Fifth generation family excited for 125-year celebration

By Alan Gibson

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When Pongakawa School celebrates its 125th anniversary early next year the Hickson family will be there, just as they have been every day for the last 125 years.

The wider family have an unbroken record of attendance from day one at the small Bay of Plenty school which is tucked in between the farmland and orchards behind Pukehina Beach.

It was founded in February 1892 with a roll of just 18 students - one of which was Maud Benner, who was followed by five generations of family members whose descendants attend the school to this day.

Maud's grandson and former pupil, Paul Hickson, is now part of a committee organising the 125th anniversary celebrations and is looking to attract as many former students back for the event to be held in February next year.

Hickson, 66, has fond memories of his time there in the late 1950s.

"We used to go to school in bare feet, play under the oaks and play marbles".

Hickson said he was delighted his family connection continues into a fifth generation.

"I've got young Alexavier there now and its lovely to see him go into the grounds under the same oak trees that were there when I was there."

As those first pupils became adults, the original Benner family expanded through inter-marriage until the school became heavily populated by cousins and relatives, which is still the case today.

"Now at Pongakawa, if you talk to anyone you've got to be careful what you say because there's a lot of inter-connection between families."

Changing land use in the area has seen the school's roll and ethnic diversity evolve.

Among the changes the growth of the kiwifruit industry in recent times has seen the arrival of young Indian pupils attending the rural school.

"In our day it was very white middle class, quite strict with the strap and everything but nowadays its wonderful to go up there and be greeted by a powhiri.

"There's a lot more Maori culture coming through. I'm just very proud of the area and very proud of the school."

Despite being a tiny little country school, it punches well above its weight when it comes to the achievements of some of its former pupils.

Former Formula One world champion Denny Hulme attended during mid 1940s, and local legend has it he honed his skills on the long straight stretch of tarseal that is Pongakawa School Rd.

Planning is underway for a full weekend of events to mark the anniversary.

"We're anticipating between 800 and 1000 will the journey back which shows the heart this school has and the depth of feeling for it," principal Craig Haggo said.

Asked where that depth of feeling comes from, he said: "I think its a slice offered of New Zealand the way we would like to think all of New Zealand is."

Haggo believes it's the fact that country schools still have a focus on the old traditions and values that endear them to former pupils and give them a point of difference to their city conterparts.

"It's that feeling that when you walk through the gate this is like home, it's a second home for you."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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