When Ray Bates contacted Our People it was to ask us to pay tribute to the number of 'old' Rotorua families he's connected to and their contributions to Rotorua.

With names like Nelson, Richardson and Caudwell the list's impressive. His mother was a Nelson, four of her sons went to WWI, Flight Sergeant Ken Nelson, failed to return.

Fascinating as it is to learn of these long links, what Ray failed to realise is that his story's of equal interest . . . that by chatting with us he'd opened a chronicle recording the impressive input he too has had in shaping the district that's been his home all his 85 years.

It's a revealing insight into how things were when Ray was a boy and of the region's rapid post-war development which he helped shape.

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The Bates have been part of Rotorua since Ray's grandfather, Joe, introduced the family name to the register of Pakeha residents in 1906. An English expat, he moved into a Kawaha Point cottage. It's where Peppers on the Point now stands; the Bates' cottage is its office block.

When Ray's dad, Harold, married Myrtle Neilson they set up home at 79 Amohau St, today it's local MP Todd McClay's office.

In Ray's youth Rotorua's hub, the railway station, was across the road.

"That's where I spent my growing up years, playing in the plantation, watching the trains, there was always a policeman on the platform when the express came in and out."

Ray later worked at the railway yards' on-site fertiliser depot but that was some time after completing a 5000 hours (five-year) building apprenticeship.

"I started with Bert Healey straight out of school, you were lucky to get a job in those days."

As a kid Ray loved sport and remains outdoorsy.

"I was in the athletics club, played rugby for St Michael's, practising at the race course, Bert [his boss] coached Pirates, their clubrooms were a house in Whakaue St."

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He pulled away from rugby when it became too drinking-orientated for his liking.
Riding took its place.

"My grandfather bought me an ex-army horse, he wasn't too good on his feet but I rode him at the hunts on Docherty's farm opposite what's now the Ford Block."

At 23 and still a bachelor, Ray built his own home "up on Lynmore Hill by the Ngati Whakaue farm, there was nothing there then". He still lives in the area and over the years has developed a number of surrounding properties.

In the early 1950s Ray's brother, Bill, enticed him away from building to join him contracting to Lands & Survey, developing Galatea farms for balloting to ex- servicemen.

"We reticulated each block, when the farmers came the only thing completed was the cowshed, houses were part-houses, there was no power, you had to crank this huge generator with a handle."

As settlers moved onto the land the versatile Bates brothers supplied pig huts and became haymakers. Home was the former "conchie" (conscientious objectors') camp.

When the Galatea work ended Bill used his pride and joy, the Bedford truck he'd bought at 20, to cart metal for the Public Works Department.

A major undertaking was carting Bailey-type bridges to span streams leading to the Matahina dam construction site. . . "very difficult country, a lot of rocky cliff faces".

It was while working on repairing a bridge over the Reporoa-Orakae Korako section of the Waikato River that Ray had one of his hairiest moments.

"The bridge was a gaping hole, the Taupo ambulance raced up, I told the driver he'd have to go another way, he said there wasn't time, his patient was in a bad way. We put a couple of beams across a 10 foot (3m+) gap and waved him on. If anything had gone wrong that ambulance would have dropped into the water below . . . just imagine."

Imagine indeed.

Anyone who thinks 2014's winter's been wet didn't experience 1955's continuous downpour.

"I was working on the Rotorua-Paengaroa Rd, it was very very primitive and slip-prone, we worked day and night for weeks to keep it open." Some years on he was involved in redeveloping the same stretch into the main link to Tauranga's new port.

He spent time with Emoleum sealing the East Coast road to Waihau Bay. "We had to close stretches, goodness knows why, there wasn't any traffic."

From roading contractor, Ray switched to maintenance work for Auckland's wealthy Richwhite family at their Ohau Channel and Hatepe (south of Taupo) fishing lodges.

"George Wilder [famed prison escapee] was on the loose, at Hatepe he got in through the roof and could have lived there for months, there was that much food and drink stored inside."

A string of building jobs included working on the DB Hotel (now the Copthorne); other major city developments followed.

"At times I'd have three jobs on the go, you've got to be versatile when you have a family."

That brings us to Ray's 1956 marriage to dental nurse Carole Adlington and the touching story of Philip, the youngest of their five children. While pregnant with him Carole contracted German measles; as a result he was born brain damaged, with a heart defect, blind in one eye and deaf.

He's recently turned 50, has visited Disneyland several times, toured the Boeing factory and for years has worked as a Rotorua Hospital groundsman.

Ray's genuinely surprised when we say his is quite some life story. "Heck, I've just worked hard and enjoyed it."

RAY BATES

Born: Rotorua, 1929.
Education: Rotorua Primary and High School.
Family: Wife Carole, three sons, two daughters, 11 grandchildren.
Interests and community involvement: Family, gun dog trialling (life member Rotorua Gun Dog Club), original member, now patron, Rotorua Tramping and Skiing Club "I've skied the South Island more than Ruapehu", shooting (active gun club member), fishing, travel, gardening "if you have a little bit of land you can live off it".
Personal philosophy: "Enjoy every day."