Dennis John Oliver & (Jean) Barbara Jean Oliver Interview

Today is the 20th of January 2016.  I’m interviewing Dennis and Jean Oliver on the life and times of their family.  Dennis would you like to start off and tell us some background to your … where you came from?

Well my father came out from Cornwall … now, I’ve got to think about this … probably be about 1926.  We actually have the letter that his cousin sent to young Will in Cornwall inviting them to come out – and this is Harry Oliver, was the cousin.  And his son became Professor Bill Oliver, the inaugural Professor of History at Massey.  And it’s a delightful little letter.  He said ‘Should come out Bill, you’ll find it’s a good place for young men – make good future for yourself provided you stick’.  So he came out, and he stick [stuck].  His family, so far as I know they lived in a little village called Indian Queens in Cornwall, so called because the story has it that Pocahontas stayed there overnight on her little journey in England.

Was that Hiawatha’s girlfriend?

Yes, one of those, yeah – she was his …

Yes it was actually.  Quite famous.

Didn’t she marry English gentry?  One of the English … I think, and came back to England, with that.

I think he just had a small farm, so he came out. He worked in the Co-op in St Dennis in Cornwall, and when he came out he got a job at Maypole Stores Whanganui Ltd, which was owned by the Gilbert family. I’m not too sure where he met Mum, but they were both good Church people so it was quite possibly a Bible class thing, or some Church function in Whanganui.  And he had a good job with Maypole, so Mum and Dad got married and within three years he’d promised his parents he’d take his young wife and family back to Cornwall. So in 1935 – I was born in 1932 … my sister was two years older, so it must have been 1930 – and the young couple, Bill and Joyce Oliver, raised the money to take the family back to England, to Cornwall.

He’s skipped a generation there.

Jean:  Yes.  [Chuckle]

Dennis:  And they did it by living off broken biscuits, bruised fruit, bent tins, end of bacon ends … all the scraps you could get in the grocery shop.  And my mother bought wooden trays in Bolds and poker-worked them with designs, painted them, varnished them and sold them door-to-door.  So I went for free being only three years old, but they had to raise ₤50 to take my sister, and then of course their own fares.

So Dad took us back to Cornwall and we were there for six months. Now I’ve written my own personal history, and I had access to a lot of written data, one of which started as my mother’s diary she kept on the trip, and all the time she was in Cornwall.  So apparently she spent a lot of time going up to London to go to different shows leaving Lorene and me at home with my grandparents, Jim Oliver and Laura. I know one of the stories was they had a little cowshed and I went down there in my gumboots and got stuck, so I stepped out of my gumboots and walked back to the house and they said to me – “’Ere, where’s your gumboots?”  I said “I left them in the moo muck.”

So Cornwall … we always think of Cornwall as a fishing village, obviously it wasn’t just fishing in Cornwall.

Oh, no, no … it’s really mostly clay mines. All round that part of Cornwall you see these mountains of earth – well, it’s clay – like little pyramids. When I say little …

Jean:  It’s china clay.

Dennis:  They’re almost half the size of a rugby field, and probably fifteen metres high at least … all these mounds of clay around, where they’ve gone in. They had tin mines too – the Cornish were good miners.

So it must have been quite an adventure, although you were pretty young when you were there.

Yeah – I don’t remember much about it.  Although when we went back when I was fifty years of age, I found I had quite a little twang like the rest of them out there. ‘Cause that’s – three years of age is when a lot of your language is going in.  So I enjoyed saying to my auntie – “’Ow are you Will?  ‘Ow are you Louie?”  She’d say “Brave.”

One of the stories at that time was that Dad was told to go to Mum and say “told her to stop braggin’.”  So he went to her and he said “you’ve got to stop braggin’.”   “Braggin’?  I’m not braggin’.”  “Yes you are.”  “So what is it?”  “When they say to you  ‘ ‘Ow are you Joyce?’, you’re not supposed to say ‘good’.  They say ‘good!  Who’s she think she is, braggin’ like that.’  [Chuckle]  And she said “what am I supposed to say?”  If they say “’Ow are you Joyce?” you’ve gotta say “proper thankee.”  [Chuckle]

Oh, isn’t it quaint?

I had an active life growing up. Hawera is a good place to grow up. Dad got a job … not long after they came back from Cornwall a chain of grocery shops in Taranaki, Cut Right Stores, went belly-up.  And the Gilbert family said “we should start another group of Maypole Stores.”  So Dad got the job as the Managing Director.  He never had any money to put into it, but all his interest in it went to paying off his share of it and he was the Managing Director of Maypole Stores Taranaki. He built it up to thirteen stores from New Plymouth to Patea, and four stores in Hawera. The main store was in Hawera.  Hawera is a very important town – it’s the middle of the dairy industry, even before the discovery of natural gas, and so Hawera is a thriving little town.

So growing up I had a normal school experience.  I think I was doing quite well until about Standard 5 when we had five teachers in that year, and I really got the impression that we were too much trouble to … we were losing teachers flat out.  I don’t think we were that naughty, it was just coincidence.  But I slackened off pretty well from there on. I went to Hawera Main for all my primary school, and then to Hawera Technical High School which is no I think just Hawera High School.  And I went into the B slot which is really … the A included the sharp guys who also did languages … we didn’t do languages.  But I enjoyed mostly Phys Ed and carpentry. I was good at English and quite good at Maths, but all the rest was just a waste of time.  So I sat School C first year – we had the polio epidemic, and the schools were being shut for something like ten weeks prior to the exams.  Well I didn’t do any homework or study – I thought ‘I’ve been at school all this time – it must be natural to be able to answer the questions properly.’  And I missed School C by two marks.  At that stage only the top fifty percent passed – the lower fifty percent had to fail regardless of how good it was in comparison to other years.

Yes, I remember that.

So the second year I sat School C again and I thought ‘well this is going to be pretty easy, I’ve had an extra year doing it’.   And I missed School C again, by two marks.  [Chuckle]  So I really wasn’t putting my effort into it.

But I had a lot of activities to keep me entertained.  I joined the Scouts – I was a Cub, then a sixer in Cubs, then as a Scout, and I was Patrol Leader over the years.  We did a lot of stuff with quite distant supervision.  The leaders may come and check on us if they felt like it.  We’d go on weekend camps and hikes and expeditions, and I did a lot of climbing up and down Mount Taranaki, Mount Egmont. I did the Whanganui River by canoe from Taumarunui to Whanganui with a Scout group. I think there were thirteen water vehicles … canoes of different shapes and sizes, including a six man Maori dugout, which never got through one rapid, it just filled up in the front and sunk at the back each time, you know.  I did that Whanganui River twice more, just with friends, but we got off at Pipiriki because from thereon down, half the time you were paddling uphill with the incoming tide.  I also canoed the Patea River which was really tough. It’s not one for canoeing, and we had to get out and push a lot of the time. We only got part way down, and managed to tramp out through the Tongoio back roads.

It’s more of a mountain river, through hilly and mountainous …

Yeah.  I think at the Falls – twice the height and half the distance of the Whanganui, so you get a lot of parts where it’s stuck.

And I also – I played the clarinet. I learnt the clarinet for ten years from HCA Fox. Hawera was very rich with music. Their brass band frequently won the Men’s A Grade competition for New Zealand, all due to HCA Fox, whose son later – Louie Fox – developed the big jazz band.

Jean:  No, it’s Rodger.  HCA’s …

Dennis:  Rodger.  Who was Louie?

Jean:  Louie was the son, and then Rodger was Louie’s son.

Dennis:  Oh, right, okay. So I did quite a lot of playing the clarinet – I played at concerts, I played over the radio from Whanganui.

Oh, this is a skill that you haven’t shown much in later years have you?

No, it’s behind the bedroom door.

And then I started doing gymnastics. I did gymnastics well at school. I think the only teacher that ever said consistently, “good work Oliver – do it again”, was Muriel Hughes, the Phys Ed teacher.  And there was a little group of us that were quite good tumbling and that sort of stuff, and over the horse and … we’d stay in after school and she would keep the place open for us, not necessarily supervise us, just staying in the office etcetera.  We’d get a bunch of mats out and we’d put five chairs standing up, one behind the other, and take a running dive over the whole lot, and roll.  So I joined the St John’s Gym Club and we were very keen. There was a group of about, oh, twenty to thirty young gymnasts I suppose.

We didn’t have a great coach ourselves – Max Strawbridge was the leader of the thing, he was a Phys Ed teacher – but we went to Wellington to watch the first – it wasn’t the New Zealand Championships, but it was the nearest thing to it – it wasn’t officially that, you know.   And a young Hungarian guy walked in, took off his shoes and socks, stripped off his shirt and had a swing on the parallel bars.  And he did stuff we’d never seen before – going from a handstand, a backflip to a handstand, and all sorts of whirls and twirls, and … we thought ‘holey moley!’  And he was a new immigrant, Andreas Pilec, and he got a job with the Hamilton YMCA.  I’d never heard of the YMCA at that stage.

And a small group of us used to go up to Hamilton frequently, about every four weeks, to get coaching from Andreas.  In fact at one stage we found it quite awkward – we’d go by train and we’d arrive at Frankton Junction at four in the morning, and of course the gym wouldn’t open ’til nine, and we’d wander around.  And finally we went into the Police Station and said “have you got anywhere we can doss down?”  “No, no – we’re not a flop house here.”  So “oh well, we’ll be forced to go outside and throw a stone at the window.”  Oh well, reluctantly they put two of us in the cell for the night.  But it was a disturbed night ’cause we spent most of the night reading all the graffiti on the wall.

Then I set up the Wesley Gym Club for kids and had quite a little following there in the Wesley Hall. 1955 we took a team from Hawera to the first New Zealand Championships in Hamilton and they didn’t have all the equipment, so we didn’t have a pommel horse, but we had tumbling, vaulting, horizontal bar, parallel bars – I don’t think we had rings then either.  Anyway, I came third in the men’s A grade championships.

Now about this time, Johnnie Lane and I were dating an Australian girl who was over here on holiday, and we took turns, week about.  And then it came his week, and it was her birthday, so he’s going to go to the party for her birthday and left me out to dry … I said “I won’t bother to come.”  He said “oh no, there’s lots of girls around town. Look, there’s a very nice chick working at the Bank. I’ll set her up for you if you like.”  I said “oh, okay.”

At that stage I was working at No 3 Maypole – I went to work for my father, he put me round different shops. No 3 was the smallest shop, the grotty end of town next to the White Hart Hotel, where all the Maoris …  The first time in my life I met Maori, particular two old Maori ladies who used to come into the shop worse for wear, and sometimes they’d squat a bit in the corner.  Anyway, he said “she’ll be going past your shop window at ten o’clock in the morning – she goes out and gets the morning tea.” So he said “keep an eye out for her.”  So next morning I watched at ten o’clock, and here’s this delightful looking young woman [chuckle] with a smile that would light up the world.   I thought ‘that’ll do, that’s lovely.  I’m in here.’  [Chuckle]  So it was all arranged, and I took Jean to this birthday party, and from then on we started dating. Prior to that I had a few girlfriends in different places around, just Stratford and Opunake and places like that, but all very platonic. Yeah, so there I was, dating Jean.

Right – would you like to have a rest now?  Jean, would you like to tell us the background of your family?  It’s your turn now.

Jean:  Now where do you start?  My great-grandfather came from Glamis in Scotland, on my father’s side.  My name was Milne before I got married, and on my mother’s side – also from Scotland, came from Kirkcudbrightshire, down on the south border.  Dennis and I have been back to Glamis to see things but we didn’t get down to Kirkcudbrightshire.  So my mother’s father was – he never kept – he came from a good hard working family but he never seemed to keep a job for long. They used to do wheat …

Threshing and chaff cutting and …

Yeah – Doyle – they were Doyles, from Doyleston … Doyleston’s named after them.  Threshing and had machinery and stuff like that.  And Grandma and Granddad – looking back now I sort of felt sorry for her – he was a lovely man but he never stayed long anywhere, she had quite a … they moved to a lot of places.  Always got work and always worked hard, so that’s the Doyle side of it.

