14 May 2011

Remembering my darling dad

My darling dad, Ronald George Collins, was born on 15 May 1922, so today would have been his 89th birthday.

Ron sitting behind his brother Digger
The fourth child in a family of five, Ron had three brothers and a half sister. Though he was born in Hamilton, the Collins family lived in the small settlement of Horotiu, where his father worked at the local freezing works and, as a sideline, trained racehorses. From a young age, Ron and his brothers were at home around animals and all rode early morning trackwork to help train the racehorses.

Horotiu Primary School was across the road from the Collins homestead but this was not Ron’s favourite place. An often-told family story tells of the day he punched his teacher in the belly and ran away, only to be discovered some time later hiding in the calf pen. Ron was naturally left-handed but, like most children of those days, had been rapped over the knuckles every time he tried to write with his left hand. I imagine this was one of the reasons he disliked school so much.

As soon as he could, he departed the education system and followed his father and other family members into the freezing industry. Though slightly under the legal employment age, Ron pestered manager Joe Cotter for a job at Auckland Farmers Freezing Co-operative’s Horotiu plant, and, having taken a shine to the lad, Joe took Ron under his wing. He liked Ron's attitude and his desire to work, so gave him a start sweeping the floors. Ron soon progressed to labourer and then knife hand, and so began Ron's long career in the industry.

Except for a short interlude helping his brother Digger and wife Eileen to run a billiard room in Cambridge, six months working at a freezing works near Invercargill, and short periods of military training during World War Two, Ron worked at the Horotiu plant for more than 50 years.

Season after season this young man learnt every aspect of slaughter and processing at the plant. He was competent at lambs, beef, pigs, bobby calves, goats and sheep. He spent his time on each of the boards, as a solo slaughterman, working on the chain, as a boner – you name it, he was able to master it. He was so competent that, in time, he was selected to join the staff as a supervisor and trainee of slaughtermen. By applying his skills, he rose to become foreman of the slaughter boards, supervising up to 500 men in the peak season, a position he held and persevered with until retirement. Dealing with management, veterinary and meat inspectors, and workers was never dull and often full of tensions. Liaising with plant engineers, electricians, freezer staff, boning rooms, chiller staff, stock yards – it was all go for Ron from the time he set foot on the plant each day.

Ron's the man in the centre
Bob Short, the presbyter at Ron’s funeral, had worked with Ron at AFFCo for many years and had this to say about him: ‘Ron gave of his knowledge and skills to the freezing industry. He was one who was creative and a developer of techniques and skilled in man management. He observed and partook of every aspect of slaughter and processing of stock and plant. His quiet, patient, professional manner and his incredible practical application skills saw him designing and overseeing the instalment of mechanical equipment that changed the face of the industry – machines designed to remove the hides from cattle, lambs, sheep and bobby calves. Cutting tools, mechanical saws, lifts and rams and moving belts, all with specific cuts and jobs to do in the process of preparing the animal for human consumption. He was a team member, but at the same time the leader of the team, and his contribution cannot be emphasized enough … his relationship with Meat Research Ruakura and the engineering staff set him apart as a creator. Ron and his team persevered and many of today's modern machines were developed through his personal contributions. A great debt is owed by the industry to men like Ron Collins. His man management skills were something to be observed. A huge staff existed at Horotiu in the best season, and the roistering and maintaining of staff and production meant many sleepless nights for this man. Seasons in and out – energy and tensions, industrial disputes, men and women were trained, cajoled and supported by this man and his team at Horotiu.’

Around 1952, at a local dance, his brother Ted introduced him to a young lady named Shona Johnstone. In his own quiet and inimitable manner, Ron courted this friendship as it deepened. Ron and Shona were married at the Presbyterian Church in Ngaruawahia on 11 July 1953. So began a loving partnership that survived the inevitable ups and downs of relationships for almost 50 years. More details of their life together can be found in my previous blog about my mum. 

It was not all work and no play for Ron. Golf became his sport for relaxation. He loved to walk the primitive Ngaruawahia Golf Course that was his old horse training ground of days past. He helped it grow into today's modern course with its new club house and up-to-date facilities, frequently helping out at working-bees and volunteering as handicapper for many years. Something about hitting that little white ball helped relieve the tensions at home and at work, and golf became Ron and Shona's shared experience, one that gave them great pleasure as a couple.

When duck-shooting season came around, Ron proved himself a competent shot. Often the floor at work would be covered with duck feathers as Ron and his workmates plucked their quotas from the weekend shooting, and the stories became almost unbelievable as the day progressed. Many winter mornings at home were also spent plucking ducks, with mum, my brother and I all roped in to help. I got my first biology lessons when dad was gutting the ducks: ‘This is the heart. Here’s the liver …’

Ron was also a follower of the sport of kings, often seen with Best Bets in hand, looking for the works’ bookmaker or off to the TAB or a day at the races. He was lucky and careful and often a quiet winner, well rewarded. Mum wasn’t a fan of the horses but, for several years, I accompanied my dad to the races every Saturday, sometimes continuing on to the night trots as well. After dad died, clearing out his huge pile of racing paperwork brought back many memories of the wonderful times we spent together.

Fishing was another passion Ron pursued – surfcasting at Ruapuke, Coromandel, Waihi Beach and many other favourite locations. He was also a keen white-baiter, and those little silver fish held great excitement and interest for Ron in the season. A creative man, he would make his own nets and gear, including rods of Rangoon cane for casting.

He and Shona took great pride in their homes, and sections and gardens were always well tended. Ron always maintained a plentiful vegetable garden and a selection of fruit trees, which kept our family in fresh produce all year round. He was also passionate about orchids, growing some beautiful specimens and, in his final years, became keen on growing gerberas.

Though he hadn’t smoked for over 35 years, Ron developed lung cancer in late 2001. The discovery of this debilitating disease was a major blow for both Ron and Shona, but he was able to maintain his positive attitude right. He hated hospitals so Shona brought her beloved husband home and nursed him for the three short weeks he had left.

Tuesday 22 January 2002 was the worst day of my life. I spent most of it, sitting on the bed, holding dad’s hand as his life slipped away. We were very close so I was devastated when he died just after 10pm that night. At the graveside funeral service presbyter Bob Short described dad very well, as a ‘not-so-tall man, straight-backed, with longish arms and hard-working big hands, whose open face, wry smile and twinkly eyes welcomed you into his personal and private space.’ I miss those twinkly eyes every day.