CHARLIE WINDELL'S a great cuddly bear of a man with a high-revving personality seemingly fired by rocket fuel and a sonic boom of a laugh to match.

His stock of rapid-fire one-liners is probably one of the best in town.

Ask him about his golf handicap (he's a staunch Springfield man) and he insists it's his clubs. His pithy witticisms apart, good fun guy Charlie's an amalgam of two cultures American and Kiwi.

Born and raised in South Carolina, his New Zealand arrival was in 1997, brought to the Kinleith Mill site by the giant Bechtel engineering and construction company.


He was to have been at the world's far end for no more than 18 months. He's remained 18 years, minus a spell back in the States working on other construction

By then he was a married man.

It was his wife Jo who turned him into a Rotorua devotee. They met in 1998 when he stole a taxi she'd ordered from under her nose at a Chiefs International Stadium game.

"I've no idea who they were playing but it was freezing cold, she was entertaining clients in a corporate tent, I was on the terraces with my boozy mates, the taxi she ordered arrived, I told her I'd send it back for her. Her first words to me were 'you arrogant American bastard'."

All these years on Charlie still feigns surprise.

"Lordy, I was a shy, single Southern boy lovin' life." Here his drawl becomes pure Gone With The Wind. From the outset he's lived and played in Rotorua. "Herb's Place became my local, the centre of my universe."

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Pay was good, long weekends were spent in Fiji; there were several trips to Oz. Then Jo happened along. Weeks after their taxi dispute he spied her in the Pig & Whistle.

"She repeated that I was arrogant then fell madly in love with me.

Three months later the mayor [Grahame Hall] married us on the Village Green, prime minister Jenny Shipley was busy that day. The reception was at Herb's, where else?" During their time Stateside Jo worked as she'd always done, selling photocopiers. "That Kiwi girl could sell an ocean-front property on Mt Cook."

The couple's son, Jacob, now 14, was born in California. "He was 3months old when we returned to Rotorua. The low Kiwi dollar had been very advantageous for us, it bought us family time, I didn't work for 11 months, had the ideal life with a new-born son, how many men are that lucky?" Charlie's intention had been to return to construction-his expertise is in the office management side, not swarming up and down scaffolding "but I can do that if I have to".

Jo had her eyes set on buying a business. Destiny steered them towards Ma Higgins in Rotorua Central.

"We wandered in for a cup of coffee, got talking to the owner, she said she was going to move to Australia. We went home, talked about it, came back the next day and said 'are you serious about selling?'. She was, we bought it, people said we were crazy but we've been here 13 years, Jo calls me the social director."

It's an occupation and the business' location that's put Charlie at the hub of the community.

Come this publication's annual Christmas appeal he's invariably one of the first to put his hand in his pocket. Supporting charities is part of his ethos, the cornerstone of his membership of the Freemasons Lodge.

Freemasonry's engraved into his family history. His grandfather wasaMason, his
father and a brother too. Charlie's most prized possessions are his dad's Masonic ring and the family Bible.

We say he doesn't strike us as the religious type. His "you have to have belief in a supreme being" answer brooks no argument. That family Bible was in his hand when he was sworn in as Grand Master of Lodge Arawa; his term ended last July.

He accepts there are those who "slag off" the Freemasons. "That's entirely due to ignorance, no difference to me slagging off an organisation like Rotary which does so much good for others."

Under his leadership Lodge Arawa adopted St Chad's, the organisation dedicated to adults with disabilities.

"My aim was to bring the Lodge closer to grass roots."

His commitment to others doesn't stop at the Lodge door. He's been heavily involved in Diabetes New Zealand since it was discovered Jacob has type 1 diabetes. Charlie spent some time as the local youth co-ordinator.

"I had to pull out of the Masons for a while but the group's helped my boy so much I needed to repay the favour. I couldn't be more proud of that young man, he has diabetes, it doesn't have him."

Charlie's coached Jacob's school basketball teams for the past eight years-at Mokoia Intermediate then Lakes High. Coaching's another Windell family tradition. "My elder brother coached me when I was a kid, then I coached my smaller brother's team."

Home was a place called Rock Hill which, he says, is remarkably similar to Rotorua in size, with mill towns nearby. His Rotorua citizenship ceremony is one of life's high points if a mite humiliating.

"Kevin Winters [then mayor] asked if anyone objected to my becoming a New Zealand citizen. Two of my so-called mates piped up 'we do' and a voice from the peanut gallery said 'me too'.

"People give me s**t about being an American but it's heck of a good to be a New Zealander too."