On her side, she was a Murchison and her mother was a Grey … a relative of Sir George Grey.  In fact we’re not sure how the relationship was, because it’s not written down but you know, things happened in those days.  But he actually educated my grandmother and her sisters – paid for them to go to school.  So she was called Agnes Grey – but we’ve never tracked exactly … someone was naughty somewhere along the line.

This was the story of many, many families.

Yes.  So with the Milnes – both families came from Scotland and were very Scottish – my grandparents, the old aunties who came out – two or three of them – and they never married.  And they spoke Gaelic and you know, I remember them well.

And then my Dad was the second to oldest in the family.  He went to the first World War, but he didn’t get married ’til he was forty, and he married my mother who was a lot younger. So, myself and my two sisters, most of our cousins and that were a lot older than us. And Dad was a farmer from Mokoia just out of Hawera. I went to Mokoia Primary School, total roll at the best of times was twenty-eight. [Chuckle]

Mokoia – is that a Maori name?

Yes.  Out of Hawera.

Dennis:  About five miles.

Jean:  So Dad had four hundred and fifty acres. He had a hundred cows and fourteen hundred sheep, and made a good living out of it.  We’ve just recently been back … a few weeks ago we went back to Taranaki – our son took us, and we went back to the farm. I was very – I was shocked – you know, there wasn’t an animal to be seen, the sheds were gone and everything.  And now the owner of that farm has bought seven other farms, they’ve built a huge commercial shed and they milk seven hundred and fifty cows. [Chuckle] I don’t want to go back.

Yes.  Unfortunately that story of many family farms have ended up by being congregated or amalgamated.

Yes, that’s right.  But it was the end of the War when – I left primary school at the end of ’47 and there were no buses, you know – petrol rationing and stuff – and so I was sent to Whanganui Girls’ College. I think Dad got subsidised, I’m not quite sure about that, because there were no buses.  Most of my friends all went to boarding school and the ones from … in the country … we were all boarding school kids, because there was no transport.  But then later on he did send my two sisters away to school too, to keep things even.  So I went there for four years. Then I came back and worked for … talk about a difference with today’s thing – I was telling my granddaughter a while ago – I came home from school … oh, I used to have to help on the farm quite a bit.  But that was just part of being a farm kid, and I think I was fourteen when I did the fleece-oing in the woolshed properly for the first time, but always had to do a lot of work.

Oh yes – when I got home from boarding school … left school … I mean these days the kids apply for jobs.  My dad just said to me “you’re starting at the Bank on the 5th of January.”  I can still remember the date, the exact day.

Oh, goodness me!

Well, we didn’t argue with it. I just did it.

Well, life was planned wasn’t it?

[Laugh]  Off I went, because that’s probably how all the rest of us got their jobs, you know, my friends.  So, I was … and you wouldn’t dream of leaving work. So I worked there for what five years, in Bank of New South Wales in Hawera.  And then Dennis and I got married in 1956 and we moved to New Plymouth.

Okay.  Yes, so Dennis would you like to pick up now, how you developed – you were working away in the store No 3.

There was a reunion at Church, well actually it was a farewell, to farewell the Minister, who’d been there for a while – Gordon … can’t remember his name.   His son’s still part of the Church in Wellington.

And Don Restra – Don was an interesting person – well, still is – he was Mayor of Opotiki for years, but prior to that he was the Assistant National Secretary of the YMCA for New Zealand.  And he came home and he overheard someone say to me “oh, congratulations, anyway”, and he said “what’s that for?”  “Oh, I got third in the New Zealand Gymnastic Championships”.  “Oh, God – must have been a low standard,” I think he said. [Chuckle]  And he wasn’t far wrong, but it was the best standard at the time. And on the way back to Wellington he thought ‘gosh, we’ve got this vacancy for the YMCA in New Plymouth’.  And basically all it is a gym club with a couple of hundred small boys who come in small groups of about thirty or forty a day.  And they just started to set up a camp and we’ve been advertising for yonks, and nobody’s applied. It’s been closed now for about six months. So he contacted me, and he got George Briggs, the National Secretary of YMCA, to come in and visit and chat it over with my parents.  And I thought ‘well that’s interesting.’

I’m quite a steady Church person, we go to Church every Sunday.  And at that stage I was in Bible Class and all those sorts of things and I thought that the YMCA in a sense was part of the broad Christian mission, helping young people keep on the right side of the tracks, and lead worthwhile lives.  So I thought I’d like to try it, so with my father and my mother’s blessing I left Maypole and went to New Plymouth. When I went to the interview there was about six old blokes interviewed me, and asked stupid questions – “you’ve got a camp with about sixty kids – how do you make enough cocoa for them?”

You get 60 cups.

And most of the time I could figure out as close as anything, what you probably do, you know.  And as I was leaving the interview they said – “oh, well thank you very much – we’ll let you know”, and they didn’t bother to shut the door, and I heard Frank say in a loud voice “I don’t know what you want to talk about – nobody else has applied for it.”  [Chuckle]  So I got the job.

And it turns out, because it had been closed for six months only a hundred small boys applied to come back.  And it was all done in the rented basement of the YWCA, there’s a grotty little basement, I mean the area was probably about, I don’t know, seventy foot by thirty foot, and the ceiling was only about ten foot high so there was a lot of gymnastics you couldn’t do.  But they had the basic gear there with the mats and vaulting box and all those sorts of things.  So I’d take each group. There’d be a group of High School boys to help – they were wonderful, they pretty well carried me.  Each small group of boys, maybe seven or eight boys, they’d have a High School kid as a leader, and he would help catch them and coach them, and all those sorts of things. They had a wonderful leadership opportunity there.

Anyway after I’d been there about six weeks I was going through the drawers of the desk and I found a whole bunch of accounts. And the Chairman at the time was as guy called Laurie Cooper who was a retired reporter from the newspaper, so I gave him a ring – I said “I’ve got these accounts, what should I do with them?”  He said “how old are they?”  I said “they’re about six months old, most of them.”  He said “oh, you’d better pay them.”  So I wrote out cheques and paid them all, and the next day the Bank Manager rang to say “you are overdrawn;  you have no securities;  you are not to draw any more cheques until you put a lot more money back into the bank.”  So we had no money in the Bank – we were overdrawn.  And Laurie said “oh, well I’m sorry, but you won’t be able to be paid for a while now, until the next term fees come in again, and that’s another four to five months away.”

Well, life has some very strange coincidences at times. The next day – a knock on our door.  We’d bought a house in Ngamotu Road. It was a little cottage on the side of a steep hill, ’cause you could only get to it by a goat track, you know.  But it was our house, I’d saved a thousand pounds by the time I got married, which was more than man’s salary at the time.

That’s right.

I think my first salary was £700 a year.  I did that because my mother was a very good coach that way. When I first started work at eighteen years of age, she said to me “what are your mates paying their parents for board and lodgings?” So I asked around and they came back and said “£3 a week.”  She said “right, I’ll do you a deal.  If you’re prepared to save half your wages every week and put it aside in an account for when you get married, I’ll only charge you £2 a week. If you are prepared to put aside three quarters of your wages every week until you get married. I’ll only charge you £1 a week.” And that’s the deal we had until I was twenty-four.   So I had £1000, which was pretty good. How much did we pay for that first little car?

Jean:  Car or house?

Dennis:  Well, what about the house?

Jean:  I know it was £2300.

My father leant me £1000, I borrowed £1000 from an insurance company – which was a rotten deal.  Anyway.

So anyway, as I was saying I couldn’t get paid for four or five months.  The next day there’s a knock on the door – Dan Archibald, head gym master of New Plymouth Boys’ High School. He said “look, we’re a bit desperate – we need people to come down and help us in the gym. Now I know your background, I’ve been to several of the places where you’ve been coaching and performing gymnastics;  I know you’re a good gymnast and a good coach, so would you be able to work every morning in the gym?” I said “I’m sure I can, nobody else is paying me”, so I started the next day.

And for the next … I’m not sure if it was seven years or nine years … every morning of the week I’d be at the Boys’ High School gym from half past eight ’til twelve, and then I’d go home for lunch and in the afternoon and the evenings I became the YMCA General Secretary.  I think we did generally everything.  I’ve had several of those amazing coincidences.

But anyway – that was the beginning of our married life in New Plymouth. So we just kept plugging away with the YMCA.  I built … year by year I built it up from one hundred to two hundred, to three hundred, and then we had to move out of the YW – it was too small – to the Army Hall, and I built it up to five hundred kids.  And I’d got staff by that time, a part-time typist, but I did most of the office work and swept the floor every day.  And hundreds of small boys would come in their white shorts and singlets and go home pretty well brown all over – dirty old, grotty old hall.  But parents lined up to enrol their kids – it was seen to be a good thing – the YMCA Gym Clubs, you know.

And so during this time were you still at the Bank?

Jean:  Oh no, no I left work ’cause we moved from Hawera to New Plymouth, and I didn’t go to work initially – well, women didn’t work.  I wanted to but later on, before Robert was born, I was asked to help on a fund raising campaign for one of the Churches in New Plymouth, and that was only a temporary job. But then I …

Dennis:  It went for a year or two didn’t it?

Jean:  Well, until Robert was born – I stopped then.  So I was still interested in figures and all that sort of stuff.  My father put into something I was interested in, and I didn’t realise it – and then it wasn’t until quite a bit later I was doing the YMCA books and I just gradually …   But when we had the kids I never worked full time, but I did work part time.

So going back to YM and these five hundred kids, they didn’t all turn up at once did they?

Oh no, you’d get about, I don’t know – fifty a day.  There’d be at least one class a day, and in fact I think most days, quite a few days, you’d get two classes, sort of half past three to half past four, and quarter to five and quarter to six.

At the same time I had taken over what was the start of a good camp at the meeting of the waters. The previous guy had – I don’t know where he got the money from – but they’d built a good kitchen and lodge suitable for about sixty kids, and they had one hut … it might have been two huts – one for the staff to sleep in and one – it was actually a Rotary hut – for sleeping eight kids.  So that first January, as I say, it must have been ’57, I was to run a camp and I had one camp, twenty-four boys.  We put circulars out all round, and they came from different parts of Taranaki, mostly farm kids. I had twenty-four kids for a two week camp. The next year we had two camps, for twenty-four kids, and two weeks each. Then that developed – we then cut them back to ten days and had three camps.  By this time we were getting about forty or fifty kids at a time. Each year we’d do something new – we built two more cabins.  Oh, there was a good ablution block – the guy that started also had a good ablution block – three or four toilets and three or four showers, and a big concrete block place with its own septic tank and all.  So it was a very good start.

Just to continue on the camp scheme – after we’d been going for a while and we had four camps, sixty kids at a time, I think one week each, and I’d bring in different staff at different times – but it was mostly High School boys, leaders, that kept me running the thing.  One year – Jean was off having a baby – I’d put in a Dutch woman cook …

Jean:  I used to do all the cooking.

Dennis:  She was called Peanut.  “What are we going to call you – Cookie?”  She said “no – not Cookie”.  “Oh well, we’ll call you Peanut – short for peanut cookie.”  And it stuck.  [Chuckle] 

Anyway, we got this Dutch woman, and the first night she flipped it. She had apparently done it once before, at the liberation of Holland when the Germans were kicked out, and she just got … like ecstacy … and went quite berserk.  Four in the morning I had to call the doctor who put a big needle in and then called an ambulance with a straight jacket and all.  So I said to my assistant, Jim Holmes, who was a high school boy, “I guess I’ll have to do the cooking – Jean’s not available, and that cook’s gone through.  I’ll help you do most of the camp directorship.”  And the next day he went down with the flu, with a temperature of 104oF, and his parents were away holidaying somewhere so I had to look after him – he couldn’t even go home.  And guess what?  It rained for ten days straight. [Chuckle]  What do you do with sixty kids?

I know … no cook.

The kids were marvellous.  They all co-operated and mucked in and did things right, you know, they were absolutely marvellous. So I went through quite an initiation to that.

