For someone just weeks off his 88th birthday, Michael White has an amazing memory. He can recall stories or memories from any area of his life – from being born in Te Hauke on February 18, 1911, to changes that have taken place in the world during his life. Herald-Tribune reporter KATE TAYLOR spoke with him about his colourful life.
A life recalled in full colour
“I don’t feel any older than 67. In fact, I’ve almost forgotten what that was like,” Michael White jokes from his room at Waiapu House, Havelock North.
Waiapu has been his home for the past two years since he moved back to Hawke’s Bay after 20 years in Whakatane.
He was the second child of Colin and Winifred White, born on a side veranda of a house on the Mokowhiti block, half way up what is now the Te Aute cutting on Highway two.
Although European in colour, Mr White says he’s Maori inside.
“I was born a Maori. There were no white people around, except for my parents.
“Their culture came over me, you know, you often become what your environment dictates.
“They’ve been a very big part of my life.”
When Michael was only a few months old, his family moved into the bush to live in tents on a block allocated to them by his grandfather, William Kinross White, who came to Hawke’s Bay from Glasgow when he was 16.
This block of land was called Puketio. Although it was a rugged inaccessible place then, it can now be accessed from Colin White Rd, named after Michael’s father.
Michael went to Te Hauke Mission School for a while, which was also like a bit of a baby-sitting service, before the family moved into Hastings in 1917. Their new home in Whitehead Rd was one of only three houses on the street.
He attended Trinton School, a big old two storey building which used to be on the corner of Market St and St Aubyn St.
“I remember Armistice Day in November 1918 like it was yesterday because we were only allowed to walk to the celebrations at the railway station if we were sucking a Formalin lozenge to ward off the 1918 flu and waving a little Union Jack.”
The next move for the family was to Seapoint Rd, Napier, where they lived in a big house called Highcliff, originally occupied by Michael’s grandfather.
His schooling was done at Miss Beharell’s School at the top of Bluff Hill.
“She was an oldish lady, never married, and rather severe in her discipline,” he said.
He went to Napier Boys’ Junior High School and got an honorary Somes scholarship to Christ’s College, Christchurch, which he attended from 1924. When he left school four years later he was 179cm tall but within 20 months he had shot up to 189cm.
“My sleeves came half way up my arm and my pants were half way up my leg but it was the Depression and we couldn’t buy anything else.
“Then the Hawke’s Bay earthquake came. We had nothing at the farm until things started to pick up again in about 1936.”
When the earthquake struck he had just returned to Puketio, where he was working.
“I tied my dogs up at the kennels and tied my horse to the fence and then the earthquake came with a bang. The horse was so sensible that it didn’t even pull back and break the reins. It just stood there.
“The volume of noise coming from the bush was deafening before the shaking was even apparent. My family was okay but the chimneys in the old bush house fell down and shattered the roof.”
A lot of his time in the following years was spent repairing the countryside after the earthquake. There was not one boundary fence left intact, he said.
Thanks to a great friend from Christ College, Rex Ludbrook, Michael scored a head shepherd job at Waiorongomai, a large station inland of Ruatoria.
He remembered being given permission to go to a Springbok rugby game in Gisborne in 1937. He had an unusual experience at a party, where, at over six-foot tall, blond and weighing 15 stone, he was mistaken for one of the Springbok players.
Being allowed to go to the Whangara dog trials was also the highlight of everyone’s year, he said.
He left Waiorongomai in 1938 when he rode back to Hawke’s Bay with his horse, Miro, and five dogs. One of his stops on the way was in Gisborne with the family of his girlfriend Margaret Coleman, who he eventually married.
He was back on Puketio until he enlisted in the forces in 1940.
He still remembers his Army number – 14515 – he was in the fourth reinforcements at Burnham Camp, south of Christchurch.
He didn’t go to war in the end but was on full active service in this country.
Sleeping with a revolver under the pillow was just “part of the job”.
He then had four years of teaching at Hereworth School – a “marvellous” job, he said. By this time, the couple had adopted two children, Tony and Wendy.
Michael’s father died in 1948, leaving him to return to the family farm once more. He spent the next 20 years “working like a navvy” until Tony was old enough to take over.
All through this time, Michael had been running and entering dog trials all over New Zealand (mainly 1948-68).
He had been a TV and radio commentator and writer of newspaper reports for agricultural and pastoral shows from “Auckland to Dunedin and from Hawera to Gisborne, you can’t get much wider than that”, he said. He first appeared on television at the Christchurch show in 1963.
“When the credits came up at the end I just cried. It was the first time I had seen my name on television. It was an emotional thrill. That was before there was television in Hawke’s Bay.”
After Tony took over Puketio, Michael and Margaret spend a week holidaying at Ohope, in the Bay of Plenty. They loved it so much they retired there and it became their home for the next 20 years.
They ran White’s Homecraft Centre in Park Lane, Whakatane, for four years, then ran the wool shop across the road for another five years.
Michael attended 29 Anzac Day dawn parades at Waireka Marae. He is a Paul Harris Fellow of the International Rotary organisation.
He also has eight life memberships including the Royal Agricultural Society, the Whakatane A & P Association, the Hawke’s Bay A & P Society of which his father is a former president, the old boys’ associations of Christ College and Hereworth, the Te Aute Dog Trial Club, the Pony Club Movement and the Horse Society of New Zealand.
He spent many years on the Te Hauke Marae committee and on school committees, he helped fund-raise for the new Te Hauke School which is now the old school.
Mr White was secretary of the Hawke’s Bay Centre of the New Zealand Dog Trial Association for 15 years and was on the board of BOP IXX, the local radio station in Whakatane, for 21 years.
He also spent 21 years on the Whakatane Public Relations Board of Control and was given its first life-membership when he retired.
He said he was the first Justice of the Peace to sit on the bench in the Whakatane court after he was made a JP in 1967.
With his historical ties to Maori, Michael also sat on marae in listening and mediation roles for Treaty of Waitangi hearings in Whakatane.
It was through his widespread community involvement and his ties with Maori, especially those in Te Hauke, that Michael was awarded an MBE in 1986.
Sadly, although she was by his side when he was awarded his MBE, Margaret died in 1987.
Her death left a gap in Michael’s life that was hard to fill.
He moved into a unit at Whakatane and stayed there until two years ago, when he made the move back to Hawke’s Bay.
He still has his driving licence and has just come back from visiting Whakatane and Gisborne, researching some cemeteries for his book.
Photo captions –
Michael White . . . writing his biography at 88 years.
Michael is presented with his MBE by Governor General Sir David Beattie in October 1986.
Stopping for a chat during the summer of 1952 in front of the Tiger Moth aerial spraying plane belonging to Second World War pilot Peter Marshall (second from left). He was one of the first top-dressing pilots in Hawke’s Bay. Michael is on his horse, Mick, with farm worker Peter Wenley, left, and Ian Featherston, manager of Hawke’s Bay Farmers, Hastings.
Colin White, left, with Michael in 1912.
Michael and Margaret at Ohope after hearing Michael was to receive an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours.