Our People: Henry Parkinson

By Jill Nicholas

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Our People: Henry Parkinson has lived in the same Koutu house for 58 years. Photo/Stephen Parker.
Our People: Henry Parkinson has lived in the same Koutu house for 58 years. Photo/Stephen Parker.

If ever there were words that deserve the "yeah, right" tagline it's Henry Parkinson's insistence that he's 'just a simple man . . . there's nothing the slightest bit interesting about me'.

Henry, you are so, so wrong. It's not every day we get to introduce a former Maori All Black, someone who pegged out Koutu when it was wasteland, has overseen Rotorua's street layout, lived 58 years in the same house, fathered an out-of-wedlock child in Tonga and 'come to the Lord'.

For this he gives "eternal thanks" to Bishop Brian Tamaki and the Destiny Church. Henry's been a member since his late wife Awhina (she died in January) became an early convert and insisted he join too.

"My wife's the greatest thing I've had, coming to the Lord is the next".

Henry's astonishingly up-front about his half Tongan daughter, admitting he 'fell into adultery' during a late 1950s Maori All Blacks Pacific Island tour.

"Awhina forgave me but that wasn't the only bad thing I did then, Waka Nathan conned me into smoking, we went by boat and got bored."

We record his transgressions with his blessing. Initially his reluctance to talk to us had been typically humble Henry, but we had him snared when we suggested his is a story that should be recorded not for his sake or ours, but for his large, extended whanau.

That swayed him into relenting - grudgingly. "Well, I guess you'd better do it, knobs and all, before it's too late."

To assist with understanding who he is, where he comes from, Henry provides us with his whakapapa (genealogy), extracting a promise we won't write a word unless we include a slice of it.

To abbreviate, he's a "half and halfer": Pakeha on his father's side, Maori on his mother's.

His Maori great great grandfather signed the Treaty of Waitangi on behalf of his Torere iwi, his Pakeha great grandfather, a British-born gold prospector, settled in Opotiki.

It was Rotorua's steamy waters that lured Henry away from home turf.

"After our school played Pirates we went for a soak in their thermal bath, I thought 'wow, this is the life for me', I'd only swum in our river, you had to swim fast to keep warm."

Little wonder then that he held the Bay of Plenty schools' 100 yard (90.44 metres) swimming record for eight years.

Henry's a sportsman of many hues, captaining Opotiki High's 1st XV, 1st X1 and winning multiple athletic titles including the 220 yards (201.168 metres) at the inaugural Maori Games of 1950.

The following year he was Bay of Plenty' cricket's opening batsman.

When he came to Rotorua as a Maori Affairs surveyor's chainman his boss, Martin McRae, insisted he join the Waikite club where all the 'big guns' played.

The highly decorated Maori Battalion hard man ("he used to get us to dig shrapnel out of his back") wasn't one to be disobeyed.

"He was my boss and rugby coach, after one game he put me in Waikite's A team as fullback, they nearly revolted because I displaced one of their mates."

During his Compulsory Military Training at Papakura the army capitalised on Henry's rugby skills, fielding him against Ardmore Teachers College in an Eden Park curtain raiser.

"Ardmore won, John Keaney [former Rotorua mayor] was in their team, he never stopped giving me hang about that."

His Maori All Black selection apart, there were numerous games in which Henry wore Rotorua and Bay of Plenty's colours.

In 1953 he was a sitter for the Bay's Ranfurly Shield team but a knee injury meant he missed the trials. There were two trips across the Tasman to compensate: "I was a guy who loved running with the ball . . . playing in a lot of positions."

A so-called 'friendly' against Hautu prison inmates ended Henry's rugby days.

"I broke my ankle, never played again". Softball, tennis and squash became his codes of choice "because I could play with my whanau".

Long before this Henry had married Awhina " . . . a shotgun wedding, we met at the Tama [Tamatekapua meeting house] dances, she was my first girl, I really went overboard, we were dirt poor, had to borrow a wedding ring".

Waikite mates helped build their Taharangi St home, Henry still lives there.

"This area was all scrub, Martin [McRae] got me the section, the first Waikite clubrooms, an old shed from Kawerau, were across the road."

As his family grew Henry tired of spending time away from them. "Maori Affairs had us all over: Mangakino, the King Country, the thrill of adventure had gone."

A mate at the city (later district) council told him an engineer assistant's job was going, Henry filled it, serving the council for 29 years.

"My first boss, Eddie Quinn, and I oversaw [building] the International Stadium from a paddock up".

He was promoted to street works engineer but presenting reports to council meetings wasn't Henry's thing.

"I lasted 18 months before changing to resource engineer, supervising sub-division standards. I was really happy to be outside again."

Henry's council days ended when he reached retirement age but fond as he was of playing golf, he wasn't ready to stop work.

"I became a casual worker with Couldry surveyors, it was back to the old chainman days . . . I kept going until I couldn't hammer pegs in, my legs were too old for the hills."

Who's he fooling about those legs? At 78 they carried him around the marathon course. "I walked it then, now I want to run it."

HENRY PARKINSON:
Born: Opotiki, 1932
Education: Opotiki primary and high schools
Family: Two sons, 1 daughter (another died at 50), 13 "or is it 15?" mokopuna, has lost count of their offspring
Interests: Whanau, golf (plays as a veteran), sport of all codes, Rotorua Marathon
On rugby today: "So many scrums spoil it".
Personal Philosophy: "Put God first in your life".

- Rotorua Daily Post

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