Well, sometime in there, so probably talking 1970 – no, prior to that … a few years prior I think, the North Egmont Chalet came up for any community organisation to express interest. It had been built in 1932 – it was quite a grand building – something like twelve to fourteen bedrooms, lovely large lounge and big fireplace, dining room and place for the caretaker etcetera.  And every lessee had lost money since 1932, and they decided they couldn’t in all conscience, let it out again. So they asked for any community or organisation prepared to keep the tearooms open, could use it for their own programmes.  So I went to the Board and got approval to sign up – so I took over the North Egmont Chalet.

Did you really?

It was a grand place.  And we opened it up for junior adventure camps, thirteen and fourteen year old boys, twenty-four boys at a time.  Not sure if it was ten days or two weeks, each camp.  So the idea was that kids that had really enjoyed the camps down at Camp [?], as they get thirteen and fourteen, come up to this camp.  We did quite a lot of bush craft things in the bush – map compass work, first aid work, tramping, sleeping out.  We usually had one half day where you tried to live off the land and I remember going out with a group of kids fossicking around and someone said “hey! Hey you kids, come and have a look – Smithy’s got a huhu grub.  Go on Smithy, you gotta eat it, eat it, eat it, go on Smithy, eat it, eat it.”  Smithy put it in his mouth. Three kids sold out on the spot.  [Laughter]  We never did get much of a hang of all that with perm [palm] fronds, fiddlenecks and stuff.

And then, kids were doing these … thirteen and fourteen year olds … junior adventure camps and wanted more.  So I searched around and got approval to build a lodge down on the other side of the mountain, just inside the rainforest at Waiweranui, and over a year or so I got the Lions Club to build a lodge there for sleeping, I don’t know, about sixteen young guys.  And we drew our water from the river, which was good;  built an outside privy, and we then ran adventure camps there as well for fourteen to eighteen year olds.  Every year I’d take a group to the top of the mountain if the weather was right – occasionally we’d have to turn back – think I’ve done it thirteen times to the top. But it’s a great place for tramping adventures.

In the meantime we had been searching around … obviously the YMCA needed to have a place of their own.  We didn’t own anything at that stage, and we bought, we found a property in St Aubyn Street which, we’d been given to understand, you could build on eighty percent of it.  So we bought it … I don’t know how we got the money … but we bought it, and it had a large house on it with three flats.  So we let them out until we figured out how to use it.

The YMCA in the States has an outfit called – it’s a building planning professional unit with architects and engineers and so on – and they designed YMCAs in the States, so we asked if they would have a crack at ours.  Well they didn’t come over, but they did one at a distance – we sent them information and they designed a place.  And then we found we couldn’t build on eighty percent of it, we could only build on, I think it was forty percent of it, so it was too small.  So we had to flog it off – sold on that one.  And then a couple of years later … oh, in the meantime I was planning a financial campaign.  And I’d been – when Jean was working for the Anglican Church down in Moturoa – it’s got another name too – anyway, it was out by the port.

I’d been to the guy to ask him how the world’s organisation organises the fundraising.  And he said “oh, it’s quite open, I’m quite happy to tell you because we got the idea from Colonel Wills”, who was a YMCA fundraiser in the States.  We’ve actually uplifted all his stuff.  And what it comes down to is you have to identify every potential donor, name, by name, by name, by name, whether it’s a thousand, two thousand, three thousand you want – individually check them all out. Then you want to write out a card for each one, then you want to put those cards, one by one, past the Committee that has some knowledge of the community and what you think these people are worth. And you put them in the piles … A, B, C, D, E, F … you know.  And then you start preparing your case and your material, and then you have to gather up probably a thousand canvasses for your cause – all of whom must first commit themselves. As soon as all this was explained to the Board of Directors I think I had three resignations from the Board of Directors.  I said, “I am pledging £25 a year for three years, from my salary.” That’s when the three Board of Directors resigned. They were going to put a couple of bob in the hat.  And then, you’re able to assess what you’re worth – you might do a bit of a trial run and talk to a few people you intend to approach, and get an idea what your hit rate’s going to be. Now, you don’t tell people what that comes to, because you’re gonna have a sliding scale, and if you say you only need to get half of what you say you want, then you’ll get half of a half.  So I designed the whole thing.

In the meantime we found another piece of land down at the back of the army hall on the side of a cliff.  But on the map we had, it looked as though there was plenty of room – an acre or two – so we got a friend with a bulldozer to clear the lupin off so we could actually see the lie of the land. There was nothing like the amount of land they showed on the map.  Since then they’ve built a retaining wall down the bottom to stop the cliff eroding and the sea coming in. It was obviously too small.

Then somebody said to us “have you checked out Snake Gully?”  I said “where’s that?”  “Opposite the Council Chambers there’s a big deep gully – I think there’s a little stream running through it.  But it’s marked ‘Education Land’ and it’s doubtful whether the Education’ll want it.”  So Magnus Hewson was Chairman of the YMCA at the time. I had a succession of Chairmen, some of whom were very good and some of them were not so good.  And he said “come on, sonny – we’ll fly to Wellington and talk to the Minister.”  So we did. I think he was quite a Government supporter, he knew people. So the Minister said “I’m prepared to release it, but it’s got to be gazetted in case any other Government Department wants it – that’s the rules of the game.”  No department did, so we managed to get it. I don’t know whether we paid for it or what we did for it.

In the meantime we had the campaign going – a very good launch night with a dinner for about, or I don’t know – two or three hundred people.  And once again, once I said to the canvassers – we didn’t get a thousand – we got about oh, I don’t know, two of three hundred – “you’ve got to make your own pledge first because that’s the measure of your commitment to it. It’s no good to say you’ll give your time and not your money, you know, doesn’t work that way.” So once again we got a few resignations.

I had one or two very good teams. Denny Sullivan was the Chairman of the campaign – he was a very enthusiastic sports person, ran a sports shop, he was a very good … the right sort of person for it … bright and breezy, and could whip the troops up and so on. And then I had … like there was a professional team, doctors and lawyers and Laurie Geedon, the physiotherapist, was the Chairman of that and he got a really good group of about eight professionals.   And they then approached every other professional in town. And you always tried to get a person to approach people at his own level.  Don’t send a five dollar [noise on recording] to a thousand dollar one, you know.

So it was a campaign with a reporting function, and three times a week the captains had to report back as a group and we put up on a big chart … on a board … Previous Total;  Today’s;  now the New Total.  And I’d had an argument with oh, lots of people actually, Jaycees, the Rotary and all sorts of people about what the target’s going to be.  I had an idea what the target could be because I knew what the figure was when you added up the potential of all the cards and then distracted [deducted] the loss percentage.  I thought ‘I think we could hit £40,000.’  No, no – nobody believed us – nobody believed us.  And a guy from Rotary had a very loud voice.  At this stage Jaycee had offered to help but they said “you can only reckon on two shillings a house”. We gave them the brush. Rotary said they’d help, but they said “the City of New Plymouth has never raised more than £25,000 for the best causes ever. So to make your target more than £25,000 would be dishonest.”  I couldn’t get them to budge. And the first two weeks of the campaign we’d raised £30,000 in pledges and cash, and boy, did it dry out from there on. We could have hit the £40,000 you know, but everybody said “well you’ve already gone past your target – what are you doing now?”  So it was the most successful financial campaign in the city’s history – at that stage.

Then we called for tenders. We’d been working with an architect and we called for tenders.  The next day the newspapers’ posters out the front said ‘YMCA Tenders £25,000 Too High’.  Hell, you know.  So we cut some things out, and we put some things on second stage, we crossed our fingers and got a loan – a fairly substantial mortgage from Taranaki Savings Bank – I forget how much it was now.

So then you proceeded to build?


So during this period of time then, Jean and you had Robert?

Jean:   Yeah, and Richard, then Shelley.

So you were a full-time mother?

Pretty much.  I used to work at night on the YMCA accounts.

And so during this time you steered them through their primary school, and sports and …

Oh yeah.  Well, you weren’t home much, were you, really?

Dennis:  No.

Jean:  And meanwhile too, we were buying and selling houses.  We decided that we needed to have a freehold house by the time we retired, even that early. And so we got finally got rid of the little cottage because it was only two bedroom.  Then we built a house and … we didn’t do the work ourselves on that one did we?

Dennis:  No.

Jean:  Sold that, built another lovely home in Manu Crescent, New Plymouth and we did a lot of the interior work ourselves. You’d not be allowed to do it now.  I mean we literally moved in with the kids with the walls half up and the concrete floor, and … so that’s what we had until we went to Fiji.

Yes, all right then, we’ll carry on back – we’ve built the new premises …

Yeah.  By this stage I’d been in the YMCA I think it was thirteen years, and the national YMCA had a very good staff training scheme. They put a levy of half a crown per head on every member in New Zealand, and sixpence of that went into a senior staff travel fund.  So anybody who had done, I think it was ten years, [kitchen noise in background] could apply for a grant and do something to enhance their professional skills, and also to have a bit of a professional break.  So I applied – I wanted to learn more about camping. We had three really good camps going – the Meeting of the Waters, Camp [?], the North Egmont Chalet, and the Adventure Camp round at Waiweranui.  And National YM, George Briggs, arranged it, so I went to – I left Jean at home with a Solomon Island guy we were looking after on behalf of the Church, and three little kids. Well I suppose by that time Robert was

Jean:  Robert was Intermediate, I suppose.

Yeah – twelve or something, and I went to the States for four months. I had six weeks in Los Angeles looking at their camping programmes that were supposed to be one of the most advanced in the world. [Kettle boiling in background] They had seven specialised camp sites up in the mountains, San Bernardino and all round the place, and they had thirty-two YMCAs affiliated to the YMCA in Los Angeles and each week a group of probably a hundred kids would go off to a camp for a week, and they’d have archery and horse riding and swimming pools and all sort of things under the sun.  So I went … each week for the six weeks I went out to a different camp and stayed with the leaders and watched the boys. I became intrigued with the day camps – I thought ‘well this is silly having little kids’.  They don’t stay overnight, but it was just like a camp. You’ve got a group of, say forty kids – they’ve got a bus at their disposal, a driver and four or five leaders and they run a camp programme. They go to the pools, they go to the seaside, they learn camp songs – soon as the bus takes off they they’re singing all the songs.  And on the last night they sleep out under the stars having cooked their sausage on a stick, you know – that sort of thing.

Yes, yes, yes.

These little kids, five to eight years of age, I thought ‘that’s neat.’

So when I got back to New Plymouth I put that in our camping programme too – we ran day camps … groups of kids. I employed a teacher in the school holidays and he employed about four or five High School kids, and at that stage we were putting through four hundred and fifty kids each summer period through different camping experiences.

This must have been a very successful venture for New Zealand, the Taranaki …

Oh heck yeah.  Oh, New Plymouth YMCA was the third largest in New Zealand after Auckland and Christchurch.

Was it really?

Very good.

Anyway in the States – six weeks in Los Angeles. Then I flew to the other side of the country to Springfield, Massachusetts. YMCA has several colleges around the world. Springfield College, Massachusetts is one of them – it’s where basketball was invented – YMCA Sport. And I enrolled for a series of courses at the University – social group work, juvenile delinquency, a couple of strange ones, and one called Inter-group Relations I think it was.  Inter-group Relations was dynamic. It was the first time a lot of the truth came out about the Blacks and how they suffered in the slave trade;  of how badly they were being provided for at the moment, and there was a real movement … the Black movement was starting to grow. I went to a couple of meetings with a Black student but I got isolated out, so – an experience.

But the interesting thing there was – I wasn’t allowed to study any of the courses, just to audit them – that is to sit in and not do any tests because I didn’t have the academic background. Failed School C twice is all I could say.  But I found in the social group work I was a natural leader in the class. There was about thirty in the class from all around the World, and not many Americans in it. But social group work is a way of helping people grow and develop in the confines of a group – you learn the group processes to help them grow and change.  And I found I was a natural leader, and I also found, though I was able to study I did sit a few tests just unofficially, and I did all right – I wasn’t top of the class but I thought ‘I can do this stuff.’  Here’s me, I thought I was no good at school work, but if you’ve got something you’re interested in it makes all the difference.

