Drago Yelavich, a member for 41 years, made it clear when he welcomed guests to the final gathering of the Kaitaia Rotary Club a couple of weeks ago that he did not wish the evening to become a funeral. But while there was a great deal to look back on with pride and satisfaction, it was a sad occasion nonetheless.
Those who witness the club's last rites were not only observing the demise of an organisation that had served its community extraordinarily well for 65 years and 11 days. It was also a concession that society, even in small-town New Zealand, has changed, slowly but inexorably, over the last three generations.
The underpinning philosophy of Rotary, 'Service above self,' or if you prefer 'One profits most who serves best,' has lost its currency in the 21st Century, and we are all the poorer for that.
The writing had been on the wall for the Kaitaia Rotary Club for some years. Membership had long been dwindling, despite the occasional rally, newcomers tending not to last long. It has always been difficult for long-serving members of any organisation to attract and retain new blood; those old members are generally set in their ways, and not necessarily open to new ways of doing things. Genuine efforts were made, to no avail, to make life as a Kaitaia Rotarian more appealing, and less onerous than it used to be — they traditionally met weekly, with attendance rates assiduously recorded. Significant absences were frowned upon. And then there were the weekend hours devoted to good works in the community.
By June 26, 2019, there were just four members left, one of them relatively new, and it was time to concede defeat.
A few of the club's contributions to its town are still highly visible today, but for how much longer? The water wheel built outside what is now Te Ahu has seen better days, and will collapse altogether soon enough. The wheel no longer turns, and the pond beneath it serves as little more than a receptacle for rubbish and a bath for seagulls.
The welcome sign at the southern entrance to Kaitaia still serves its purpose, proudly acknowledging the three cultures that once made the town and its surrounds what they were, but its twin in North Rd disappeared years ago to make way for the 'Pak'nSave roundabout,' and has not been seen since. Assurances from the Far North District Council and Te Hiku Community Board that it was in safe storage somewhere, and would one day be re-erected, always sounded hollow.
Offers to provide a site a little further north of where it was originally positioned have not been accepted, by the council, or at least have not been acted upon.
The town clock, designed to represent the Space Age that the world was then embarking upon, regarded by some as iconic, by others as endearingly quirky, and by yet others as lacking any skerrick of beauty or aesthetic merit, has also gone. Complicated (or so they sounded) explanations from the council as to why the clock had long ceased serving its primary purpose — to accurately tell the time — were finally rendered unnecessary by taking it away, again supposedly for safe storage elsewhere. We were told that it might well appear somewhere else, one day, as a nod to the town's past, but it hasn't.
We were also told that the clock, designed by Kaitaia Borough engineer Andre Bax, had become a public danger after a vehicle crashed into its foundation. The local police had no knowledge of any such mishap, leaving some to suspect that those who wanted it gone had concocted the story so they could sell the clock's disappearance as unfortunate but necessary.
Whatever, requests to the council and community board for assurances that it has not been forgotten, or discarded as scrap, have elicited soothing noises but no real response. The day will come when the council and community board comprise elected members and staff who won't remember that Kaitaia ever had a clock, and will have no idea what became of it.
There is much more evidence in and around Kaitaia of the fact that the town once boasted a thriving Rotary club, but those contributions have already largely been forgotten, because there is no visible reminder that Rotary was involved. Who knew that Rotarians built the paddling pool at Kaitaia's swimming baths? That they bent their backs to help build Anne West Kindergarten and the Plunket rooms in Bank St? Or that they built the nurses' recreation hall at Kaitaia Hospital?
One thing they did not do was litter the town with plaques recording their good works. They could have put one on the hill overlooking the town in Okahu Rd, where they planted trees, in Jim Durbin Drive (known to most as South Rd, between Te Ahu and the Switzer Home, which used to be an unsightly, stagnant manga, outside the pensioner flats at Ahipara, at the Switzer Home, at Lake Ngātu, and at Waipapakauri Ramp, where, alongside other service clubs and members of the wider community, 77,790 pine trees were planted to create the community forest.
Rotarians sowed the lawns at the Switzer Home, helped provide the Kaitaia Fire Brigade with rescue equipment and raised funds for a resuscitator for St John. They poured concrete for the squash club, the IHC, the town's former library, the Red Cross building and the Taipā boat ramp. They helped build and landscape the helipad at Kaitaia Hospital.
And throughout the last 65 years they invested heavily, in terms of money, time and effort, in supporting the town's young people, giving them opportunities that would otherwise have been out of their reach. Countless people in Kaitaia, and probably many more who have left for parts further afield, have cause to thank the Kaitaia Rotary Club for experiences that benefited them enormously.
Now, like Jaycees, Round Table, Kiwanis and Kiwaniannes before them, Rotary has folded, leaving the Lions as the last service club standing in the very Far North. And with those clubs has gone the belief that life in any community is what those who live there make it. That weekends can be spent much more productively than pursuing individual interests. That being an active member of a community involves giving to others, and in return receiving the benefits to be gained from doing good deeds.
Now it is easier to look for sponsors, or to wait for the council or government to fund things. Whatever needs doing is up to someone, not sure who, but not us. The spirit of giving survives, but in a different form, and somewhere along the line there always seems to be a need for funds from somewhere else. Whatever needs doing, it's not our job, and anyway, we're too busy.
Kaitaia lost more than it knows when Rotary dwindled to the point where it could not continue giving, but the sense of pride and community spirit that sustained it for so so long began ailing many years ago. Times have changed, and not for the better, but all who served Kaitaia, via any service club, can take pride in their contribution. Not that they are the kind of people to blow their own trumpet.
Asked what he would be doing on Wednesday nights now that he no longer had Rotary meetings to attend, Drago Yelavich said, "Cooking my own tea." Hopefully with a deep sense of satisfaction.