It was one of those phone calls you dread getting.
"Hey Mate, would you MC my funeral?"
The caller was Tony Laker. The son of a humble Bluff fisherman who made it all the way to being New Zealand's top travel agent. And for the best part of the past three decades we have travelled New Zealand and the world together; a friendship forged by farming and footy.
I first met Tony Laker in 1995 when he was the newly-minted Air New Zealand corporate rep in Invercargill. Prior to that, he'd been gainfully employed as a bank teller. Although, in real life, he was way more interested in playing soccer for his beloved Old Boys club and experiencing that age-old Kiwi rite of passage, the UK/Europe OE. It whetted his life-long love for travel.
In later years, when he'd made his fortune, and made his way on to the celebrity speaking conference circuit, he would dine out on his exotic entrepreneurial tales of selling watermelons on a Greek nudist beach to the gathered beach babes. For some reason he was very excited about the melons! Like all good storytellers he possibly embellished the tale somewhat, but a yarn well told is a yarn worth repeating. And Tony did that for a number of years on the motivational circuit, raising much-needed money for the Southland Hospice in the process. In a sad irony, some of his final days were spent there.
But back to 1995. Tony was the Air New Zealand guy who flew the Hokonui Gold "Scream Team" of Lee Piper and myself around the country to commentate the "away" Southland rugby games. He always insisted on coming with us, on the pretence of keeping a sponsor's eye on us. Plus his great Bluff primary schoolmate and All Black, Paul "Ginge" Henderson, was in the team at the time and ended up joining us on the microphone when he'd hung his boots up. Those were our Happy Days.
However, it wasn't all plain sailing in the early days. By the late 1990s, Tony and his wonderful business (and life) partner Tracey had ventured out on their own, setting up Laker House of Travel. One of his first gigs was to organise a one-day, return charter flight from Invercargill to Hamilton for Fieldays at Mystery Creek.
Things were going swimmingly until after lunch when it started to rain heavily, and more than a few of the 120 farmers on board foolishly adjourned to the bar for the afternoon, rather than brave the soggy conditions. To make matters worse, the tour leader (yours truly) fell asleep on the late night flight home, only to awaken suddenly, tell an inappropriate joke over the in-flight sound system, before promptly nodding off again. But you learn by your mistakes, right?
And so we did! After a few trips across the Tasman for All Blacks tests and rock concerts, we decided to spread our collective wings and take on the world. We were all set to take a farming tour to the UK and Ireland in 2001, when foot and mouth disease reared its ugly head. We eventually made it in 2003 and the die was cast for future tours. Get a great bunch of farmers, chuck them on a plane, and go see the world.
Ensuing farming and footy tours saw us follow the All Blacks to Argentina in 2012 and South Africa in 2014. There was the absolute euphoric joy of being in England and Wales for the 2015 Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham, followed by the utter despair of bowing out at semifinal time at Yokohama Stadium four years later. But what the heck, we had a great time touring Japan and China, spending some time with Kiwi companies, the likes of Fonterra, Zespri and Silver Fern Farms, along the way.
Tony's positivity and humour remained with him to the end. When the Covid lockdown hit in March 2020, the Lakers lost 95 per cent of their income stream overnight. The best business in town became the worst. Undeterred, Tony looked for a silver lining, declaring himself to be better equipped than ever to speak on the motivational talk circuit. After all, he reckoned, who better to talk about resilience than a travel agent with terminal cancer!
If the measure of a man is the shadow he's cast, then Tony Laker was larger than life, seemingly bullet-proof with his eternal optimism. He was never content with his glass being merely half full. His was full-to-overflowing with positivity.
And that's how I'll remember my great mate, the great travel agent, who's now passed through the departure gates for the final time, having issued his final one-way ticket.