So Jean came over to the States – well, you can pick up your part of the story, how you came to go over there.

Jean:  Well part of it was my Dad being a lot older, and he always wanted Mum to travel. He said “well I can’t go”.  He said “I’ll pay for you to go over and you take your mother and have a little holiday, and go down and join Dennis and come back with him.”  So we did that, and when we look back, how bloomin’ innocent we were, the two of us … we’d never been anywhere, you know.  [Chuckle]  So we did that and we went to Hawaii, and we were in Vancouver, and we stopped in San Francisco, and then down and met Dennis in Los Angeles.

So that would have been wonderful.

My mother never forgot it. It started her off travelling. She was fantastic traveller, you know.

And it sort of helped you two as well, didn’t it?


Dennis:  We took her to a lot of places. We’d go for a drive – for example, from Estes Park above Denver, right down through the central thing, down to Phoenix and back to Los Angeles.  And there’s this old lady sitting in the back seat.  [Laughter]

Jean:  This was a later trip when she was – oh, she would have been in her seventies.   And we got to the stage we’d say … and sometimes Dennis’ mother would come … occasionally we’d say “well, there’s something wrong – we haven’t got an old lady sitting in the back seat.”  [Chuckles]

Dennis:  We did do a little bit of travelling before then. We had our honeymoon in Fiji. Went to the old Korolevu Hotel.

Jean:  Yeah.  I had a friend from school that lived there so we went over there.

Where were we?

Dennis:  Oh well, I finished with the States and came …

That’s right, yes.

So I came back and thought ‘well I’ve really done everything I want to do in New Plymouth – I’ll look around for something else to do.’  I’d been there, I don’t know, thirteen – fourteen years in that time, and I’d done the whole thing, it had become a bit of a grind, you know.  It was hard work, raising the money to run the YMCA and pay the mortgage.

But you were only a young man as well.  This was, you know, your developing vocation, plus … newly married.

So strangely enough, a group of citizens in Fiji, in Suva, who with Rotary had built a Youth Centre up in Marks Park – and it had operated all right with volunteer leadership for four or five years – and then there was a bust-up.  And the boxers got stuck into the rugby players and all that – closed the doors and boarded it up, and invited the YMCA to come and run it.  Well at the National Conference of the YMCAs, the general straw vote was that if we could raise £3,000 in New Zealand we would respond and go, and if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t. So they passed the hat around, and a guy from Christchurch put up the first £500 – he was an architect or engineer.  I think we got to £2,600 and it stuck.  I thought ‘oh bugger it, we’ll go anyway.’  So I applied for the job and got it.  So fortunately Jean went along with the idea and three kids, Robert, Richard and Shelley who were then –

Jean:  Robert was fourteen and Richard was ten I think, and Shelley nine … something like that.  Bit of gap there.

Dennis:  So the local committee, Sandy Muir and some others, had got things all ready for us.  The wharf strike had broken out in Fiji, and Sandy bought the last loaf of bread available in Suva and gave it to us when we arrived. So we had to learn straight away how to use the local stuff and Jean managed for the first week or two to turn taro into wallpaper paste … and finally got the advice and hang of it, and she’s been the best Pacific Island cook since.

So – but they found us a flat in Nasese which is round past Suva Point. It’s very flat, it gets no breeze or wind, there’s so much foliage, it doesn’t get through.

Jean:  And swampy.

Dennis:  It’s stinking hot. Richard wrote home and said ‘Mummy, you’d love it here, you wouldn’t believe it – there are toads in the ponds, cockroaches up the walls’, and he went through about four or five things that a young boy was intrigued with. [Chuckle]

Yes I’ve never been to that side of the island. I know three quarters of the other side but not Suva side.

So I got to know all the people. George Briggs, bless his soul, he’s since passed on, but he was a martyr himself.  [Background noises]  One year at National Conference we had to physically take him out of the room while his salary was discussed, and refused to let him in until the National Movement had increased it by about fifty percent. And he was so distraught that he almost vomited on the spot – he was a martyr. He believed in, you know – and everybody else … too.

He was a total giver.

Yeah.  I think the first year in Fiji – Jean and I were going through our savings just to survive, so quickly it was disastrous. We couldn’t have lasted another six months, except George Briggs resigned and Peter Derricot took over.

But it only took about three months to get all the sports things going again. I made a few boo-boos. The boxing needed a good coach and I got a guy to coach it, not realising he was a professional, and that was a no-no, professionals should never mix with the amateurs.  He was, I don’t know – welterweight champion of the South Pacific or something.  But he had lots of gear, and he gave it to us, and coached the young kids and all.  There was one guy that hung around, his brain had gone and he had cauliflower ears.  I used to encourage him to come up and say “this’s what happens when you box a lot – your brain goes soft.”

Anyway I got that going, and then there was a newspaper article which said ‘Fiji Short of Nine Hundred Carpenters.’  So I inquired at the [?] Tech and they said “oh yes, we’ve got a class of thirty, and its take three years.” It takes three years to train a decent carpenter.  So crikey dick!  Ten a year – that’s ridiculous, we thought ‘we’re never going to get ahead.’  So I went round a few of the building firms, John Hill, Addessis … some of the old Suva Youth Centre Board of Trustees introduced me.  Mohamed Ramasan was a union man – he was on the Youth Centre Board, and I’d just say to them “can you employ guys from just – walk in off the street?”  “We can’t, we can’t”, he said “it’s far too big a risk.” Look, if I said to one of those guys “go down the back and pick out six four-by-twos and cut them all eight foot and take them to Harry, and they’re for Joyce, so get the right sort”, they’d go down the back, they’d get a six-by-one instead of a …  They don’t know a four-by-two from a six-by-one.  They’d pick a thing that’s so curly it should never be used as a joist, they can’t measure it properly, and when they finally figure it out and get their saw back from their cousin Joe who borrowed it, and its gone all round the village, they’ll cut it off at seven foot eleven and a half from a twelve foot length, and waste four foot. And yeah, there was people that can do those things properly … we’ll employ them.

Now Jean, I believe there’s one thing that we haven’t covered, and that is that the way Taranaki has been built around Mt Egmont, the roads going to school are all downhill from your parents’ farm, but going home they were five miles uphill. Would you like to just say something about that?

Jean:  Yes.  Well, I used to go to school on a bike. Often Dad used to drive a truck to the factory with the school run, and he’d put the bike on the back of the truck, but we always had to bike home. But I preferred to bike both ways and ’cause I loved my bike. But it was always – homeward was always uphill, and especially at the end, we had quite a steep hill to get up to get to the …   But I loved it.

You remarked about your father taking the truck to the factory, did he cart his own milk to the factory those days?

Yes, yes, he did. I’m not sure – someone asked me the other day, how did … in the early days.  Well I can only remember him having the truck, but I know that the neighbours used to take it with the draught horses.  Maybe he did have … but I’m not sure. You don’t remember him …

Dennis:  No, no I don’t know.

Jean:  No, I don’t know.

You don’t have a yearning to get out on your bike and cycle round this lovely retirement home?

I bought … when we came back from Samoa I actually bought a bike, and I rode once down to the village, and was so terrified by the traffic, which sounds daft but after so Samoa you’d understand it.  I came back and put the advertisement and sold the bike. Only rode it once.

Okay, well we’d better get back to the case in point – we’ve got a few countries to go to and we’ve got to come back to New Zealand and do a couple of circuits around here yet. So we’re in Fiji …

Dennis:  And there was this advertisement for nine hundred carpenters short, and I’d consulted with the different builders and they’d told me what they needed.  So I applied to VSA for a carpentry school teacher, and I applied to CORSO for $5,000 for carpentry gear and benches. So I got them all, and [within] one year of arriving there we set up the YMCA Carpentry School. So it was a gym during the evenings for all the players to come and do their rugby and basketball and heaven knows what – boxing and stuff.  And in the day it was a YMCA Carpentry School.  And I think we took ten – might have been twelve – young Fijians at a time on a ten week ‘ready as a hammer hand’ course – just the basic skills, measurements and those sorts of things.  And they finished after graduation with a toolbox they’d made themselves, and we got gifts, so we gave them a saw, a hammer, a square, a ruler … that was about it, and away they went.  And they all got snapped up by the building firms, every single one.  So that went on for a couple of years but in the meantime I had young guys coming from the villages saying they wanted to join the Carpentry School, and I says “oh gee, I know the situation in Fiji – eight percent of the people live in rural villages – I don’t want eight per cent of the people coming to town.  [Chuckle]

At that stage Geoff Bamford had just written a report. He was the principal of the Methodist Agricultural Training School – what was it called?  Navuso Agricultural Training School.  And he came out with the best way to help most young people in the third world is to set up clubs in their villages where they can learn leadership, they can take on projects, they can enhance their agricultural skills and earning skills.  So we decided to have a shot at setting one club up, and with Geoff beside me I set up a rural committee – I set up committees all over the place – I always do that.  That’s how you tap into the local brains box. We decided to try a club.

The first one didn’t actually work. We couldn’t get the villagers to understand what we were trying to do, so we tried another one there at Serea, which is at the end of the road going into the interior.  And we appointed a young Fijian, [?].  And we set up the club. Serea is quite a large village, I’d say it’s over a hundred people, probably two hundred, and because it’s at the end of the road a lot there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing there.

Well, we ran all sorts of programmes – growing vegetables was the main one because they could make money out of it.  Traditionally they’d never grown cabbages, or bok choy, or pak choy, or all those sorts of things.  But we provided them with the instructions on how to do it through our rural worker.   And then we were in – I took up movies and coloured slides … coloured slides of members in the club doing things … and showed them at night.  And – oh, talk about a riot – they’d stand up and cry out and point and you know, that sort of thing.

[Chuckle] Yes, yes, sure.

So that club got away to a good start. I don’t know where I got the money from [for] that.  Well then I applied to the Emperor Goldmines Trust for a grant, and I got enough money to employ two more.  So Geoff and I started to look around for who was a good guy who – from his Agricultural School – would be suitable to employ, and where do they live, and so on.

So then I got money from CUSO – Canadian University Service Overseas.  I find these things and I write to them or sometimes ring them up. And then I found the British Columbia YMCA in Canada had an International Division, and they were interested in helping.  So I applied to them for $40,000 over three years to employ three or four rural workers.  I only paid them a thousand dollars a year, the rural workers – didn’t want to elevate them out of the village you see.

No – quite right.

Well, I got a call – could I please attend a conference call via compatriots from the YMCA in Vancouver.  They wanted to talk to me about my application.  So over a one hour telephone call with about three guys on the other side, they talked me up from $40,000 over three years, to $400,000 over three years.

You’re joking!


That’s amazing!

Absolutely amazing.

What a conference call.

Yeah, yeah. So I then had to fly up to Canada ’cause they set the budget.  There was all sorts of things I couldn’t understand their own sort of terminology. So I went up and Jean came too.  I had a good friend who was the South Pacific Manager for CP Air, because flying at that stage … so we got trips up there once or twice.  And we signed up for the $400,000 over three years, and we had a very strong, virile relationship with the British Colombia YMCAs.  They had a staff person in charge of their International division. They had a great deal with CIDA – Canadian International Development Agency, who would supply $3 for every $1 they raised, and they were allowed to spend twenty-five percent on their added administration of the fund.  It was pretty well what they raised themselves, they’d spend on themselves, you know.

That’s right, that’s amazing.

So they got a lot of support from Canada, and within about three years we had clubs in one hundred villages on ten different islands, with ten thousand members.  And because we used a Community Development approach, we just said to the people “what’s the needs of the young people here?”  Usually they would say “you tell us what we have to do”.  We’d say “no, no – what’s the problem?”  Eventually they’d say “well, there’s no money.”  We said “okay – what about growing vegetables?”   “Oh, how do you do that?”  In fact Mele Sanukanuka, who was one of the best rural workers of the lot – he serviced about three villages up in the interior.  You drive to the end of the road which took about an hour and a half, and then you’d get in a puttputt and go up the Waimanu River for an hour and half to his village of Nakorosule which I’ve been to dozens of times.  He got three villages round Vunidawa – it was just down from Nakorosule a bit.  The small villages are all based around a Government centre – regional centre.  And he just said “the three villages – they’ve got about oh, twenty young people in them each, and they want to grow cabbages.”  I said “all right – oh well, draw the money, whatever you need to take up for the seeds, and spend the weekend training them how to do it.”  ‘Cause traditionally in Fiji if you’re going to plant something, you get a stick and just stick it in, and that’ll become the new plant – banana, taro or whatever, suckers and sticks was about it. Nobody … you showed them small seeds, they said …

They don’t know what to do with them.

