When Jack Shailer put his hand up to do a first aid course almost 50 years ago, little did he know it would change his life - and the lives of others - forever.

The young man was working for the Ministry of Works in Levin at the time, and when his boss asked him to complete first aid training it sowed the seed for a lifetime journey of community service.

Mr Shailer was now a familiar face to many in Horowhenua after 49 years of service with St John, a milestone that was recognised at a special ceremony of the organisation held in Feilding last week.

He was the longest serving member in the region and almost as old as the organisation itself. St John was 87, while Mr Shailer would soon celebrate his 81st birthday.

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Mr Shailer first joined St John in May 1970. He took up a voluntary role at St John soon after and had been in service ever since.

He said he was fortunate to have a good mentor in the late Jack Allen when he first started out with St John, attending club rugby matches in the Horowhenua. They were good times.

"'Away you go', he said. He was a wonderful teacher," he said.

Mr Shailer made headlines early in his career when he saved the life of a rugby player in Foxton who had swallowed his tongue after being tackled.

The player was in obvious distress. Mr Shailer ran to his aid and gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation, saving his life.

The story featured in the Horowhenua Chronicle at the time although Mr Shailer said he couldn't find the clipping and couldn't remember the name of the player.

It wasn't just rugby as Mr Shailer attended all sports fixtures, including powerboat racing on the Manawatū River, motocross events and even thoroughbred horse race meetings.

He said he couldn't forget one motocross race at Koputaroa where top rider Greg Brinck landed heavily and dislocated both hips.

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The job had its hard moments though and the reality was that sometimes people died. That was never easy and something he never became hardened to, especially when children were involved.

"The hardest part of my job was being in the ambulance when a child was hurt," he said.

"It's hard when a child gets knocked about," he said.

"I've seen some bad things all right."

He and wife Maureen were married 53 years this year and he said she could read the signs if he had a particularly tough day.

He said he bottled up the pain he felt until he got home, although a chat with Maureen and a stiff whiskey would help settle him down.

"She's been behind me all the way."

He said the best part about being involved with St John is the satisfaction of helping others.

Another incident he recalled was helping a patient to Palmerston North Hospital in swift time following a car crash. With the help of a police escort, they made the journey from Levin in 28 minutes.

A highlight was receiving an award from the Duke of Gloucester in 1983 at Government House, which proudly sits among a host of other awards on the wall of their home.

Mr Shailer volunteered as an overnight ambulance driver for the hospital board and in 1977 was promoted to transport officer.

St John took over running the ambulances from the hospital board in 1993. That same year Mr Shailer received a Serving Brother award in recognition of the work he had done.

He was president of the committee for several years and in 2005 he was made a life member of St John.

He said it was a privilege to serve St John.