Terry’s loyal companion Buddy was also lost in the fire.
The Riley’s family home was destroyed.
A house fire in Birdsall Road on May 2 claimed the life of long-time Whangateau resident Terry Riley who is remembered by many as ‘a rough diamond’. Farmer, fisherman, sailor, rugby player, painter and musician – he had a rough exterior that hid a surprisingly artistic and sensitive soul.
Terry was the second eldest son of Brian and Val Riley, who bought their 260ha farm in Birdsall Road, including the 1910 kauri homestead and woolshed, in 1954. Along with his brothers Peter, Pat and Chris, Terry grew up helping out on the sheep and beef farm, set on steep clay country. One of his early pursuits was judo, often practising his newly-learned techniques on his youngest brother Chris, who remembers being ambushed on the way home from school and tossed around to look like a pretzel. Top grade rugby was also Terry’s passion, and he made many life-long friends from his Omaha Rugby Football Club days.
He found school work a bit tedious, so pursued farming, attending Flock House Agricultural College in Bulls, before doing a bit of fencing. In his early 20s, he joined the crew of The Southwind, fishing around the Coromandel. Keen for an adventure though, he signed up as a deckhand with a family sailing a gaff rig sloop to Brisbane and New Caledonia, via Minerva Reef. Years later, he wrote a book about this voyage on Mapu II called ‘Singing Wind’, recalling how he arrived home broke and “skinny as a rake” .
The sea was in his blood now and he converted a solid wood open lifeboat into an enclosed fishing boat, then bought the Kaha to crayfish around Little Barrier Island and later, the purpose-built steel cray boat Aquila. But wanderlust took him away again, this time to Aberdeen to see the fabled North Atlantic fishing grounds. He worked as a deckhand on 110ft trawlers around the icy Faroe Islands for some years. During this time, a trawler he was on was shipwrecked in a heavy storm and broke up on an offshore reef. Rescuers launched a rocket with a seat and rope called a Breeches Buoy and the crew was safely pulled to shore one-by-one. After the sea escapades, Terry returned home to take over the farm from his father.
Terry was a complex character who had a lifelong love of music and played, with varying degrees of ability, the bugle, trumpet, clarinet and piano. His family remembers a hot muggy night when he was working the noisy shearing machine handpiece on and off in the open tin woolshed, not far from the house. Around 1.30am the machine finally stopped. But five minutes later, the piano beside the wool press, burst into life with one of his favourite tunes, Blue Moon. Without any covers on the piano, the sound filled the shed, echoing all around the peaceful valley.
Terry was also a keen collector of memorabilia, especially anything linked to the area’s early maritime history, and he was a great source of old machinery parts, tools and equipment. His artwork – paintings or images etched on wood – represented his love of the sea and he often exhibited in local shows. He was a member of R.A.O.B. (Buffalos), Whangateau Cemetery Committee, Whangateau HarbourCare and Whangateau Residents & Ratepayers. He was never slow to lend a hand when needed, particularly to anyone down on their luck. Like his father, he was also always up for a good chin-wag over the car bonnet. He was an ideas man and was shearing his dogs to look like lions long before it became an internet craze. He also masterminded the ‘shin pad’ before any rugby protective padding was invented. It was a form-fitted thin aluminium sheet, moulded around his shin bone, that slipped inside his sock. However, when the referee heard a metallic sound when the opposing team kicked Omaha’s hooker, Terry, in the scrum, he was ordered to remove them. Top level club rugby was a hard and physical game in those days, and many veterans suffered injuries as they got older. Terry had his hip replaced in later years and never fully recovered.
Assertive and sometimes opinionated, Terry earned his nickname Thunder, because of his booming voice and intimidating size. He was married three times and had two other long-lasting relationships, but remained childless.
Police say there are no suspicious circumstances in regard to the fire and Terry’s death has been referred to the Coroner, who will ultimately rule on the circumstances. Terry’s life will be celebrated at a get-together at the Whangateau Hall on June 27.