen".
Associate Professor Ika Willis, whose research into Hayton's life inspired the exhibition - A Woman of Many Hats: Ethel Hayton, MBE, 1913-1988 - is calling on Illawarra residents to share their memories on the flamboyant, eccentric woman always dressed in hats and jewellery.
Dr Willis, a lecturer in English Literatures in UOW's School of The Arts, English and Media, says her interest in Hayton was sparked by a photograph on the Wollongong laneway that bears her name.
"I got interested in her because of the Ethel Hayton walkway which links two of my favourite places in Wollongong - the cafe Lee & Me and the arts precinct. There she was in her fabulous black-and-white hat. She'd obviously been hugely important to the city, especially the arts scene, without ever holding an official position and I wanted to know more," Dr Willis said.
"She helped build the Wollongong we live in today. There's very little visible sign of what she did, but she's embedded in every brick."
Hayton, who migrated to Wollongong in 1930, worked as a journalist for The Advance, a free paper, from 1948 until it closed in 1960. She also worked for the Illawarra Mercury, News Limited and the ABC.
But the woman who never married or had children, dedicated most of her time and energy into Wollongong itself, especially its churches, its arts and cultural scene, and activities relating to new migrants.
But according to Dr Willis, not everyone was a fan of Hayton.
To her admirers she was "a survivor and a saint", "a real English lady", and an "avid arts lover and advocate".
To her detractors she was "a busybody" and "a fraud".
As a founding member of the Friends of the University she campaigned to establish a university in Wollongong and continued to support the university for the rest of her life.
She was made a Fellow of the University in 1985, and the Ethel Hayton Award and Trophy was presented annually from 1987 to 1998 to a UOW staff member or group of staff who enhanced the relationship between the university and the community.
The exhibition runs April 22 to May 26 in the Panizzi Gallery, with the official opening on May 4.
People with memories of Hayton that they'd like to share are invited to contact Dr Willis on firstname.lastname@example.org or 4239 2513.