THE old saying that it takes a village to raise a kid has much truth.

There are some pretty amazing villagers who — either advertently or inadvertently — have all manner of invaluable input beyond that of immediate family.

And in diminutive New Zealand — in global terms, pretty much just a glorified national village — "six degrees of separation" is often reduced to just a single degree.

It came to mind on reading that two of Peter Snell's Olympic medals and other items are now temporarily on display at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Besides the great athlete's special connection here, his bronze replica overlooking the Cooks Gardens track where he set his astounding world mile record in 1962, he was part of my boyhood village also.

I spent most of my school years in the West Auckland suburb of Avondale.
Apart from the racecourse perhaps, it was distinguished by its almost complete lack of distinguishing features.

But not far away was the Owairaka Athletic Club, from which the legendary Arthur Lydiard launched his revolutionary training programmes. Seeing Arthur and his pack of imminent world-beaters — including Peter Snell — stacking up the training miles padding around the local streets was a fairly common sight. Peter had been a pupil at Mt Albert Grammar, just over the hill.

Next to the local trolley bus terminus by the Avondale shopping centre was the Lydiard shoe factory.

Although started by Arthur's brother, Arthur also worked there for many years, and it was where he hand-made the customised running shoes in which Peter won the 1960 Rome Olympic 800 metres, and which are now in Te Papa's collection.

Frank Greenall
Frank Greenall

Secondary school was Avondale College, one of whose four "houses" was Halberg House, named after former pupil and another Lydiard protégé, Murray Halberg. Murray had already been so honoured by dint of successes even prior to his 1960 Rome 5000 metres triumph — and he still held the school mile record set years previously.

Our school biology teacher was an intimidatingly intelligent yet amazingly tolerant lady, Mrs Bollard.

She lived locally but had the good sense to send her own boys off to the somewhat more prestigious Mt Albert Grammar.

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One of those sons, Alan, recently ended a 10-year stint as Governor of the Reserve Bank.

Just down the road from home, the two local doctors plied their trade from a converted bungalow — Dr Williams and Dr Elias. In the days when doctors actually made house calls, stuck at home with a debilitating knee complaint, I recall Dr Williams diagnosing it as "flea bone thrombosis".

For decades after, I believed myself to have temporarily hosted the world's rarest ailment, until I belatedly realised I must have misheard the term "deep vein thrombosis".

However, the daughter of the other doctor — Dr Elias — now happens to be Dame Sian, Chief Justice of New Zealand.

She looks just like her father — I can't see a photo of the Chief Justice without being reminded of a disconcertingly vigorous ear irrigation administered by her progenitor.

Anyway, the point is, what at the time seemed to be a fairly nondescript little suburb was, in fact, a hotbed of remarkable mentors and parents, quietly fostering equally remarkable people soon to achieve remarkable things.

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Even for those not destined for centre stage, there was a whole gamut of neighbours and friends' parents who — with amazing unselfconscious generosity — treated you and fellow riff-raff as family members, helping shape and support every which way.

But the truly remarkable thing is that just about everyone privileged enough to have grown up in little old EnZed will have a similar tale to tell.

I'm reminded a bit of Dylan Thomas's classic tale of village life eccentricity, Under Milk Wood, with its Captain Cats and Polly Garters — a cornucopia of rich characters and life experiences, underpinned by the fortified milk of human kindness.

Perhaps that's where the title came from.