For more than 50 years, Dave Parker has been at the forefront of nearly every major community initiative that has gone to make Warkworth a better place to live. He spoke to James Addis …
I had a bizarre upbringing to be honest. I had three mothers before I was five. My birth mother did not want to keep me, so she put me into a home, and I was advertised for adoption in the Auckland Star. My step dad came along and adopted me, but he and his wife divorced soon afterwards so that was my second mother gone. Soon afterwards, my Dad fell in love with a Maori lady. We lived in an old army hut on a marae near Port Waikato, where my mother would cook over an open fire. Frankly, there were a lot of things that went on in Port Waikato that were not good. That’s why I will be forever grateful for my grandmother – that is my step dad’s mother. At the age of 76, she took me, my step-sister and two cousins in, and brought us all up in a little cottage in Snells Beach. Suddenly, I had better schooling and better opportunities all round. If it had not been for Grandma Simpson, I would not be where I am today. She was my guiding light.
Even so, I was a bit of a handful. In 1955, Grandma marched me along to the Methodist Church to sign me up for the Boys Brigade to sort me out. The captain was also the minister of the church, a chap by the name of George Trebilco. He took me under his wing and became a father figure to me. Boys Brigade opened a whole lot of channels to me for the rest of my life. It’s a movement that taught me habits of reverence and self-respect and all that tends to what I think of as true Christian manliness. I travelled a lot with the movement and attended the best leadership training courses you could ever have hoped for. Eventually, I was appointed captain of the company and started a junior division known as the Life Boys.
Our 1st Warkworth Company grew and grew. Before long, we had 200 boys and 26 adult leaders, making us the largest company in New Zealand. We occupied all the church halls – Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian. But my focus was to get the kids out of the four walls of the church and into some adventurous activities. We had an aikido club, a canoe club, a tramping club, we taught them to sail. We cycled over 2000km of roads. We even had our own drum and bugle band. We were doing things that boys loved doing, and that’s why I think we became so strong. Boys Brigade led me into other things. I was invited to join the Auckland branch of the Mountain Safety Committee, I served on the Auckland Conservation Board, I became an assessor for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and was co-founder of the Warkworth Search & Rescue group, which later became the Kawau Coastguard.
I left school in the fifth form because my grandmother could not afford to keep me. My first job was pumping gas at the old Rodney Motors. Later, I moved to Auckland to work in the spare parts department of a car dealer. At the end of every week, I used to run down from the top of Symonds Street to the bottom of Queen Street to catch the bus to Warkworth, so I could run the Boys Brigade meeting on Friday nights. I was happy to do that because I really enjoyed it. I saw the changes in a lot of kids. I remember one mother who brought her son along saying, “Here he is. I don’t hold much hope you can do anything with him.” But he was a good kid who just needed encouragement. I taught him to play the side drum, and he went on to build his own canoe. He proudly took the canoe on a Brigade expedition down the Whanganui River. We nearly lost him when he wrapped himself around a huge rock in the middle of the river, but he had the time of his life.
I ended up getting a job as manager of Hedley King’s electrical shop back in Warkworth. Around the corner was a little paint shop where the One World Travel Agency is now. The old chap who used to run the shop would come up from Auckland and would turn up at all sorts of odd hours. It was no way to run a business. He told me the owners wanted to sell and I saw an opportunity. Even though my only asset was a 1952 A40 Devon, I managed to scrape together $3000 and bought the paint business.
Warkworth was growing, Omaha was growing, everybody wanted paint and wallpaper. I moved the shop into bigger premises three times, finally ending up where So French café is now and tripled my turnover. I would bring up 10-litre pails of paint by truck and park it outside the shop on Saturday mornings. People would come and buy all this paint. It was an amazing business.
By 1983, I felt Warkworth needed to be better recognised. I partitioned part of my shop and opened Warkworth’s first voluntary public relations and information office, which represented tourist businesses and interests. We identified Warkworth as the Kowhai town and coast, helped put together the Twin Coast Discovery Route and I remember producing the very first wine trail brochure. The information office eventually became an accredited i-SITE Information Centre, operating from what was then a new office in Baxter Street.
What else? I’ve been on the Kowhai Festival committee for 50 years, I founded the Warkworth International Relations Group, and the Kowhai Coast Youth Trust. I am deputy chair of the Warkworth Riverbank Enhancement Group, I was on the advisory committee of Harbour Hospice and am chairman of steering committee of the Jane Gifford Maritime Heritage Trust.
The riverbank group started when the old Rodney District Council demolished the original town wharf at the bottom of Kapanui Street. They said it was too dangerous to remain standing, but they had no money to replace it. A group of us got together with a plan to build a totally new wharf and walkway. Local service clubs, especially the Jaycees, got behind the project and we raised money by selling the planks that make up the walkway that now runs right through to Lucy Moore Park. That’s why today there is a little plaque above each plank honouring the person who paid $50 to put it there. The walkway became a great venue for fundraising dinners that I used to organise for causes like the Jane Gifford and the Coastguard. I remember one in 2002 when more than 650 people sat down all along the wharf to have a meal and we raised $50,000. When the Johnstone’s Hill tunnels were about to open, I hit on the idea of another long dinner inside the tunnels. The southbound tunnel was used to seat diners and the northbound used for entertainment. People loved the idea. They snapped up tickets 20 or 30 at a time. We thought we might get 1000 people, but more than 2000 showed up and we raised $130,000 for initiatives to help young people. Now every time I pass through the tunnels, I chuckle to see the exact spot where I tripped up and spilt my glass of wine.
The Jane Gifford keeps me flat out doing all the bookings and marketing. I remember seeing her as a wreck at Okahu Bay. I thought that boat has got to come back where it belongs in Warkworth. I encouraged Peter Thompson, of the River Restoration Trust, and he paid a nominal amount of money to buy it back from the Waiuku Museum Society. Peter got her on to a house moving truck to bring her back to Warkworth and had to tie her sides together to stop her falling apart. Essentially, she was a truck-load of firewood. It took four years to restore her, and she’s been taking people on trips up and down the Mahurangi River ever since.
What keeps me going? Well, all that I have ever wanted to do was repay a community that helped me along the way as a bloke with no real backing as such. It was the local families that would pick me up and take me here and take me there. I thought what can I do to repay them over the years. It’s all just trickled on from that.