Drago Yelavich celebrated his 90th birthday at the Dalmatian Hall in Kaitaia on Saturday, with mixed feelings.
His first thought when he woke that morning was "I've made it!" he said, but, and he thanked God for having reached the milestone, but he was saddened that his "darling wife and soul mate" Anna, who died in 2016, and his late sister Nellie weren't there.
They were very much there in his heart and thoughts though.
"I know they are in Heaven with the rest of our family, celebrating with us," he said.
A number of speakers paid tribute to Drago and all that he had achieved, far and beyond the almost 58 years he served as a barber, first in Awanui, where he was raised, and then in Kaitaia. A fine athlete in his youth, and a rugby player who inspired comparison with Jonah Lomu, he confessed that training had never had great appeal for him, but there was no doubting that his mother had taken great pride in his achievements on the field.
The late Eric Flinn once told the story of he and a few team members would call at the Yelavich home in Awanui on a Saturday night, only to be told that he was out, "tracking" his bride to be Anna Vujcich.
One of the visitors would then say 'My word, Drago played well today," prompting his mother to invite them in to tell her more, and to enjoy a glass or two of her wine, which by all accounts was very good.
Drago is still a fierce competitor, with some success, in croquet and indoor bowls, but his major contribution to his community was as a member of the Kaitaia Rotary Club. He joined on December 10, 1969, and was just a couple of months short of 50 years in the club when it folded in 2019. During that time he was involved in many major projects, including the planting of 77,790 pine trees to establish the community forest at Waipapakauri Ramp, a project that benefited myriad Far North organisations to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars when the trees were harvested.
His contribution to Rotary was recognised with a Paul Harris Fellowship, one of 28 awarded by the club in 65 years, and two sapphire pins, the highest award Rotary can bestow.
He had been the club's president no fewer than four times, and held almost every other position at some time or other.
He also made a major contribution to the Kaitaia Dalmatian Cultural club, which he joined in 1955, the year after it was formed, and was still actively involved as a club member, an indoor bowler and a member of the tamburica band.
And while much of Saturday afternoon was spent looking back, Drago was also looking forward, inviting everyone to return to the same venue on February 27, 2031, to celebrate his 100th birthday.
The way we were - page 6.