Drago Yelavich celebrated his 90th birthday on Saturday. Nothing especially remarkable about that - he was by no means the only nonagenarian at the Dalmatian Hall, and many of those who celebrated with him will soon be celebrating the same milestone. But it was remarkable, perhaps, in that the occasion served as a reminder of how things have changed, and how the selfless service to community that was once common is no longer so evident.
Mate Radich commented that no one was following Drago's generation in terms of community service, and that was a fair comment. There are still some who give of their time, energy and skills for the benefit of others, but not on the same scale as they once did.
Drago made his living, for 58 years, as a barber, in Awanui and in later years in Kaitaia, but there has been much more to his life than that. A talented athlete in his youth, he was lauded as a fine rugby player (who no doubt did not get the opportunities to take full advantage of that that he might have today, although he confessed that, to his regret, training had never held great appeal). He's still competitive though, these days including as a cunning and beatable-only-with-difficulty croquet player and indoor bowler.
He has been a member of the Dalmatian Cultural Club since 1955, and a member of the tamburica band since 1959. Her remains active in both. His major contribution, however, was as a member of the Kaitaia Rotary Club, which he joined on December 10, 1969. He was still there in 2019, just a few months short of celebrating half a century of service, when the club finally conceded defeat and folded, with just four remaining members.
Moves have been made by Rotary in New Zealand to make membership a little less onerous, in a bid to stem the decline in numbers, but they came too late for Kaitaia. Throughout Drago's 50 years, being a Rotarian demanded a huge commitment. His contribution was recognised with one of the 28 Paul Harris Fellowships awarded by the club in its 65-year history. He, John Reynolds and Graham Sanders were the first to receive fellowships, while he, John Foster, Percy Erceg and Jack Holder received sapphire pins, the highest award of all. Drago got two of them.
The club was chartered in 1954 (with president Rhys Williams and directors Les Hegley, Baden Beard, John Reynolds and Wally Smith, all deservedly household names in Kaitaia in the day and for many years after). The charter was presented by Harold Thomas, first vice-president of Rotary International, who was born and bred at Pukenui.
Three generations of Rotarians subsequently devoted countless thousands of hours to bettering their community, for the benefit of all, starting with installing the paddling pool at Kaitaia's public swimming baths, built as a World War II memorial, followed by the nurses' recreation hall at Kaitaia Hospital. In those days the hospital trained enrolled nurses, and for many Rotary awarded prizes to the two who gained the highest marks at the completion of their training.
Rotary gifted the town clock that once stood on the corner of Commerce St and Redan Rd to Kaitaia. It planted trees at Lake Ngatu, Ahipara and in Kaitaia, along with lawns and gardens at Switzer Residential Care. It built and gifted the welcomed/farewell signs that were erected at the north and south entrances to Kaitaia, laid concrete for the squash club, the IHC, Kaitaia's old library, Red Cross and the Tāipa boat ramp. It installed seating in Durbin Drive (South Rd), at the hospital, in Oxford St and at Awanui, built the fence on the Kaitaia public cemetery's western boundary, replaced a fence at Anne West Kindergarten, built and gifted the water wheel that is about to be restored at Te Ahu, built the helipad at the hospital and put a barbecue table and seating in Jaycee Park.
It led the extraordinary effort to plant 77,790 pine trees to create the community forest at Waipapakauri Ramp, which benefited the Far North by many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It funded exchanges with Australian students, Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, youth driver awareness programmes, the Model United Nations Assemble, Challenge camps, Outward Bound courses, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) culminations at Far North schools, the Rotary National Science and Technology Forum, dictionaries for 9-year-old school children, public speaking competitions, apprentice awards, the Sci-Tech Experience, defensive driving courses, group student exchanges, contributed to the global eradication of polio and to a reticulated water scheme in Vanuatu, collected spectacles and books for Pacific Islands.
It funded emergency response kits, shelter boxes, trolley derbies, rescue equipment for the Kaitaia Fire Brigade and a resuscitator for St John, and raised funds for myriad organisations.
All that was funded by means including demolishing old buildings - oh that the club had its sights on Kaitaia's old Warehouse and increasingly dilapidated old Pak'nSave - and selling the materials, auctions, paid painting jobs, book sales, casino evenings, race meetings at the community centre, combined service club balls, laying pipes at Kaitaia Intermediate School, sunshine sessions. And raffles.
Rotary's attitude, Drago said in 2019, was 'Don't boast about it, get on with it. Service above self.' And there was always Rotary's four-way test - Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? We could do with a bit more of that today.
Drago Yelavich might have done no more than many other Rotarians, but he played an important part in half a century of community service that is still benefiting many today. He contributed to a genuine legacy that many people have no idea of.
Few give to their community on such a grand scale these days. For many, work and family commitments preclude that sort of service, but there is a degree of selfishness too. These days it is more likely that any effort to improve the community will go no further than demanding that 'someone' does 'something,' usually to be paid for by the tax or ratepayer.
Meanwhile, if anyone ever deserved a bit of a shindig for their 90th birthday it was Drago Yelavich. He said on Saturday that his first thought when he woke that morning was, 'I've made it!' Plenty of those who gathered that afternoon, the writer included, undertook to be back on February 27, 2031, to celebrate another milestone with him.
Happy birthday Drago, and every best wish for many more.