“Do you put them in one hole?”  Or – you know.  [Chuckle]  So Mele went up and I had thirty staff all around Fiji at that stage – rural workers performing magic, absolute magic.  They were building community centres, setting up kindergartens, raising goats, pigs, cattle, lots of vegetable things, some planting trees, pines all sorts of stuff.  And we’d go out taking leadership training, management training, writing budgets, setting goals, all these sorts of things, and help them find some of the resources.

Anyway Mele came in – all the rural workers came in one once every three months for a week and have staff training. And he came in one month and he said “I’ve just had a terrible thought.”  I said “what?”  “I worked with these three villages around Vunidawa last weekend, and I showed them how to make a seedbed.”  You have to make it a fair size, three yards by four yards, and you have to actually get the soil very fine, so you got to crush it all with your hands, and use a rake and …”  Well they didn’t have rakes, but things like that, you know.  “And showed them how to spread the seed.”  “ Yes.”  “I made one ghastly mistake.”  I said “what’s that?”  “I gave each club about half a pound of cabbage seed and I forgot to say ‘don’t sow it all in one day’.  And they have”.  [Chuckles]  There’s going to be a million cabbages ready in one week!


Nothing ready the week before and nothing the week after.  He said “what shall we do?”  I said “oh well – I think that’s something you should share with the Committee – I’m too ashamed”.  I said “you have to.  It’s their problem to figure out. Give them a chance to try and solve the problem.”  So away he went.  And the next three months he came back – we said “oh Mele, what happened to all the cabbages?”  “ Oh, it was great” he said, “absolutely great.”   “Was it?”  “Oh yeah, we got rid of almost the lot.”  I said “how’d you do it?”   He said “oh, we got them all ready, we put them on trucks and sent them round the country.”  He said “and we sold about eighty percent of them.”  “What did you do with the rest?”  “Oh, we ate ’em. I tell you what, we’ve never eaten them before but the District Nurse has sent a message – ‘thank you very much for improving the diet of the people in the rural areas.’

Isn’t that amazing?

Yeah.  That was the sort of magic that went on in all these clubs all the time.  Half the time it was not that exciting, other times it was just as exciting. For all the different work I’ve done, the YMCA rural work in Fiji was the best magic I’ve seen. It was all through releasing the spontaneous leadership of the young people and one or two of the supporting adults.  Occasionally we got an old Chief trying to snuff it out ’cause they didn’t get his approval first, but we’d usually sweet-talk him around.

So most of these people you were working with were Fijians – the Indians really didn’t become part of the YMCA?

Not very much because – one thing, they weren’t Christian. They saw us as something that …

That’s right.

And they don’t live in villages – they’re in scattered settlements.

My boss by this time, and National Secretary of New Zealand, was Peter Derricot.  And he’s talked to Victoria University Social Work Professor … Cready, I think … and he said “it’s most important that you get a full documentation – that’s one of the most exciting pieces of community development I’ve heard about, and lots of things have failed around the world, so write it up.”

So I wrote it up, and that became my first book – ‘Rural Youth – the Development of the Rural Work Programme of Fiji YMCA’.  And Fiji YMCA had five hundred printed and they all went in three months, all round the World and the Pacific.  Had another five hundred printed and they went in another three months.

Then I had … Pacific Theological College asked me to train theological students in field work.  So – these are adult Pacific Islanders … I’m saying forty – fifty years old … who’ve come from all the different countries around the Pacific.  And they are Protestant, and they are at PTC in Suva for three years doing a Bachelors of Divinity, or Theology.  And I’d get groups of four, and sometimes I’d get four who’d come every Tuesday afternoon for a year.  And sometimes I’d get them for one term, sometimes I’d get them for two terms.

Well I had one group, Eloni from Fiji, Joe Valisi from Fiji, Joe Tama from Rotuma, and Jack from near Vanuatu.  And they said they wanted to work with the shoeshine boys. At this stage there were about thirty kids, eight to fourteen years of age, shining shoes in the streets of Suva, and they were sleeping under the … they’d run away from home … sleeping under the copra sheds, sleeping under the old wharf, under one of the churches up top.  And they were always giving trouble to the Police.  There was a little bit of thieving going on here and there – if there was too many rainy days they’d starve, so they’d try and steal a bit of food here and there, maybe some bananas or whatever.  And they were constantly up before the Courts.  So we couldn’t make contact with these kids – soon as they saw our [?tulatulas?], the guys in long black sulus, they’d run away ’cause they were frightened of them.

So our guys dressed down and finally Eloni took a tape recorder and said to a group of boys in Victoria “okay – tell us your story”, or “how come you’re living on the streets?”  And the kids just spilt their beans, we just couldn’t believe it.  And all the stories … the things they were saying about how they got bashed by their teacher, bashed by their father, bashed by their mothers.  In the end they said “oh, fed up”, and run away.  And how they made their living and problems they got into and all the mischief they got into and stuff.  And the Police used to round the kids up and take them up to the cemetery and strip them of their clothes and frighten them, trying to get them to go home.  But as far as the kids were concerned no place on earth was worse than their home, so they wouldn’t go.  Eventually they turned up at the YMCA – kids said “can we sleep here?”  So I got the approval of the Board. I had some very good Board decisions at the time, you know, and the Board agreed provided we checked out each boy and his home first.

So Toni Pereira was my assistant at the time and he spent days going round each boy’s parents and saying “why is this boy not living with you?”  If they saw the boy they’d grab him by the ear and smack him.  He said “that’s why he ran away”.  “He’s my boy, I’ll do what I like.”  So we took the kids in, and they were in so much trouble with the law, at one stage the Magistrate said – and the newspaper reported it – “there were so many boys from the YMCA coming before the Courts constantly, something needed to be looked into here.”  So I got the kids, got them to put down how many times … what they were up for – charged with;  how many times they’d been to the Court and the Court was not ready for it;  how many times they’d go to Court and the Police had lost their stuff – you know.  And finally I replied to the newspapers, and there’s quite an important letter in my second book ‘My Friends the Shoeshine Boys’.  I think three boys had been to Court twenty-seven times on two charges, one of which was dismissed, and all because of the incompetence of the Court and the Police.

Well – the editorial the next door [day] in the paper really scolded the Police and the Courts.  And I took a group of boys with Ian Thompson – Ian Thompson was like the white Rajah – he was an old expatriate and he was there with the Sugar Corporation, really decent bloke, Ian – Sir Ian actually.  And Ian and I and four kids went and saw the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ratu Gunalau.  And the Minister gave an apology to the boys, and they promised to do better and be good boys.  Then I instituted a Co-operative Conditioning Programme.  I negotiated with kids – what do they think is good behaviour?  Got a whole list of things;  and what points are they worth, and then what rewards would they like to buy with their points?  It changed the whole scene overnight.  Now the kids were chasing points for good behaviour.  Bad behaviour we ignored.  So that was one of the main things in ‘My Friends the Shoeshine Boys’. 

Well then another set of programmes developed out of thin air, so to speak.  I had arranged with a group of Canadians to take them up to the interior to Nakorosule, and we drove up in the car to the end of the road – took an hour and a half.  Waited for Mele who was supposed to be there I think at half past nine.  He wasn’t there at half past nine, he wasn’t there at ten, he wasn’t there at half past ten.  He got there at quarter to eleven.  I was quite frustrated – I said “Mele, where the hell have you been?  We’ve got these visitors from Canada who pay us a lot of money, and you’ve let it down.”  He said “I just couldn’t help it.  There’s so many puttputts up this river between here and Nakorosule that are broken down, or dead, or very, very sick.  The ones that are going have to do all the work of the rest.  I had to take a woman and a baby up to so-and-so, and another guy over here – I’ve been so busy carting people around because my puttputt’s going well.  Why don’t you actually do something?”  I think he expected me to buy him new motors, you know.

I went back to Suva and found a guy who was clever with outboard motors – in fact he’d had a job repairing outboard motors.  And I employed him to go up the river – there’s about nine villages between Suva and Nakorosule – and have a look at all the outboard motors and find out what was going wrong, how many were sick and how many were dead.  And he came back about three weeks later and said “there’s about ninety puttputts on that stretch of river, about thirty are sick and about thirty are dead, and the other thirty are doing all the work.”  And I said “did you happen to see what’s wrong with most of them?”  He said “nearly all of them, it’s the ignition.  There’s only three things that could go wrong – dead easy to fix – just they had no clues as to what to do.”   “Could you teach them?”   “Oh yeah, no trouble at all.”

So we established the YMCA Mobile Outboard Motor School, and we wrote that one up.  He said it was like a faith healers’ reunion – you’d get nine guys come with their motors at each village, we’d strap a big plank up between two trees, put a tarpaulin over the top and tarpaulin underneath and said “now here we go.”  And I’d teach them all about the ignition, and he said it was like a faith healers’ reunion – dead motors would get up and run like greyhounds.  And ones that always coughed and spluttered, suddenly gave a great roar.  He said it was just wonderful.

So that then went all round the country.  Other countries and all round the Pacific picked up the idea.  And then we started the mobile Outboard Chainsaw School. Had the same thing there. Chainsaws were getting jammed and stuck and people didn’t know how to tickle them up and all that sort of thing.  And then we found they were using old carpentry methods and trying to marry in some new, like picture framing or window framing and doors and stuff. So we ran a mobile Carpentry School, and then a Woodcarving one.  The woodcarvers only came from one island at the bottom of the Lau Group, and people were using buckets, plastic buckets for their kava ceremonies so we helped them find [speaking together] native trees and make a proper bowl.

And the last one we set up was sewing machines.   And I watched the guy – each of these had a person employed, usually a Fijian, and I watched him on his last day in a village with the sewing machines.  And he had about twelve women with their little … sit on the floor winding sewing machine.  And they all sat around with their little machine and then he sent them out of the room, and he took one piece off each machine – different piece from each machine – maladjusted another thing on it and invited them all to come back in and fix it.  And they were allowed to help one another.  He said it was just pure magic.  All these women were so pleased with themselves.  And he ran that from village to village to village, you know. So we had a very virile programme.

So how long were you in Fiji​ then?

Six years. ’71 to ’77.

Then we came back and they didn’t know what to do with me, so I became the Assistant National Secretary. I ran a few training programmes.   I developed a set of slides with a tape recorder background – when the native drum sounds, turn to the next slide you know.  Bompety bomp bomp – with me on a plastic drum.  So I ran South Pacific or Fiji nights, and because of my capital fund raising in New Plymouth I also wrote up booklets of how you go about capital fund raising.

In the meantime a group of people from Samoa were writing to the YMCA for New Zealand. There was [were] five people;  each of them didn’t know the others were writing.  Turns out each of them had a different idea what was the YMCA.  Paul Woolward thought it was a weight lifting club;  Joe Annandale thought it was a hostel;  Andy Forsgren thought it was a youth club, but Sioni Tamali’i, who was the General Secretary of the Methodist Church and Nalu [?] from the Congregational Church, both knew the YMCAs work in Fiji, particularly the rural work, and they wanted that.  So the YMCA sent me up to talk with these people to investigate whether it was going to be strong enough to actually stand on its own feet eventually.   Oh, that was interesting – I got put into Aggie Greys.  And Aggie Greys puts people at tables – they put you in with other people, usually a table of about eight and you get somebody with a group of all sorts of different people.  And I was on my own and a guy got put with me, and he said “good morning”.  I said “good morning.”  “And where are you from?”   I said “I’m from … I suppose I’m from New Zealand really, but I’ve been in Fiji the last six years.”  “Oh really”,  he said, “and may I know the nature of what you were doing there?”  I said “I developed YMCA work.”  “ Oh! Oh” and he put down his knife and fork.  “May I know your name?”   I said “Dennis Oliver.”  He said “my God!  How fortuitous!  I’m the Controller of American Aid in the South Pacific, and we’re coming up to the end of the financial … fiscal … year, and I’ve got all this money I’ve gotta get rid of.  I wonder if we could have a talk and whether you could use a million dollars right now.”

