At 89, George Stankovich could be forgiven for putting his feet up and letting others look after him. He has yet to do so, however, and likely never will.

George is widely regarded as the last of the gumdiggers, but it's another early trade, a cutter of firewood, that keeps him busy these days.

The son of Andrija (Andrew) and Celia (nee Ngawhika) Stankovich, he was born in Kaitaia but spent the first seven years of his life at Ahipara. The family subsequently moved to Waihopo, north of Houhora, George failing dismally at persuading his father that he would be better employed as a marine engineer than a gumdigger.

A passion for machinery, and especially trucks, never deserted him, however. At 16, before he was legally old enough to drive a big truck, he got behind a wheel for the first time, helping deliver a truck from Auckland to Waihopo.

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George said he had started digging gum with his father at the age of around 14.

He was still at school then, having begun his education at Waihopo, then enrolling at Te Kao High School, where he gained his Certificate of Proficiency, preceded by lessons by correspondence.

His days as a student at Te Kao didn't last long, the daily trek by horse from Waihopo routinely making him very late for classes, but he was very well educated for a youngster of his generation.

His role in the gumdigging industry gave him the opportunity to appear in a film documentary, although his efforts to persuade all and sundry that he was a film star were not entirely successful.

He was still in his teens when the bottom dropped out of the kauri gum market, and he set out to establish himself as a cartage contractor, carrying gum from Ahipara to Awanui for shipment to Auckland. His first real stroke of luck came when his father decided he needed a truck to expand his gum-buying business. Unable to drive himself, then or at any time in his life, that job went to his delighted son.

He has hardly stopped driving since.

He also spent 18 months cutting ti-tree firewood at Te Paki for the boiler at Kaitaia Hospital, and carting it there. He employed close to a dozen men at that time, including half a dozen or so from Te Hapua families who had previously had no income.

Work hadn't been easy for many people at Te Hapua to find in those days, he said, while the payroll included a cook, whose job was to produce two substantial meals a day, six days a week.

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Meanwhile George's work as a carrier took him all over the North Island. He also learned to use dynamite, and worked for some years as a quarry manager, mainly living in Auckland, although a 6m caravan was also often home to him, his wife Margaret (nee Petricevich, from Te Kao) and their five children, including a less than tropical stint in the central North Island, while he worked on the Desert Rd.

He was a handy amateur boxer in his day too, taking the ring 42 times, a talent inherited by his sons George (a Commonwealth Games medallist) and Andrew, both of whom represented New Zealand. Both were selected for the New Zealand team for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but never got there, thanks to New Zealand's joining a widespread boycott of the Games following Russia's invasion of Afghanistan.

George was to have gone with them, but was denied that opportunity. Some New Zealand athletes paid their own way to get to the Games, but that was never an option for Team Stankovich.

Andrew is also widely acclaimed as one of the best Elvis Presley impersonators in the world.

Now George is in the Far North, living at Pukepoto, where he officially 'retired' in the 1970s. Retired, however, is a relative term. He's still cutting firewood for all sports of customers, and said last week that he had never been so busy.

Nor has he ever lost his skill as a driver, as Richard Sucich, whose maternal grandfather dug gum with George many years ago, could attest after bumping into his old friend in Kaitaia.

"I had a wonderful couple hours hanging with him yesterday, using a long, wide car-moving trailer from the hire shop, which we towed behind his big old Yank tank of a truck," he said.

"And he can out-drive me. The motor never got much above an idle at any stage, and he uses his left foot on the brake, leaving his right foot on the gas. His ability to manoeuvre this big truck and trailer in tight spaces was first class.

"Country music on the radio, windows down, both of us having a rollie smoke. Bugger me, we even came across Mum (Mary Sucich) on our travels."