This December marks half-a-century since the Te Awamutu Rose Garden opened, putting the small rural community on the map as the 'Rosetown of the World'. Bethany Rolston dives into the past to learn more about the Te Awamutu couple key in establishing the famous garden. Patrick (Pat) and Patricia (Paddy) Stephens have passed on, but she meets their son Paul Stephens to hear stories about the legendary couple honoured in the town's Walk of Fame.
Pat and Paddy Stephens were never supposed to live in Te Awamutu.
The couple met and fell in love in Auckland and decided to move to the Hamilton suburb of Frankton.
But they missed their stop and got off the train in Te Awamutu instead.
Fortunately, Pat and Paddy stayed in the small rural town where their love for roses would blossom and spread throughout the community, eventually resulting in the opening of the Rose Garden.
"Pat and Paddy — they were like pepper and salt," their son Paul says.
Pat was a hard-working man with a "do it once and do it right" attitude.
Paddy could sing, play the piano, cook, sew, was a social butterfly and always the best-dressed woman in the room.
The couple owned a shop in Te Awamutu, Pat Stephens Menswear, and lived on Alexandra St before building a house on Kihikihi Rd.
After having their first daughter, Gay, Pat went to war from 1940 to 1945, serving in the Mediterranean.
"The war changed Dad — he came back as a different man," Paul says.
Once Pat returned, he and Paddy had two more children — Paul and Robyn.
Paul has fond memories of his childhood, going duck shooting with his dad and helping out at the shop.
The family home was full of love, laughter, and lush plants, flowers and vegetable gardens.
Before Pat and Paddy became transfixed with roses, their first love was growing and exporting orchids.
"They had hundreds — it was magnificent," Paul says.
"They used to pick them and work all night downstairs in the basement, getting them ready for export."
Then all of a sudden it was all about roses.
"Mum wanted to plant half a dozen roses down the driveway and that's where it all started," Paul says.
"Dad said, 'If we're going to do something, we're going to do it properly. Now, let's find out how to plant these bloody things.'"
Roses took over their lives, and they pulled out their large vegetable garden to make way for more.
From wasteland to wonderland
Building the Rose Garden was an "eight-month miracle" that transformed a rugged piece of wasteland into an "international wonderland".
"It was literally just a horse paddock, with blackberry 20-feet high," Paul says.
The idea was conceived by Ray Hyams, owner of now-closed Hyams Rosetown Jewellers and member of service group Jaycees.
The Jaycees got Pat, Paddy and the Te Awamutu Rose Society on-board with the idea to build a garden that welcomed people into the town.
It helped that the mayor of Te Awamutu Borough Council at the time, Ned Freeman, supported it.
But the whole town leaped on the idea, with farmers, schools and families helping to dig the six-feet-deep rose beds.
Pat and Paddy travelled around the country collecting roses for the garden, spending thousands of dollars.
The garden, on the corner of Gorst Ave and Arawata St, was opened by Governor-General Sir Arthur Porritt in December 1969.
In the Te Awamutu Rose Garden Gazette, a publication put out by the Te Awamutu Courier, Rose Society member Dick Murtagh said walking through the garden was "a veritable walk through an international wonderland".
"Roses bred in many countries are planted and growing peacefully side by side, and one is reminded that if the nations of the world lived together in the same harmony as their roses what a wonderful world it would be."
Pat and Paddy became world-renowned rosarians, exhibiting and judging at rose shows in New Zealand and overseas.
They were life members of the New Zealand Rose Society, serving in leadership roles and mentoring others.
In his obituary, Pat was described as an outstanding president of the national society, who united people with his "internationalism and bonhomie".
Pat and Paddy became close friends with legendary Irish rose breeder, the late Sam McGredy , who visited New Zealand annually for the National Rose Show.
He taught them how to breed roses, and they would later become godparents to Sam's daughter, Clodagh.
Despite their international recognition, Pat and Paddy remained devoted to their small town.
They proudly promoted Te Awamutu as the Rosetown of the World and bred the Te Awamutu Centennial rose for the town's 100th anniversary in 1984.
They were founding members of the Te Awamutu Rose Society, a group of rose enthusiasts promoting roses and organising rose shows.
The society's motto was "to implant roses in the hearts and gardens of the people".
Paddy was a recipient of the Frank Penn Memorial Award for service to the society.
The couple established the Te Awamutu Rose Trust, which, to this day, helps to maintain and enhance the Rose Garden.
Pat and Paddy held leadership roles in the two groups and were life members.
Pat was a brave, humble man who liked to keep things to himself.
In 1970 he rescued a woman from a burning car, which caught on fire after she reversed out of her driveway into the path of a large truck.
Pat, who was in his garden at the time, heard the crash, raced across the road and dragged the woman from the burning car, her clothes and hair also on fire.
The car was destroyed in minutes and the woman eventually recovered in hospital.
For his efforts, Pat won a bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society, a charity recognising acts of bravery.
But he didn't like to gloat about it.
"I didn't know about the crash for three weeks," Paul says. "He just told me he got a burn on his hand."
"Dad would be embarrassed that people called him humble because he'd say he wasn't humble, he was just him."
In 1982 Pat died of a heart attack at age 67.
Paddy lived for another 30 years, eventually selling their home and moving to Teasdale St.
The new owner of the Kihikihi Rd house didn't want hundreds of roses in the garden, so Paddy dug them out and gave them all away.
Paddy's involvement in the community wasn't limited to just roses.
She was a keen and competitive player of the card game bridge and a founding member of the Te Awamutu Bridge Club in 1961, and member of the Lyceum Club.
In her obituary, Paddy was described as a "formidable rose grower with an eye for perfection".
She had a rose named after her, one with "lightly scented coral-orange, salmon flowers", bred by Dr McGredy. It is considered to be one of New Zealand's best roses and was a multiple-award-winner.
The Paddy Stephens rose produced a sport — a naturally-occurring genetic mutation — which was named Hamilton Gardens.
It was the last rose bred by Dr McGredy and he considered it his best.
Paul describes his mum as a "glamorous legend".
"She dressed beautifully but would think nothing of rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck into a job.
"At the end of her life, she could have sat back and said 'my life's work has been done' if she wanted."
Paddy passed away at 95, and is buried alongside Pat in the Te Awamutu Cemetery.
A new leaf
The Rose Garden was uninterrupted for many years, until in 2017 when a Waipā District Council project saw 19 per cent of the garden culled to make way for a children's bike park.
A group of Te Awamutu residents was furious, believing the changes were an insult to the hardworking people who established the gardens.
However, new beds were planted to replace the affected roses and the bike park has proved an asset to Te Awamutu.
The Rose Garden survived the changes and is now in the heart of a flourishing social hub, surrounded by the library, playground and events centre.
The gardens continue to thrive and contain 1300 roses, made up of 51 varieties, in flower from November to May.
This December will be the 50th anniversary of the Rose Gardens, with many of the variations Pat and Paddy first planted standing strong and in bloom.