Oh you’re joking!

We haven’t even confirmed we were going to work here yet, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t know what the problems are, I don’t know who the people are or anything.  So just put me on hold.   [Chuckle]  Turned down my first million.   I tend to exaggerate, so it was probably something like – I don’t know …

It was a lot of money.

And he might have said that – whether he had it or not … something else.  He’d just come back from an International conference, and he reckoned that … mentioned my name as the best spender of the development aid buck in the whole of the Pacific.  Well, what we were doing in Fiji – it was pure magic.  I mean I didn’t actually do it, I just helped put it together and the people …

Delegated the work to other people.

So anyway, we developed the YMCA.  We hand-picked a few … Board of Directors, Joe Annandale and Paul Woolward agreed to be Chairman – he’s got a title, Seuli – Seuli Paul Woolward. Joe is now the big chief of the district on the other side of Upolu, and he owns the Sinalei Resort.  Who else? Sioni Tamali’i … oh, Joe Went – Joe Went was wonderful – absolutely wonderful.  That’s Albert’s younger brother, who was the plumber.  Henry Went, the father, was the plumber.  Andy Forsgren, who owned a pharmacy.

Jean:  Lavulo.

Dennis:  Lavulo Mulacamu, who was with the Methodist Land Development Unit.  But I had a very comprehensive Board.  Nowhere to meet … didn’t own anything.  So I got approvement [approval] from Joe, who was the Manager of OF Nelson, a very large supermarket.  And I used the table in his coffee shop every morning from I think half past nine to half past eleven – I’d have a cup of coffee and people that wanted to see me could call in and see me there.

And then after about – I don’t know … six months, we found that Wents’ Plumbing had a little hut, about this size, on the front of their property and there was a woman had a dressmaking thing, just in one little corner, and I could rent that.  Had no windows, just had big wooden flaps. They had a big white pig that used to come and rest its head on the back doorstep every morning.   So I got that, and then by this time the American YMCA decided they wanted to back my work there and we signed up for … I don’t know what it was – $100,000 or something or other, over so many years.  And I employed Valentino Pereira, who’s now been on National Radio a lot, and he’s a very significant Samoan leader in Wellington.

We started Social Survival Skills courses in this little hut – young people in town who’d finished their schooling, done well at school – no jobs around, but weren’t actually coached in how to apply for jobs, what they’d be good at and those sorts of things.  So I used to run these things.  And then we were asked to try a few villages to try and do the work that we did in Fiji. The first one was a flop.  We said “what’s the needs of the young people in this village?”  “Well, we need three trucks and four tractors”, and went through a shopping list … Father Christmas stuff you know.  “No, that’s not what we mean at all”.   So we had to back out of that one.

Jean:  And the ‘Prepare for New Zealand’ was a good one too.

Dennis:  ‘Prepare for New Zealand’ was a good one.  People were going to New Zealand with no education about the different laws.  So I think we got a grant from the New Zealand High Commission for that.  I mean, you only needed $1,000 and you could run three or four courses, you know. So that was quite interesting.  You’d put them through scenarios, like – you’re going to have a [?mang’iti?], and you’re going to cook a pig in the back garden.  How they killed their pigs is ghastly – they just put a plank on its edge, and put a pig’s neck on it and then sit on the pig’s head, and the pig screams itself until it finally strangles.  It’s a helluva noise.  Anyway, we got into a village in Savaii, One guy saw the vision.  Tino and I went to a seminar over in Savaii – big college, I forget the name of it.  And we gave our … about what the YMCA hopes to do, and this guy picked it up.  So we got into one village, and the work was very good – they got the whole idea.

By this time I’d learnt from my mistakes and said we’ll try and help you increase your agricultural production.  I’d done that before in Fiji, but I never got a count for what the level of production was at the start, so we increased it but we didn’t really know by how much.  Now we did, so I said to Samoa “everybody must count how many taro they’ve got planted, how many banana”, and all that sort of stuff, and we’ll try and help you market it.  Well later on – it took about three years for them to develop that.  And we got into thirty-six villages, there was six thousand people on both islands – Upolu and Savaii.   Some of it was very good, very good.  You could really change the whole village and everybody in it within a couple of months, just through planning and setting goals and throwing in a few resources.

Anyway, in the end we got into marketing it.  I did it through Turners & Growers and said “how do you go about this?”  And the trouble was, what was happening at the time was the Government had an agricultural marketing system … everybody cheated, and they cheated enough just to cover their loss from the other cheats.  So the farmers insisted “pay us in cash, up front.”  And then they’d put all the rotten taro, all the second grade stuff on the bottom, just a few good ones on top, you know. So the Agricultural Department would have to go through every case, sort out the good stuff from the gross, send the gross stuff to the local market, and send the good stuff overseas, and they’d probably hardly make ends meet. So I said “we will market your taro for you. We’re not going to buy it.”  There was … oh, a big stink.  “No, no – want the money up front.”  I said “no, you’ve got to trust us.  We’ll send it over.”

So the first shipment went and it came back, whereas the farmer, the Agricultural Department was paying the farmers $7 … T7 [tala, Western Samoan currency] … a case, we got them something like T32, you know, by the time we’d subtracted our expenses.  We didn’t put a mark up on it, we just … and that went on for about three or four shipments.  I had a call from the Minister of Economic Development to come in and “please explain why you are shaming the Government.”  [Chuckle]  So I told him what we did.  I knew the guy quite well, he was previously a plumber – came to the same Church as us – Island Protestant Church.  So that was good.   And the clubs really thrived into all sorts of stuff.

The current Methodist Minister in Hastings of the Samoan congregation, Iakopo Fa’afuata was on my staff, a YMCA rural worker for Tafatafa in Samoa, that was his first job.

So – and then we started a Carpentry school.  That had a tough history.  I got a brilliant young New Zealander, Bruce … can’t think of his second name … who came.  He had a wonderful relationship, and he used to pick up little contracts around.  He decided to build a big chicken coop for the ladies at Fagali’i, and … oh, there was a whole lot of projects – fixing up old church halls and all sorts of stuff.  We based it at a Catholic School, up inside of it.  I got very good co-operation from all the Catholics.   I had two Catholic nuns on my Board of Directors and we got the use of Catholic Church land – later on that went belly up, but still.  So we started the Carpentry school, a Small Engine school, a mobile Sewing Machine school.  We had a very virile programme – sports clubs. I guess we had – I don’t know, say five hundred members or something.   I had staff about thirty staff, most of it –  I was always paid from New Zealand, and most of it was paid by American stuff.  But I had people … I had the Canadian Ambassador to New Zealand ring me in my little wooden hut to ask if she could supply some money for us.

That talks about the success … that people were approaching you with money.

Yeah, that’s right.

So Samoa was very successful. But in the early days everybody was white, and … particularly if you had money … you got invited to Aggie Grey’s birthday.  And Aggie Grey’s Hotel would put on a big feast and a bit of entertainment and stuff, and you were expected to pay a donation which went to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Well the first year I went, I went on time, which turned out to be very early, and the only other person there was David, who went to the same Church as us.  And he was the Coroner, and probably the Solicitor-General or something too in Government, and he looked really glum.  I said “you don’t look too happy tonight”.  “No” he said “I had another spate of teenage suicides, and I sent the message upstairs, and nothing happens – nothing is done.  They’re pretending it’s not happening.”   [I] said “what’s this about?”   “There’s three … three suicides in this last week.  It’s always young people – it’s a real plague. I ‘ve got a letter, and I’ll bring it next time and show you, from a Professor in George Williams’ College, Montreal, which says the suicide figures for Samoa indicates it has the highest suicide rate in the world.   And I can’t get anything done about it. They’re pretending it’s not happening.”   So I thought ‘well I’ll tackle that one day, but in the meantime I’m building a whole organisation so we’ll see where we go with that’.

So in the last seven or eight months I thought ‘well I’ve got the YM ticking along now, there’s nothing more I can do.’  So I approached the Board of Directors, and I said “I want to do something about the suicide rate”, and I told them what I knew.  The Chairman promptly resigned, ‘cause he said “this is going to be very embarrassing for a lot of people – it’s too touchy – I won’t have anything to do with it.”  And he resigned, yeah – Paul Woolward.

So I approached the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Health who was Keith Ridings, a New Zealand guy from Rotorua, who was the Director General of Health, and Father Louis Bouchman, the Chairman of the Fellowship of Churches, and I asked them [car starting in background] would they send representatives along to a meeting.  And I approached Alan Grey … Aggie Grey’s son … said “could we have a room?” And “would you like to come?”  No, he wouldn’t come – too touchy. People knew about it but wouldn’t talk about it and pretended it wasn’t happening.   So we had the meeting – I’ve still got the minutes of that – and we decided we really had to research the problem first before we could do much about it, but it was generally understood – I managed to convince them – it took very little convincing – that we actually could do nothing about it.  We were not able to probably understand it properly, nor solve it.  But as long as people were allowed to pretend that it didn’t exist, nothing would be done, so it was out job to give them the information to work with.  So we researched it, and found out where it was happening, how they did it, who were the triggering … I went through two hundred and seventy Coroner’s Court case records, which were recorded in English and Samoan.

And it turned it only really started about ten years previously. It started quietly and it built up.  You measure suicide by how many per hundred thousand per cohort.  You pick a particular … it’s usually young men sixteen to twenty-four – that’s the favourite one to pick.  Sixteen to twenty-four – how many per hundred thousand commit suicide?  Well, in New Zealand it’s never got beyond thirty per hundred thousand.  In Samoa it was 92.6, and for the age group above that – twenty-five to thirty-four, it was a hundred and twenty-something.  Now you have to allow for the distortion of scale.  You’ve got smaller numbers, a few make a hell of a big difference. But at the same time, as a rate it’s the highest in the world by miles.

So we researched it and found that in ninety percent of the cases the mother was the triggering agent.  She would scold her son one last time and he couldn’t stand it, being shamed in front of his friends anymore.  And they pretty well all drank Paraquat – it’s a weedicide.   And Paraquat actually milks your tissues, and you die … drown in your own tissues, and you scream yourself to death.

And then I found … there’s something about this.  Some villages are having a lot of suicides and hell of a lot, none at all.  So I got through the national statistics.  Tino was very useful at this stage because he could find out who’s got what, and where do you find out, and who do you know to slip round the back and find out the cheaper one, and …   Anyway I found out there were three hundred and sixty villages in Samoa;  two hundred and sixty had never had a suicide;  they were all in one hundred;  and eighty percent of the suicides are accounted for by about ten villages;  and eighty percent of that eighty percent is accounted for by six villages.

That’s incredible, isn’t it – when you break it down?

Yeah.  So I decided to find out what was different about these villages.  They were all over the shop.  Two of them were on the far side of Samoa, two of them this side of Upolu, some near Apia – there was no geographical feature that distinguished them.   I read all this international stuff you could, and then I started to do a head count of how many Chiefs in each village, because the appointment of matai is done by each extended family or the village council, or both depending on what sort of title it is.  And what happened was when Samoa became independent … ’62? … only Chiefs were given the votes, so if your village put up a candidate and there was three villages in this constituency, you needed more Chiefs than the others.  So you just appoint more, you know?   And as soon as it’s all over you don’t register them, or de-register them.  So they had young people and all sorts of people, were getting Chiefs’ votes, you know.  So I found in the four hottest villages … oh, the ratio of Chiefs to commoners used to be one to twenty I think – one Chief to twenty commoners.  Because of the Electoral Act it’s now one to ten – one Chief, ten Commoners.  In the four hottest villages the ratio was 1 to 1.5 – every three people there are two Chiefs. [Chuckle]

All Chiefs and no Indians.

