Twelve Questions: Greg Chalmer

Avondale Primary School principal Greg Chalmers was James K. Baxter’s right-hand man at Jerusalem, going on to lead the community after the poet’s death. The 65-year-old co-founded Harvest Whole Foods and was the first European to make tofu commercially in New Zealand.
Greg Chalmers says most principals will agree schools have been bullied into national standards. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Greg Chalmers says most principals will agree schools have been bullied into national standards. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1 Why did you join the community at Jerusalem in 1970?

I was a 20-year-old student flatting in Christchurch when I read a Weekly News article about Jim and the community. I said to my brother, "Have my car, look after my records, I'm going." I walked out and hitchhiked up to Jerusalem. I'd never been involved with alternative things and still had short hair. A local farmer gave me a ride and asked if I was "one of them hippies"? I said, "I dunno yet." I walked into this old house filled with all these hairy people. Jim came up and gave me a big hug and said "Come in brother and have a cup of tea."

2 What led to your decision to go there?

I grew up in a working class family of 12 children. At Southland Boys' High School I did all the right things - prefect, rugby, cricket, but I always felt something wasn't right. I wanted to set the world right but I couldn't quite see what to do.

3 What was the philosophy underpinning Jerusalem?

Jerusalem was a haven for disenfranchised people on the outskirts of society to come and heal. Jim realised we're actually tribal by nature. It's not healthy to live alone. So he looked to the marae as a model for community living. Jim set up the blueprint for truly bicultural living between Maori and Pakeha.

4 What learnings have you taken forward in life?

Jim once pointed to the marae and said, "Just for a little bowing of the head, Greg, you can enter that world." I've never forgotten my privileged position in what is still a pretty racist country. One of my biggest frustrations facilitating Treaty of Waitangi workshops over the years is the hugely defensive response of my Pakeha colleagues. They say, "Why should I feel guilty for what my great-grandparents did?" But Maori are still really struggling in their own land. What we had at Jerusalem wasn't one group over the other. They gave us a place to live and we worked with them on the marae. I learned that you can live together as long as you work together and respect each other.

5 How did you end up becoming Jim's right-hand man?

Jim saw that I had a strong work ethic. I'd been there for about six months when he went off on a speaking tour and just left me in charge, the old bugger. I asked the marae for help. The old ladies would say, "Get all those people out of bed, Greg, they should be working." There were people lying around in all kinds of states. Not using drugs, there were no drugs or alcohol because Jim had been an alcoholic. These were damaged people. Many had horrendous lives in mental hospitals. Parents used to throw their teenagers in there and these poor kids would stagger out having had shock treatment. Jim and I worked together to look after them. He said, "You and I don't mind taking the ducklings under our wings. Even if there are a few lice, we don't worry."

6 How would you describe your relationship with Jim - was he your mentor?

Probably, but it wasn't conscious. He was a very subtle fellow, very astute. He never held himself up as a guru. He made a point of letting people know how flawed he was, and he was bloody flawed. He had women around him all the time, his "tribe" he used to call them. He had several girlfriends in the time I was there, but they were all consenting adults.

7 You ran the community after Jim died of a heart attack at age 46 and wound it up three years later. Was that a tough decision?

It was, but there was a feeling that it had run its course. Our contract work on local farms had dried up and some pretty undesirable characters started turning up. People brought in alcohol and I found myself breaking up fights. So I went to the marae and we agreed it was time to wrap it up.

8 How did you get into the tofu business?

When I got back from my OE, I said to my brother, "Let's make tofu." So we set up Harvest Wholefoods in Grey Lynn. I lived in the flat upstairs and got up every morning to grind the beans and make tofu in wooden barrels. There were Chinese and Japanese restaurants making tofu in New Zealand then but I was the first European to do it commercially. After we sold up, I moved to Levin.

9 Why Levin?

My partner Julie was from there and we wanted our daughter Pare to be around extended family. Then we split up. So I was a solo dad for five years. I had enough te reo to start helping at Pare's Kohanga Reo and studied nights to be a teacher. I lost my Pare five years ago. She'd got into trouble with drugs and fled to Australia, had three children really quickly and got post-natal depression. I was holding a meeting in the boardroom when she phoned and said, "Dad can I talk?" I said, "I'm in a meeting, Pare, can you ring me in half an hour?" She said, "Whatever," walked out and took her own life. I have plenty of guilt about that. Sometimes it's easier to help people who aren't close to you.

10 Are you a religious or spiritual person?

At Pare's tangi, people found white shapes in photos taken from several different angles. The old man sitting there said, "Oh she's come back." You just knew he was right. I know there are spirits. I don't know how to fit that into a religion, but I'm mindful of it.

11 As principal of Avondale Primary, do you think education is going in the right direction in this country?

No, I'm really worried about it. Almost every principal without exception would say we were bullied into national standards through a shonky process. I spent the whole of today doing data. I'm against this new scheme to reward "good" teachers and punish "bad" ones. There's no such thing as a perfect teacher. You need a collaborative culture so staff can support each other to meet gaps.

12 These days you dress quite conservatively. Why's that?

I was a scruffy teacher for years until I saw an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on TV where they transformed a guy who looked just like me - shaved his head, trimmed his beard and made him wear a tie. I thought, "I can do that." It helps to look professional. What people appreciate more than anything is that you're friendly and caring and you're not scared of giving them a hug.

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- NZ Herald

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