Volunteer: Anne Kavanagh

Anne Kavanagh, visits John Mead as part of our visiting service. She has been visiting him for around a year and started when John was ‘a bit down to it”. But he is doing ‘alright now’, thanks to Anne and Nurse Maud. This is their story.

John was born on 6 October 1934 at the Nurses Home in Wakefield. His family lived at Motupiko opposite Quinney’s Bush. He lived there until he was four and then, towards the end of the Depression, his parents bought a large block of land up the Rainey River for £200. Times were tough but fortunately his mother was a seamstress who made all their clothes and they lived off the land. From the age of 7, John boarded with his grandparents in Wakefield so he could attend school. In 1944 his parents purchased a 1,600 acre  farm at Korere and John attended Tapawera Area School. He left school at age 15 to work on the family farm. “In those days you worked for your tucker, boots and shirt” says John “so that’s what I did”. John began shearing when he was 18, after returning from his compulsory military training. It took him a while to get the hang of it and he was paid 37 shillings and sixpence for every 100 sheep. “When I started it took all day to do 100 sheep, but after a while I got up to 200 per day”.

In 1955, at age 20, John attended a shearing course run by the NZ Wool Board who taught the Bowen technique. Godfrey Bowen of Hastings was the fastest shearer in the world, setting his record in 1953 by shearing 456 sheep in nine hours. In those days, a top shearer in the South Island was lucky to do 200 a day, so the Wool Board hired Bowen to form a team of 30 instructors to run courses throughout New Zealand to improve the standard of shearing. From herein John trained more than 100 young shearers in a season, running four- or five-day courses in districts from North Canterbury through Marlborough to Nelson and Golden Bay. He also started competitions and show demonstrations.

John was a hard worker and being a child of the depression, he was very careful with his money. Through hard work and being thrifty, he was able to purchase a 720 acre block of hill country by the time he was 21 in 1956. He meet his wife Joycelyn in 1958 and they married a year later and subsequently had five daughters.

John was also a good shearer himself. He and his late brother Tom had a shearing run, with 110,000 sheep on their books to shear between October and March each year. Back in the 1960s shearing was well regarded and a key part of rural life. In 1963 John received a special invitation to shear before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Fraser Park, Lower Hutt. Public demonstrations were big back then. The shearers had to synchronise, working on the same part of the sheep in unison. They also sheared blindfolded, which was a crowd favourite. John also shore a few times in the shop window of Nelson store McKay’s, where wool-to-fashion demonstrations showed the fleece being taken off the sheep, spun and then knitted into a jersey!

In the late 1960s John contracted spinal meningitis in the middle of a shearing season. In those days there was no ACC so if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid. He lost all coordination between his legs, arms and brain. John forced himself to return to work as soon as he could and on his first day back he had to be carried out of the shearing shed, having collapsed.

John  was twice offered the opportunity to go to India to train shearers. He turned down the first offer because his wife was expecting a baby. In 1970, he again got a ring from Bowen asking if he wanted to go. Initially John was reluctant as had just bought the family farm and was heavily mortgaged. However, after consulting with his bank and State Advances, he was told he would be’ a fool not to go’, and John is no fool! So off he went for five months to train shepherds in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh as part of United Nations aid to India. John says it was possible only because of the support of his wife Joycelyn and their five daughters, who kept the farm running.

Running the farms was a family affair. John was busy with his shearing as well as working the farms. They were not at the stage of hiring a farm worker so his wife did a lot of farm work and his daughters also helped. Life is not easy living on the land and there were some tough times. When he purchased the family farm in 1970 he was ‘mortgaged to the hilt’ with a development loan costing 18 percent interest. There was a severe drought in 1982 and he lost a lot of stock. John recalls “I opened all the gates and it was survival of the fittest. Ewes were only worth 25cents”.

John’s contribution to shearing was recognised in 2009 when he was awarded Life Membership of Shearing Sports South Island. John and his wife moved to Brightwater in June 2017 and he sold the Korere farm to a neighbour. John regrets he did not move earlier as his wife had been in ill-health for some time and was struggling with the stairs out at Korere. John did find it an adjustment moving from Korere to a small suburban section of 600m2 but life got really hard for him when Joycelyn died in September 2018. John explains “I did struggle and got a bit down on it. I was confined to a 600m2 section. I can’t walk (due to an ankle problem), have hip trouble (all those years of shearing), can’t drive or read as I have macular degeneration. I struggle with 4-7pm  on the weekends in particular”. John notes “I’ve been around people all my life, I’ve been a School Trustee, shearing instructor, on Federated Farmers”. It was also disappointing to him that only one of Joycelyn’s friends made contact after her death. John states “I know lots of people but most of my shearing or rugby mates are all gone”.

John saw some information about Age Concern in the Greypower handbook so gave us a call. Susan Arrowsmith, our AVS Coordinator called round and matched him up with Anne Kavanagh, who had recently registered with us as an AVS volunteer.

Anne saw an article in a local paper noting Age Concern needed volunteers and thought “I could do that!” She was used to spending lots of time with her mother, mother’s sister and brother, all whom were in Stillwater.  Anne is motivated by a genuine interest in people and desire to find out more about the past. She grew up in Nelson before moving away after she was married. “Mum is not here to ask so it is great to have someone like John and hear his stories. You learn so much from the elderly”, she says.

Anne had a rural upbringing. Her father managed the Golden Hills Orchard and then McKee & Sons Orchard. Her upbringing means Anne and John have a shared understanding of working on the land and some similar values. After she married in 1972 Anne left the district for many years as her husband was with the BNZ. They lived in a number of places including Wellington, Dunedin and then back to Wellington. When her husband retired, they returned to Nelson and have been here for the past 8 years.

John notes he has had some tough times after Joycelyn died but is ‘coming right’ thanks to Anne and Nurse Maud. He has decided ‘I’ve got to live again’ and his advice is to get all the assistance you can. He could not live in his house without the help he receives. He has Nurse Maud three times a week who cook and prepare meals for him which he then heats up in the microwave. His weekly visits from Anne have made a huge difference to his life. He greatly looks forward to these and the opportunity to have a chinwag, along with the cups of coffee and baking. John states the visits are invaluable to anyone who needs some company. “I had a great companion who was great to talk things through with. That’s what I really miss”. John feels it’s really useful to have someone outside the family to talk with. He notes his daughters are great but “I can’t impose on them all the time”. “We talk about all sorts of things” states Anne. “John is really positive and has some great stories. I just come and listen”. Anne also greatly enjoys these sessions and states “in my experience the volunteer gets even more out of it than the older person”.

John also goes on car trips once a week with someone who drives his car. He likes driving to places where he used to work and shear such as Lake Rotoiti and Cable Bay. John has 3 daughters nearby who do shopping for him and stock up the fridge and freezer.

Both John and Anne would advise anyone thinking of getting a visitor or becoming a visitor to ‘go for it’. If you would like to know more about this service then please contact Susan Arrowsmith on 5447624 ext 3 or coordinator@ageconcernnt.org.nz

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