Something screwy going on there.  And the next village it was one in ten again.  And I went and I said to Rosie, “what’s it like in your village?”  She said “every Chief a Hitler.”  It’s not only the number, but the way the exerted authority.  There’s no rules or regulations – they just bossed everybody around and almost caused life and death.

Was it during this period you were made a Chief?

At this time, you had to have it registered in the Land Court.  We had a publicity campaign. Once we got all the facts we said “now – it’s our job to tell them what’s happening.  It’s up to the people to do something about it – not necessarily the Government – the people.”  Later on the Government did do something, they banned Paraquat.  I don’t know whether they banned it altogether, but it had to become a dangerous article, you know.

We had public meetings, we had newspaper articles – three a week for three weeks.  We deliberately decided there was going to be a three week campaign.  If you just do it once or twice they’ll hold their heads down, and they’ll say “thank goodness it’s all gone, we’ll go back to normal.”  If you run it on for too long it will seem like its normal.  So we had public meetings;  we had newspaper articles;  we had radio articles in Samoan and English.   I had international magazines ringing me up from all around the world.  It hit the whole place like a blow between the eyes. And for three months there was not a single suicide.  It’s the first time in ten years for three months there hadn’t been a suicide.  Then it started up again as if nothing had happened.

So I – it had gone down to half … half of what it was.  That was a pretty good effort.  And then I got $1,000 from … somewhere – Canada or USA – and appointed a YMCA Education Officer, and we started going round to the hot villages negotiating conversation ways between the old ladies and the old men, the Chiefs, the young people and so on, trying to get you know – a dialogue going.

At that stage, when it was hitting the fan, Tino Pereira came to me and said “I think you’re in trouble, chief.”  I said “what’s that for?”  He said “I have the occasional drink with Tofilau Eti, the Prime Minister, and apparently there’s quite a few big Chiefs are going to try and get you chased out of the country – you’re giving Samoa a bad name”.   So “I’m saving lives”.  He said “that’s beside the point.  If you’re giving Samoa a bad name, they want you out”.  The very next day I had a deputation of Chiefs and Orators from the village of Foailuga in Savai’i, come and invite me to take a title.   And I said “who are these guys?”  They said “oh, no, that’s Chiefs and orators from Foailuga, but we know you won’t take a title so we’re chasing them away”.  I said “wait a minute, I need to think about this.”  I’d turned down several titles before.  “Is it a reasonably high title?”   They went back and talked … “it’s a very high … it’s the Paramount Chief for the whole district.”  “I’ll take it” I said.  “I’ll take the title. “

So it was arranged that I go – Jean and I went.  We started off in a little Jeep and drove over to Savai’i – over in the ferry.  On the other side they had to get a bigger pickup – the first village wanted to give us so many gifts, roast pigs and stuff.  We went on to the next village – we had to change up to a bigger truck.  [Chuckle]  We finished up at Foailuga – I went through the full ceremony, with the kava ceremony and the feast and the whole maiden dance and all, and became Tagaloa Fa’atautele.  So it is the paramount Chief, but it’s like the Lord of the manor – you can ignore it when you want to.  But it’s just a status position.

Did it assist you at all in dealing with the people that thought you were giving Samoa a bad name? The fact that you were raised to be a Paramount …

Oh, yeah.  Yeah – they went out – back into the bush – yeah, no word. There was one guy – he wanted to bring an Act of Parliament that no pelage should be given a Tagalog title, it’s a very high-ranking title.

So, I’d done the job in Samoa and I was passing over to locals all the time and I started to look for any other YMCA work. So I wrote to National – they said “well we’ve got Hastings, Christchurch and somewhere or other else looking for a leader.”   So “well tell me about it.”   “Well Hastings has just got the old stadium, they’re $400,000 in debt and going down at the rate of $2,000 a month, and we put a special effort into try and stop it, and we haven’t stopped it at all. We’ll pay you for six months to go and rescue it.” [Chuckle]

Well, before you embark upon Hastings, your children had grown up mainly in Fiji and Samoa?

Richard in Fiji, and Shelley came to Samoa. She went to Samoa College and the first day in Samoa College in the fifth form, the teacher was going round banging each student on the back of the head with a ruler.  She got to Shelley and she said “you touch me and you’ll finish up in Court.”  Strangely enough she got detention that day … got kept behind.  And she had for one hour to pull weeds out of the backyard of the school that were as thick as your finger or your thumb with her bare hands. She came home with her hands covered in blisters. She got that every day for the first month or so, but she passed her School C with flying colours. [Chuckle]

So Robert at that stage had left school had he?

Yeah, we sent him back to New Plymouth Boys’ High School. He had a year at New Plymouth Boys’ High School and said it was the most miserable year of his life and then went to Auckland University.

Did the others, did your daughter enjoy Fiji and Richard enjoy Samoa?

No Richard was in Fiji.

That’s right yes.

Richard loved it, he could speak Fijian [makes sound of rolling tongue]. In the school holidays he used to go up Nakorosule – go to the end of road, catch a puttputt up, and he was given his garden and his Boo – his grandmother – was Mele Sanukanuka’s mother, and the whole thing would be in the Fijian language and all the Fiji was food. I had one guy come down to Suva one day and he says “saw Richard this morning”.  I said “oh yes?”  “Swimming across the river to his garden with his knife in his teeth.”  [Chuckle]

So you obviously left Samoa with great feelings and satisfaction with …

Oh, yeah, yeah.

… and so then you came back to Hastings YMCA to save it.

That’s right.  And the third day here I said to the Board – there were only five people at that stage, Ross Duncan, Ross Sheard, Rayford Gardiner, Bill Williams, Cyril Whittaker – “this old stadium, it’s a hole in the head, we don’t want this.  It’s good for a big circus act, or tons of apples or hordes of sheep.  But for human beings – not particularly good.  You can’t do good YMCA work in this.  There was a time when it was good – you could have lots of gym clubs, but all the gym clubs have gone off into the schools and other things around the … so I think we should sell it.”  Well they laughed at me.  They said “who would want to buy this?”  “It’s the only stadium in town – the City Council.”  “No, no, they won’t be interested.  We tried to get them to buy it before, and we said we’d rent it off you – no, no – they wouldn’t even touch it.”  I said “well – it’s not a case of us renting it back, it’s a case of selling it and us starting again from scratch.”  So at that stage I had applied for the National Secretary’s job and I was on the short list of two or three, but the day before I was due to go round for an interview, Rayford Gardiner called the local Board.  He said “this guy’s rescued us – we’ve sold this thing, we’ve cleared our debts, we’re ready to start again and we’ve got $200,000 in the bank,” you know.  “We need to employ him.”  So they approached me and said “would you like to start again from scratch?”  And I said “yeah. I’d sooner do that than be a National wallah”. So I signed up, and it was a bit of a struggle for a start. We tried a few youth things.  We sold the stadium for half a million dollars to the City Council.   I got an agreement from the Council – we’d get a valuer, they’d get a valuer and the price would be midway.  We were not trying to rip each other off;  we’re actually dealing with the same people.  It’s their ratepayers who are our supporters too.

So we tried a few things – ran a few sort of trial courses and things. We used the Assembly Rooms, and we used the old Mayoral Chambers above the Opera House.  In the meantime Cyril and I were looking at places to buy, and we bought the Rowan property at Pakowhai Road.  Even that was tricky, the bloody Regional Council said it was zoned Rural – it had to be for a rural training thing.  I said “well we’ll make it a rural training centre.”  “Where’s your plans?”  And all this sort of stuff, and they farted us around for a good six months.  And finally, Cyril got Rodney Gallen to take our case to the Court, and they gave us approval to buy it.  And then we bought seventy acres out at Maraekakaho.   By this time … we set up a few little think tanks, and talked about youth work and rural work … a bit like the Fiji model.  Most of the jobs round here are going to be in orchards – we need to give them training in that – and hospitality and maybe construction.  So we eventually managed to get contracts through … whoever they were called – the Labour Department?  Can’t think what they were called at that stage. And we got about five contracts to set up employment training schemes for young people.

So Pakowhai Road … oh first of all, Pakowhai Road developed life skills for teenagers, fifteen and sixteen years old.  There was a whole bunch of kids – forty or fifty – had been kicked out of every school in Hawke’s Bay that nobody knew what to do with.  And I got a contract for a STEPS programme, School-leavers Employment Programme, or something or other.  And I employed about five or six people and we set up different modules – a reading and writing one, a life skills, a driving licence, a home help and all sorts of things.  And we got about forty young people – nearly all Maori, mostly male, and started training them.  Well – it took us quite a while to learn from their behaviour how to handle it.  They were rotten.  I was losing at least one staff person a month, but I was getting smarter and smarter. I had made a policy of getting half Maori, half Pakeha, half women and half men, and that was proving a real bonus. I got some wonderful Maori women in particular, Heda Marshall, Marina Ropiha … she’s now Sciascia, and Christine Smedley and Randy … he was Canadian.

Well we gradually got the hang … we developed a range of strategies to control the behaviour and to enhance it … get them interested in learning.  And we did some wonderful stuff for those young people.  Then we got these employment training programmes for horticulture, farm skills, hospitality, forestry and construction.  And we put the construction one in Rauhapia Marae for a year or so, and then the elders there decided it would be their fun to get me in and insult me to hell and do what they like with the resources, whether I wanted it or not.  So I sacked them, you know, I walked off.  And Eric Smith out at … it’s the main one where the Maori …


Waipatu, that’s right.  So we shifted it to Waipatu – Eric … I think Smith.  Noumea August was a good committee member all this time, helping us steer things through all the Maori stuff.  And oh, we had a very virile time – I had some wonderful trainers. Wattie Greening was a great horticultural trainer. I had a good committee, Grant Spackman was the Chairman of that.  But anyway, each training programme had their own committee, and we went from a turnover of nothing to $1.3 million over about – I don’t know – eight or nine years.  I had a staff of thirty full-time, and about five part-time.

Yes, I remember your Maraekakaho venture.  That was very impressive for a YMCA …

Yes.  That’s right.

… to set up something with real trees – no pretend.

Each of my YMCA’s became a new model. The Fiji YMCA was broadcast about all round the world … so this is what you can do with the YMCA.  Every little village – dada dada dada – you know?  So … I mean all I did was ask the people “what’s their needs here, and what should we do?”

During your period of developing the Hastings YMCA – redeveloping I guess, and developing it into new directions, had you embarked upon further University education at that point?

Yeah – when I was in Fiji I heard the University of the South Pacific had a course called Diploma in Rural Development, and I thought ‘oh, that’d be interesting, we’re doing rural work, I wonder if it would help me in my understanding of a rural community.’  So I went up to the University and met with Ron Crocombe and John Harre who were the joint Directors at the time – I don’t know whether they had a Vice Chancellor.  And I sweet-talked my way into becoming a University student.  ‘Cause I knew by my experience in America that I could actually study and get through things.  So they let me enrol even though I didn’t have the background.  And I did one or two courses a year, and I’d drive up to the campus and sit in on lectures.  Most of them, I’d go into a room and there’d be a hundred very dark people, and when I walk in they’d all stand up.  Then I’d walk to the back and sit down and they didn’t know what the hell was going on.  [Chuckle] 

But John Harre’s wife, Charmaine, also did the courses – we enjoyed that.  Brian Poynter who was the main lecturer in rural sociology – his wife Liz, also did the courses.  The three of us met quite a few places.   So I completed that – eight papers to do it, and I rewrote parts of ‘Rural Earth’ as a major project.

