Your heroes should never die. It's not the natural order of things. Heroes are immortal.
I've lost two of my great boyhood heroes in the past two years. Pinetree Meads in 2017 and yesterday it was the Kauri tree of New Zealand rugby, BJ Lochore.
Both were knighted for their services to rugby and the community but long before they were Sirs, they were legends. Legends to be idolised on a poster on the bedroom wall of a rugby-mad seven-year-old growing up in heartland provincial New Zealand.
I first met Brian Lochore in 1967. He first me in 1994.
He was the captain of my favourite footy team of all time – the 1967 All Blacks to Britain and France - a side that would have been the first to achieve the coveted Grand Slam had it not been for a Foot and Mouth outbreak in Ireland which prevented a likely clean sweep of the home unions.
Fast forward to 1994 and the Southland rugby team is getting a flogging at the hands of Hawke's Bay at McLean Park in Napier. A group of boisterous supporters cornered the great BJ Lochore at the aftermatch function and to his eternal credit he gave us 15 golden minutes of his time. If we were boring him senseless, he never let on.
Rather he took the time to talk to all of us and, amazingly, he remembered everyone's name. No mean feat when you're surrounded by 10 or so hangers-on. He had that wonderful gift to be able to make whoever he was talking to feel like they were the most important person in the room. That's a gift only bestowed upon great leaders. The other thing that stuck in my memory from that day was the size of his hands. Shaking one of them was not for the faint-hearted, nor for anyone with an inferiority complex about size!
Our paths next crossed a couple of years later when he appeared in the studios of Hokonui Radio in Gore when I was a fledgling broadcaster and he was on a nationwide roadshow to promote strong wool and his beloved Romney sheep. I was as proud as punch that he remembered me from our Napier meeting! Besides, if he didn't really remember, he never let on.
He ticked a lot of boxes for me. Not only a rugby hero but he was also a top farmer and sheep breeder who was passionate about his industry. He wore too many leadership hats to mention, but one that particularly struck a chord with me was his chairmanship of the QEII National Trust, an organisation charged with preserving some of New Zealand's most important native bush and wetlands. His work in that field would put many a self-serving, save-the-planet, pontificating politician to shame. Action, not words, was always his mantra.
Through a period of osmosis (or perhaps that should be attrition, because I wore him down) he became a regular on my rural radio show. Once again, if I was boring him senseless, he never let on. I christened him my Roving North Island Farming Ambassador, with Commonwealth Games hero Dick Tayler taking the moniker for the South Island.
I invited him to be the guest speaker at my rugby club's 2007 centenary celebrations. He duly obliged but in typical fashion he refused payment, instead donating his fee to the CatWalk Trust. We also became good golfing mates. He invited me to the Masterton Eketahuna Pro-Am and I invited him to the Cromwell Legends tournament. (He loved Central Otago and often lamented that if he had his time again, he'd buy a high country sheep station. He loved his horses and dogs and the life of a shepherd).
Initially our golf handicaps were very similar, but Brian's drifted out a bit over the past few years, much to his extremely competitive frustration. By rights I should have put him away but, despite being a great bloke and real gentleman, he was a smiling assassin on the golf course, and was never above a bit of well-timed sledging to get inside a weak man's head. I could never beat the bugger. And that's the way he liked it.
It was an honour and a privilege to spend an hour with him nine days before he passed. We had a cup of tea, sorted out the All Blacks team for the Rugby World Cup, he told me who he reckoned will be our next Prime Minister and we had a giggle about some of the golfing gaffes we'd enjoyed over the years.
When I left his and Pam's warm Wairarapa farm house on that beautiful winter's day, I complimented him on the prime Romney lambs in his front paddock, shook his dinner plate-sized hand and said goodbye. I knew I'd never see him again. I wanted to give him a man hug. But that was never BJ's way. I settled for that manly hand shake and a lifetime of wonderful memories. RIP mate.
- Jamie Mackay is the host of The Country which airs on Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport, 12-1pm, weekdays.