My oration for Dad at his funeral service, 2 May 2000.
Keywords: Political Economy & History;
Tena kotou katoa. Friends of my father, and so friends of mine, and of his family, welcome to this service of remembrance of Harold Stewart Parnell Easton.
He was so quintessentially Cantabrian – one of his last requests was for a radio to listen to the Crusaders – that you may be surprised to learn he was born in Silverstream, Wellington. The family tradition is that he was born in a tent, for in July 1918 New Zealand was still at war and the infrastructure dilapidated. Even so, although the Hurricanes are not what they claim, one doubts a tent would have lasted long in the Wellington wind. The delivery room must have been a makeshift building, although given the way we run our hospitals it probably lasted half a century.
He was named after an uncle who died in Flanders. A few here know him as “Harold”, the name he was christened with. Some as “Dad” or “Grandad”. Mostly he was known as “Harry”. I’ll call him Dad, because that is who he is to me.
Dad was the first of seven children, in a family which was not well off, except for love. Their plight was worsened in the 1930s, by the depression, by their taking in Dad’s invalid grandfather, and by the deteriorating health of his father, Henry, from a blood disease thought to have been caught while on war service in Papua New Guinea. He died in 1940. Shortly after Dad married Thelma – Mum. For five decades Dad had a base for his family life, which enabled him and his talents to flourish. Mum and Dad had three children – me, Keith, and Jean – and six grandchildren. The oldest three did know Dad’s mother, Doris, who died in 1977. Neither they, nor my generation, ever knew Dad’s father. But I saw him in his son, especially in his love for his family, and humankind in general, and practised in the relationships which gathered us here to remember Dad.
There were three major threads in Dad’s life. First he was clever. Not clever-clever but, as the dictionary says, “skilful, talented, ingenious, adroit, dextrous,” with his mind and with his hands. His family circumstances and the depression meant he had to go out to work early, drifting through a number of jobs – his marriage certificate shows him as an oxyacetylene welder. Eventually he became an electrician, specialising in rewiring the armatures of motors, a job which requires both hand skills and a lot of savvy given the complexity of the circuits. He did that in various firms, latterly at Dales and Doakes. He did it right up to his sixties part-time, for his was such a specialised skill, few others followed. In retirement Dad was to fix up people’s electrical equipment. One is tempted to ask “hands up those who have a Harry-repaired item in their home.”
His second attribute was his athleticism – good at sport, especially with excellent eye-hand coordination (and a good sport too). A tremendous enthusiast, he might in the same day play, umpire, and coach softball, and perhaps have laid out the diamonds in the dew of the morning. He played for Canterbury, and the South Island, as high as you could represent in his day. He was a softball administrator and, for a while, he and Mum ran schoolboys’ softball. There are not a few here who first met Dad that way. As young people they gained from the stability and direction it gave to their lives. The Canterbury Softball Association made him a life member.
But not only softball, Dad played whatever was going: cricket in his fifties, golf later. And when the emphysema cut back his lung capacity, so he could not walk for long, he watched sport.
It was softball which gave Dad the opportunity he had missed in adolescence. Forty years ago the Council did not allow sport on its grounds on Sundays. So Dad and the rest of the enthusiasts use to play out at Templeton Hospital instead. One of the nurses, Bill Harrington, asked if Dad had ever thought of psychopedic nursing, and gave him an application form. Bill had written an “A” for suitability on it, and Dad said he felt obliged to apply. The A was an underestimate: triple A plus would have been more appropriate. Halfway through his life then, Dad took to this new job of caring for those intellectually handicapped, and often lovable, men and women. He promptly passed his nursing exams and kept up with medical thinking thereafter. Not that he always supported the new developments. He opposed the closing down of the Templeton Hospital, for instance. Because of his loyalty to his colleagues and an unwillingness to dominate them, he was hesitant to accept promotion, becoming a charge nurse only reluctantly. At which point, he was given some of the most interesting and challenging villas to look after.
So Templeton brought out the third thread in his life: his sociability, liking people, getting on with them, helping them. He had done it before – for his family as his father’s sickness progressed, in sport, in many small instances remembered only by those involved. But his years at Templeton were the only time he got paid for doing what came naturally. And we the taxpayers got well rewarded. You see, Dad was a socialist. Not a doctrinaire one, but in the way he treated humankind and expected the institutions of society to treat them as decently too. He did get into union affairs for a while, but he was what may be called an expressive socialist. You lived its values in your life.
The way that the Canterbury public health system treated him was another such expression. Things became difficult about five years ago when the emphysema got bad, and he spent a lot of time in hospital then. Their care, and his robustness, gave him five extra years – to spend with us, to see his grandchildren move from childhood to adolescence or adolescence to adulthood, to see Canterbury win a few more competitions.
On behalf of the family – and Dad – I should like to thank those at the Christchurch Hospital. The staff there have been, as Dad was, first class professionals with a commitment to care and concern. The result was an easy death from a dissected aneurism. That care, plus his great heart which drove the body well past its due-by date, meant that everyone who could get to his bedside was there. We give thanks to the hospital staff. May you have as long and a rewarding life as Dad did.
Let me also take the opportunity to thank his friend and colleague, Ernie Hepplewaite, for presiding over this service of remembrance. And also to the funeral director, David Rossiter, who was one of the many young men and women who first knew Dad through softball. While reminiscing, Dave began chuckling over a colts trip Dad took to Dunedin. It wasnt wicked, but it was fun. There was a lot of fun in Dad’s life, despite the early hardship symbolised by that maternity hospital.
Writers sometime look for a word or phrase to describe an important event. In the case of Dad’s life and death, I began with “decent” – kind, generous obliging. It was not too bad a start but, while reading as we waited by his bedside, I was reminded of Hamlet. Asked about his father, Hamlet said, “He was a man.” Now Shakespeare pondered long on mankind, and the play “Hamlet” is torrent of wonderful sumptuous extravagant language, cascading into the most commonly quoted work in the English language, the Bible excepted. And yet, when Hamlet talked of his father, and by implication Shakespeare of his, he chose four of the simplest words in the English language: ‘he’, ‘was’, ‘a’, ‘man’. They said, this man was all you could reasonably expect a man ought to be.
Of Harry, of Harold, of Grandad, of Dad – my father, I can but say, “He was a man.”