Then we went to Samoa.  Now the University there is an Outreach Centre from Fiji, the University of the South Pacific.  And I’d go along, I was usually the only palagi and there’d be about thirty Samoans.  We all enrolled for say – Introduction to Land Tenure System of the South Pacific or something … I could have finished accounting degree there.  And you’d all meet together with a local tutor who had a degree, but not necessarily in that subject.  And you’d discuss the topic for the week, and then you’d go into a room where there’s a large table and four microphones around it, and speakers.  And you’d come on – okay … “USPNet satellite – crack..crack..crackle – coming onstream now.  It’s Suva operating here – it’s John Harre with introduction to Land Tenure Systems in the South Pacific.  Calling all the stations – come in Vanuatu” ..crack.  “Yeah, we’re here Ron with twenty students”.  “Right – over to New Caledonia”.  “Here Ron, with fifteen students.”  And they’d go round the whole of the Pacific and get to Samoa – “yes, we’re here Ron.”  So he’d then give a ten minute summary of the week’s lesson, and open for questions.  The Samoans always disagreed with the lecturer.  They’d argue the thing to the back end.  It was fascinating to hear these questions and answers going on, you know. Then he’d wrap it up for the week and away we’d go again and back the next week.  So I did about – oh, I don’t know – I did two courses a year, and I was there five years so it must have been ten courses.

In the meantime, I was having difficulty getting three hundred-level courses, so I enrolled at Massey.  I finished my BA – my BA’s from the University of the South Pacific – and I started to enrol for courses at Massey, and I did a Diploma of Rural Development, a Diploma of Business and Administration, and I’d already done a Diploma of Rural Work.  I did a Post-Graduate Diploma of Social Psychology … the subject was psychology.  Then I thought I’d better try a Masters.  So by now they were offering a Masters of Philosophy in Development Studies.  Once again Third World stuff.  I don’t know where I was by this time – I was probably back in Hastings.  So I did a Masters – Master of Philosophy in Development Studies.  It required a thesis which in the first writing was about four hundred pages.  I got a grant from Foreign Affairs, it must have been, to go into Fiji and to go into Samoa, and my thesis was ‘Self-Reliance in the YMCAs of Fiji and Samoa’.  Because I’d had trouble building up a fund for their future development, and places like the Canadian YMCA – when they found I was putting aside ten percent for a Future Development Fund – they got real shitty, and tried to withdraw money from me.  Because they were having difficulty getting their Charitable Trust up to … and I thought ‘anybody with any sense tries to plan for their future as well as their present.’  So I got the bum’s rush from international agencies trying to get that stuff, and they all want to fund for three years, and then nothing. Development can’t [speaking together]

There’s got to be continuity.

… get off the ground.  Yeah.

Yes, absolutely.

And then the guy from Massey that was supposed to be my supervisor for my Masters, left the country and went back to Fiji – [?] Walsh.  And my thesis had disappeared somewhere, my draft. So eventually they tracked it down and got it back from him in Fiji – it took oh, a good eight or nine months, and they’d passed it over to another guy … passed it over to Brian Poynter.  And I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to quote my own books.  So I had to go through and strike out about two hundred pages of my thesis.

Even though you’d written …

Yeah.   I didn’t know that. Anyway I rewrote it in about two hundred and fifty pages, and submitted it and I got a C pass – I think just out of kindness really.  But anyway I got it.  And then I enquired about doing a PhD and they said “no – why not try another Masters?”  So I did.  Decided to do a Master of Business Studies and Human Resource Management – it’s still about people.  So I did that.  By that time I’d just stopped work and it was going to cost $7,000 a year to continue so I thought ‘I can’t afford it, I’ve got enough’.  So I’ve got two Masters degrees, a Bachelor and four Diplomas. Its equivalent to about four degrees.

So, you know – while you had all this involvement with researching your own life, with the YMCA developments in Samoa, Fiji and Hastings, you still had time to be involved in the community.  And I’m talking about Rotary.


You became a Samoan High Chief.  You also were a great one to set up – I always remember you set up a programme for Rotary once, on where Rotary was to go.  I think you even got a citation at the District Conference for it.  We still remember those things.

Oh, at the World Conference we got a Silver Award.

That’s right.  And then I often think of that little other organisation in the Village, the Community Patrol.

Oh, that’s right.

And I’ve always been very aware how good you are at having an idea, putting it together, delegating.  You must have got a lot of satisfaction looking back.

Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.  I think most of my job’s been a community organiser.  Tell you one of the most interesting ones was U3A – University of the Third Age.

Yes, I didn’t know anything about that.

Well, I heard about it, and Jack Mackie said Age Concern support it and most other places but he didn’t think it was appropriate for Age Concern here at this stage. I think there was a bit of chemistry in the leadership.  So he said “why don’t you do it? YMCA or anybody can set up”.  So I thought ‘oh well, all I’ve got to do is find the right leader’, and I was at Rotary and I heard Ken Rhodes say “I’m getting bored with this retirement business – not enough to do.”  ‘He’s my man.  I won’t approach him now, I’ll give him a ring tomorrow and talk him into it.’  So I rang the next day and Jill Rhodes answered the phone.  “Hello, Jill Rhodes”.  I said “is Ken there please?”  “No he’s not – who is it?”  “It’s Dennis Oliver – I think we met at a Rotary function.”  “Oh yes, what’s it about?”   “Well I’m looking for a leader to set up an organisation where retired people organise their own learning programmes.”  “Oh yes, you’re talking about U3A.”  I thought ‘oh good Lord’.  “I thought I was the only one that knew about it.”   “Oh no, no, no – I set it up in Darwin.”   “Can I come and see you right this minute?”   “Oh … oh, come on then, come on.”

Isn’t that amazing though? 

[Chuckle]  So I went out and “oh yes,” she said “I’ll set it up.  Let’s get a committee – who’ve you got?”  Said “well I’ve got a couple of people in Rotary – Noel Sutherland and David Curtis I’d like to ask – and a couple of people on the YMCA, Ross Sheard and Cathy McGregor, and that should be enough for us to spread our wings.”  “All right.  Call them together and I’ll tell them what we are going to do.”  There’s no two ways of knowing who’s in charge here now.  [Chuckle]

Yeah.  So we met, and we decided to start in Havelock North, and she said “call a meeting.  Duart House would be good.”  So we called a meeting and about a hundred people turned up – they packed the place.  And she said “now here’s the idea.  You know – you get into little groups and you decide you want to learn about this, and you find your own lecturer, and you set up your own place and do your own time, and once every three months we all come together and …”, you know.  “So what ideas have you got? Someone said “conversational French.”   “Good one.” “Conversational German.”   “Oh, enough people want that?  Oh, we’ll try it.”  “Mahjong.”   “Oh I don’t know”, she said “it’s a bit frivolous … oh, we’ll try it.”   And we got about six you know, so … “all right, when I say go – conversational French – get them that.   Conversational German … righto, go.”   And that happened.  It just happened.  [Chuckle]

So that was the easiest thing.  So then we helped Hastings set up … went to their meeting – she did the whole thing, you know.  Went to Taradale, went to Napier.  Napier’s pretty well disappeared, but all the rest … Havelock North’s got over four hundred members, Taradale’s got four hundred members.  They have so many courses.  I know of two or three people that say U3A saved my life.

Now you take Hugh McKay … he was a teacher of English at one of the Napier High Schools.  He said to his wife, “last year I was hounded by ten very bad behaved boys.  If we get more than ten today I’m walking out of there.”  And he went and he reckoned there was … he counted up and there was twelve.  He walked out.  He was two years off retirement – he wasn’t old enough to retire, but they were going to drive him mad.  It turns out he has an interest in art history, and he was asked by U3A to set up a course, and then another course, and another course – he now currently operates five courses, every week, five courses. He spends hundreds of dollars bringing in books and stuff.

Now coming back from U3A – Robert eventually left high school and trained to be a chef who now has international standing, especially relating to Island cuisine.

That’s right.

Richard is a nurseryman.

That’s right.

He grows plants for Napier City Council.  And your daughter, I have no idea what she does.

Well she’s employed by St John’s College.  She actually had a good career with the YMCA Life Skills stuff.  Then she got a few other smaller providers she worked for, mostly helping women get back into the workforce. Now she’s got a job at St John’s College where she’s the Career Adviser;  Pathways Co-ordinator with about forty boys;  and the Co-ordinator for all the Pacific Island boys and their families … got about forty-five boys from the Pacific Islands.  She loves it, she’s absolutely committed to it.

And ‘course you and Jean still have a close association with the Church.  I always remember at Rotary sometimes at our special nights, you brought along the choir from the Samoan Church and that was just absolutely amazing.

Oh absolutely, they stunned groups they sang to.

Yes, I know.  So during the period that you are back in New Zealand obviously Jean picked up her accountancy expertise and went to work in Hastings for an accountant.

She worked for Price Waterhouse in Samoa pretty well part time, and then in Hastings she worked for Denton Donovan – Ernie Williams.

And so I guess when you finished with the YMCA, a lot of the support from the Government was gone for a lot of schemes wasn’t it?   

Yes, that’s right.

They had withdrawn from not only YMCA but lots of other groups around New Zealand.

That’s right.

And at that point I guess you set sail, and you’ve had several trips around …

Oh yeah.

… the northern hemisphere in big liners.

We’ve done I think seven cruises, including the Caribbean.   Oh, the Caribbean was interesting.  The YMCA established the World Fellowship of YMCA Retirees.  I’m the only New Zealand member, the only guy that’s made a career out of the YMCA for forty-two years.   They invited me to their World Conference on a cruise liner, seven days around the Caribbean … 2003 I think.  The YMCAs of America paid for me to do it. Mind you I had to get myself there, that was the dearest part of the lot, to Florida.

And now you’re sitting in a lovely retirement villa in Summerset.  But can you think of anything else?  Oh, grandchildren … how many grandchildren do you have at the moment?

Five.  Shelley’s got two, Willa who’s twenty-five, and she turns twenty-six next week … and Sione. Sione’s half Samoan, half Maori and half Pakeha, and he’s six foot four and fifteen years old.

Play basketball?  [Speaking together]

Yeah, plays basketball.

Yes, I should think so. 

That’s right. He went to Steiner all his years, and then last year he went to a music camp. He learns the cello and classical guitar.  He went to a music camp and all the kids were from other State schools – Napier, Hastings, Woodford and Iona and they talked about exams and all these sorts of things.  And when he came back he said to Shelley, “I think I want to change schools.  I’m nurtured too much at Steiner.  It’s been a wonderful nurturing, but now I need the challenge.”  So he went to St John’s where he was welcomed by the Pacific Island boys – treated as one of their own.  They all speak Samoan or Tongan and stuff – he doesn’t yet.  And he sat his first exams towards the end of last year, and passed with flying colours. Proud of him.

And then Richard’s got three – twins of twenty-five and Jack who’s twenty.  Jack’s just started at Wattie’s this week.  His goal is to go to flying school out at Bridge Pa – ATC thing.  So he wants to get flying hours but in the meantime he’s got a job at Wattie’s and it’s a quality control sterilisation unit.  It’s quite technical, he’s very bright. So he started just a couple of weeks ago. Twelve hours a day, four days on, four days off.

That’ll keep him out of mischief.

Yeah, I’ll say.

And we’re in reasonable health.  Jean had a big operation in 2005, when they took out one kidney, part of her colon and some other small goods, but I can’t remember which.  I’m on peritoneal dialysis, which just means that I have a catheter that goes in to my peritoneal cavity and I hook myself up to a machine every night, and it flushes through a fluid through the night, a litre and a half at time – puts a litre and a half into my cavity, flushes it around.  That’s there for an hour and a half, then flushes it out, does it again – it does it three times through the night.  It’s on a computer controlled pump I have beside my bed, which the Health Board lease from a big American outfit, Baxter’s.  Apparently it’s insured for $250.  [Possibly means $250,000]  I can sleep through it most nights. In this hot weather I find it patchy sleeping, but I think everyone’s having patchy sleep.

Well it’s wonderful you know when you think about it, but it still allows you to play golf three days a week, and takes …

Three days a week … fitness class tomorrow.

Can you think of anything else?  We mustn’t forget Jean’s other sport that she plays, and that’s mahjong.

Mahjong, that’s right.

So I think that’s pretty well covered everything.

Yeah, I think so.

But thank you very much for …

Oh, thank you, Frank.

In fact it’s been very interesting.  Books are not the same as hearing it …


… from the horse’s mouth.

That’s right.

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

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