Bob Duncan’s work as a partner in a busy law practice had him working 24/7 at times, although he also managed to serve on many boards of directors and with the Chamber of Commerce, as well as becoming a Knight of Justice of the order of St John and fitting in the odd bit of gardening. However, ask the 86-year-old about his life, and he will start by talking about his wife of 62 years, Ngarie…
Everywhere we’ve lived, we’ve had a garden, because Ngarie is such a keen gardener. When we got married, 62 years ago, we rented a flat in Mt Albert, and of course Ngarie made a vegie garden on the back lawn. At our next house in Mt Eden we eventually had a vegie garden and a fowl run – everything was grown from cuttings, because we couldn’t afford nursery prices. In the next garden, also in Mt Eden, I built her a glasshouse for begonias and we had fruit trees and shrubs. We brought up three daughters there and, towards the end, to everyone’s surprise, a son. We bought the property in Little Manly, in 1970; it was three acres in total, very overgrown and the house, which was built in 1954, hadn’t been lived in for years. I was a partner in a very busy Queen Street law practice and Little Manly became our bolthole – somewhere to get away from it all with family and friends.
I was born in Te Awamutu in the Waikato and Ngarie and I were in the same class at school, ever since Standard 2. We also both went to the same high school – Te Awamutu District High School – and so we knew each other well, but it took a long time to hold hands. And we’ve been looking at each other ever since! I went straight into law school, because my father and the local lawyer knew one another at the golf club and it was the only occupation I could find. While I was still studying, in 1951, I joined a firm of two lawyers in Auckland and the senior partner was very ill. He died suddenly in 1955. The other partner was Dr Roy McElroy, who later became Mayor of Auckland. He was very busy, and when I had finished my degree, I was offered the other half of the practice. The practice did everything for people, including commercial work, which I was very interested in. I was invited to become a partner with the expectation that I would start a small commercial practice, so I quit court work to concentrate on building up that side of things. Our largest client was Four Square supermarket. I was working long hours, but this opportunity and all the work I was doing meant that I gained experience that normally would have taken 20 years, in just four years.
Over time we resurrected the bach at Little Manly with Ngarie and our teenage girls and young son helping a lot in the garden. I borrowed someone’s tractor and a chain and dragged out Achmena trees, which had once been a hedge, and cleared the land. We removed a lot of the big old trees, but the original English plane trees and a beech are still here. We sold our home in Mt Eden when the girls had all left home and bought an apartment in The Pines in Epsom. We lived there for 17 years, and had no garden – The Pines had seven acres of landscaped grounds around it with two gardeners employed to look after it. Next door, Eden Garden had begun and Ngarie’s gardening instincts soon took her over there. She helped with the establishment of that beautiful public garden over more than 10 years and we both became life members. She worked there so long that the chair of Eden Gardens wrote her a lovely letter when she quit in 1982 and now she has a pathway – the Ngarie Duncan Path – in the gardens named after her.
We came to live permanently at Little Manly in 1989. I quit the practice, which by the time I left had 20 partners and 100 staff, and semi-retired, working from my home office. This property had a big vegie garden and recently Ngarie had a few tumbles while dragging a hose around the place, so we brought in a load of fresh soil and built raised beds with a spinner in the middle of each one which has saved a lot of effort.
The original shrubbery began with cuttings from Eden Garden and must have had around 300-400 plants in it. We decided to plant a citrus orchard, which we hoped would provide fruit to sell – the idea was to earn enough money to pay our rates. We had experts up from town and orchardists and the Ministry of Agriculture so we were sure to plant the right ones and they eventually fruited. All it took was one big salty North East storm to kill all the citrus, so that was the end of that. I have a tee shirt with ‘Under Gardener’ written on it, which shows that my role was things like putting in walkways through the garden and arbours. We both joined the Whangaparaoa Horticultural Society in around 1993; Ngarie served on the committee for five years and propagated many, many seedlings in pots to feed the trading table at Horticultural shows. She was also a steward, helping members exhibit at shows. I was made patron 10 years ago and both of us are life members.
When I became a lawyer, I joined The Law Society, which held its meetings in the library of the Supreme Court. When the Court was expanding and wanted the library back, I was asked to find a new location, and we found the building in Shortland Street that was its base for around 20 years. I was then asked to find them a new one, and this time the Society shifted to Chancery Chambers in High Street. Because I was instrumental in helping them find those buildings, they named a meeting room after me. I still go down there occasionally and, strangely enough, people still know who I am!
During those busy working years I also became involved in a number of other organisations, as well as serving on the boards of several companies that our law firm helped to get started, such as the Giltrap Group and Bob Sells’ restaurants in Auckland, which included The Hungry Horse. Among other things, I became a Notary Public and was chairman, and a Knight of Justice of the order of St John. The Auckland Club was across the road from the practice, in Shortland Street, and some friends of mine persuaded me to join in 1960. I later became chairman. Times have changed – the Auckland and Northern Clubs have merged and women were allowed in many years ago. When Dame Cath became Governor General she refused an invitation to the Auckland Club, because it was men-only at the time and that helped to open the door to women members. I was also involved with the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and eventually became vice chair of the NZ Chamber of Commerce. That organisation was originally formed around places in NZ that had ports to support commercial activity and have the voices of business people represented in Parliament. It was a lot of work and ultimately I withdrew my nomination to be chair. I’d just spent a whole Queen’s Birthday weekend on the phone sorting out unanimous agreement on an issue for a meeting then, when we got to the meeting, two South Island representatives changed their minds. I couldn’t imagine how I could head a national body when that was the way it worked, and I was glad I told them to ‘go jump’. Doing all of that had left little time for any other interests, apart from family of course. I once belonged to the Remuera Bowling Club, but it was just for social reasons and I never bowled a single ball.
Ngarie and I are busy now sorting out the garden and putting things in pots for our next big move, which is to Selwyn Heights Retirement Village in Mt Roskill. Our home there is being built and should be ready to move into in November. We will have a deck, but no garden – but we’re well used to apartment living. Our family are in Auckland and they think we are getting old. They all lead very busy lives, and we will see more of them if we live close by – plus two families have a garden each, so no doubt we’ll be called on to help out there.