"I probably didn't want to retire," says Tom Henderson.

"I liked what I did and I liked the people I did it for.

"But I had been there for 50 years ... "

Tom started working for Hatuma Lime Co in 1968, when he was 22 years old. Since then he has worked for three generations of the company's owners — the Topp family.

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"I started working for Joe Topp. He was a hard man — straight off the shoulder — but a real old-fashioned gentleman. I like straight people.

"I started working for Joe Topp. He was a hard man — straight off the shoulder — but a real old-fashioned gentleman. I like straight people."

"Joe invented Dicalcic Phosphate, he designed new machines for spreading lime, he was always working on something. Joe was a great role model and he put his mark on me.

"Since then I have worked for Joe's son Clifford, and now Clifford's son Aaron has taken over the sales side of the business. They've always been a great family."

Tom's background had originally been farming, then he did agricultural work and drove tractors for Peter and Tony Kittow.

When Peter left the business Tom went to work for Hatuma Lime, initially loading and checking railway wagons.

"Everything went by rail then, we had a lot going out and a big crew."

It was hard physical work and sometimes "tremendous hours" with up to 70 wagons a day having to be loaded, covered and checked.

Tom remembers a new employee starting.

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"We did 22 wagons, then sat down for smoko and the new bloke saw more wagons being shunted into place. He asked what they were for and we told him we were loading them too. 'You might be but I'm not' he said and he got into his car and belted off. We didn't see him again."

After his stint on the wagons Tom went "up the hill" harvesting lime with bulldozers. He did a lot of quarry work and enjoyed driving bulldozers and motor scrapers.

Clifford Topp says Tom always had a passion for machinery.

"We had an old Euclid motor scraper that was 20 years old and year after year Tom fixed it and drove it until finally the only way we could get him to stop repairing it was to bury it — which we did.

"We had a D9 bulldozer and a Terex 82/40 and Tom drove both of those in the quarry.

Neither had cabs of any kind..no roll-over protection, no air conditioning or heater.
Tom drove these machines six days a week through southerly winds and driving rain and heat and dust and glare. And the smile never left his face."

In the early 1970s Hatuma Lime bought two new machines that shifted 5-6 million tonnes of product over the next 30 years, and Tom was in the thick of it.

In the 80s and 90s there was a downturn in the agricultural sector.

"We had all this gear and quality operators, so we took on some contracting work — a lot for the regional council — to keep the business on track," says Clifford.

"When we had rock contracts Tom was the person we could rely on to get these jobs done. He has built most of the stopbanks in CHB, built airstrips and dams, worked on dairy conversions, the Back Paddock Lakes project ... he's changed transmissions and gear boxes, carried out repairs and drove Joe to the chiropractor.

"When we bought the Mauriceville plant it was Tom we sent to open it up."

His other forte was training new operators.

"Tom would teach them more than how to drive. He'd sit outside the cab on a safety harness and he'd teach them how to listen to the motor and gearbox, he understood the relationship between drivers and machines and he'd know who was going to make the grade.

"We're going to miss his invaluable experience. There are a lot of machine operators in CHB and further afield who owe their ability and skill set to their time with Tom."

The older machines were not as reliable and they had to be looked after, and when they broke down an operator had to know how to fix them.

"I've driven every machine they had out there," Tom says.

"And spent time in the workshop. Then I got into training drivers. It's harder to train them if they've done it before — they tend to have bad habits. I enjoyed driving motor scrapers but a lot of people found them hard to drive as they rock around a lot. Some drivers never got it.

"Modern machinery — it's different. Easier to drive but too many electronics. If they break down you can't fix them ... it's all done by laptop.

Tom can't read and write — "never could and probably never will," he says. But if he ever had to refer to an operator's manual the solution was simple — "I'd get someone to read it."

Clifford and Helen Topp say Tom's loyalty, knowledge, work and life ethic have been unsurpassable.

"He was here for the business as much as we are — it was not just a job. The guys loved being around him."

They also pay tribute to Tom's wife Alana who has supported him all the way, including long hours and time away from home.

Tom says it's the people who have made him stay for 50 years.

"Real good jokers. There's always been good comradeship at Hatuma. The boys were the main thing and this old bugger appreciated them." Now his focus is on working around home and "looking after mother [Alana].

"That's the most important thing."