A five-kilometre workout on an exercise bike isn’t a bad way for anyone to start the day, let alone someone who is about to turn 100. Up until a few years ago, the workout would have also included a spell on a rowing machine, but John Wills gave that up when he was 97.
“Looking after your health is important. And so is wearing wool! I’m a dedicated wool man – it’s the best thing you can find to keep you warm.”
John will celebrate his 100th birthday on Election Day, September 23, with Norma, his wife of 70 years, who now lives at the Evelyn Page Retirement Home. A Triples Tournament at the Orewa Bowls Club will follow on Monday, September 25.
“I’m very grateful to the club for organising this event; I never expected it,” John says. “I understand at least 32 teams will be competing. I had to give up when I was 98, after more than 36 years playing at both Kaukapakapa and Orewa.”
John grew-up on a farm in Gisborne, the eldest of six children. From seven years old, he was getting up at 5am to help his father hand-milk 35 cows.
“You could make a living from a dairy herd that size in those days.”
He left school at 14 and by 16 was working as a labourer on a sheep station.
“There were around 85 million sheep in NZ in 1930 and not quite two million people; quite different than today.”
When World War II broke out he wanted to join the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, but was told they weren’t taking men from the back country.
“I quit my job, moved into Gisborne, registered as unemployed and was accepted into the next intake. He was in uniform for five years and five months, serving intially in Fiji, and then the Middle East.
He was a gunner in the 7th New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment in Egypt during the Second Battle of El Alamein, a turning point in the war. He was captured by Germans under the command of General Rommel and handed over to Italian forces.
Allied forces liberated the camp 10 weeks later, but John says he was in a “pretty bad way” by that time.
“We lived on a few mashed up beans for breakfast, a few macaroni in half a cup of water for lunch and two hard biscuits for dinner. I remember how they wouldn’t even give us water to wash our teeth or face.”
John was one of 23 veterans who returned to Egypt to mark the 70th anniversary of El Alamein in 2012.
“The Egyptians still hate us because after the war both sides left without removing the land mines. They are still going off today.”
John was on R&R in NZ when peace was declared. The war service made it hard for him to settle down so he headed for Wellington and got a job at the Ngauranga Gorge Freezing Works.
“I met Norma in Wellington and we married when she was 21 and I was 29. She gave her life to me – she is very placid and never disputed anything I did. Our daughter would sometimes say to her, ‘Mum, you do too much for Dad’.”
Eventually, in 1951, the couple were able to secure their own farm when they paid $14,000 for a 72-hectare property in Peak Road, Kaukapakapa. They later expanded the farm to 121 hectares. They raised their son and daughter on the farm, and moved to Orewa when they retired.
John, who still drives, now spends his days visiting his wife and “just getting things done”.
“I’m bloody slow at doing anything these days. Veteran Affairs is going to mow my lawn and help with some maintenance around the house in future, so that will be good.”
John has had a life-long love of motorbikes and bought his last one, a Honda, when he was 85. His first bike was the now fairly rare Brough Superior.