(The following was delivered by my uncle Alan Kerr at the service to honour Roger’s life on Thursday 3 November 2011 at 2.30pm at Old St Paul’s in Wellington.)
Roger was a country boy. He was a proud fourth generation New Zealander.
Our maternal great uncle, James Cross was a pilot on Captain Arthur Wakefield’s first expedition to New Zealand in 1841. Cross is credited with discovering Nelson Harbour and spent the rest of his life as pilot and harbourmaster there. He was involved in several dramatic sea rescues. His brother, our great grandfather William Cross, arrived in Nelson in 1853 and became the first lighthouse keeper on the Boulder Bank which protects Nelson Harbour. The brothers came from the Kentish port of Deal, renowned for the expertise of its boatmen, but infamous as the harbour for boats smuggling contraband between France and England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Kerrs are a lowland clan north of the Scottish border. They also have a chequered history. In Elizabethan times they were leaders of the Rievers, notorious for terrorizing the English across the border, stealing cattle and kidnapping women. Our lot came from Dumfriesshire. They travelled to Geelong in Victoria in 1854 as a young family, and on to Dunedin in 1861. They followed the gold rush to Gabriel’s Gully and then to Charleston on the West Coast, finally settling on a farm at Granity, north of Westport.
Roger was born in Nelson in 1945; he was 13 years younger than our sister Barbara and 10 years younger than me. It was a time of austerity for our family in the wake of the great depression and WWII. Our mother was already 41 and our parents were initially more surprised than pleased by his arrival, but he quickly became the apple of their eyes. He was a lusty 10lb baby and grew into a wildly energetic toddler who would tackle anything and stop at nothing—truly the happy warrior.
Our parents had both been teachers in Takaka, north of Nelson, but took up farming in East Takaka at about the time of their marriage. Three years before Roger was born they moved to Appleby, to a rundown farm close to the Waimea River estuary and this is where Roger grew up. His memories were of an idyllic childhood spent largely outdoors, taking part in all the hard work on the farm; milking cows, haymaking with the neighbours in summer, feeding stock on freezing winter mornings, being the “fleeco” while our father and I shore our small flock of sheep. He spent endless hours boating and fishing on the lovely tidal stream which formed one boundary of the farm. I taught him to play tennis and we swam in the nearby river. He was the ringleader of a group of small boys. His approach even then was direct, and while as in later life he played the ball and not the man, it might be bad luck for anyone between him and the ball.
He and I walked the Abel Tasman and Dunne Mountain tracks and climbed Mt. Arthur. We crossed the Heaphy track in pouring rain before the rivers were bridged, and helped out a middle aged couple who were stranded in the middle of the flooded river. They turned out to be Bill Sutch and his wife Shirley Smith, and we spent an interesting night with them in the Heaphy Hut. Roger denied memory of this encounter or that it influenced his later economic policy, but their daughter Helen subsequently worked for him at the Business Roundtable. We did not have television, texting or Facebook, but I believe we did have the priceless gift of time to reflect, dream and wonder.
Roger’s education began at home. He had a bottomless thirst for knowledge and could count, read and write before starting school. In a recent interview Chris Laidlaw asked about the people who had influenced his thinking. Along with luminaries including Jean Paul Sartre, Adam Smith Frederich Hayek, Shakespeare and others Roger included our mother. She was a remarkable and highly intelligent woman with wide interests. She came from a farming background and lost her mother when she was 6 from tuberculosis and her stepmother later in a house fire. She largely raised 2 step brothers. Despite lack of parental encouragement she was determined to become a teacher and eventually went to Training College and Victoria University and completed a MA in History. By today’s PC standards she would be judged a harsh disciplinarian, but we always had her love and encouragement and she was certainly a major influence in Roger’s academic development.
Our sister Barbara, who took time off from university to care for him during our mother’s prolonged illness when he was aged 7, also made a big contribution to his upbringing. Our father was a kindly man who treated his animals humanely and was respectful of the environment. He had traditional Scottish conservative values and like most cow cockies invariably voted National. He was intolerant of welfare dependency and the need for self sufficiency was hammered into us.
Roger attended Appleby primary school and Waimea College in Richmond, then a new school. The headmaster, Dr Gallas had a Doctorate from Vienna and was also a strict disciplinarian but took an immediate interest in his bright new pupil. Roger was into everything; he played the tuba in the school band, won prizes for public speaking, was sergeant major of the cadet corps and captained the First XV as a lock forward. David Leonard, who captained Marlborough College, remembers him as a gracious loser.
Roger was already an extremely hard worker and topped New Zealand in School Certificate, was Dux of the school and second in the country in the University Scholarship examination. Interestingly he was not made Head Boy. Dr Gallas told our parents that this was because some teachers felt that he had become “too big for his boots”. I felt that this was a reflection of some rural gaucheness; our family moved in country circles and I suspect that like me he felt uneasy socially during his college and early university years.
He went on to complete a superb Bachelor of Arts in English, French and Maths at Canterbury University. One story, possibly apocryphal is that he sat Stage III Maths in his first year, walked out of a three hour exam after two hours, scored 95% and was furious that he had made an elementary error. His MA thesis (in French) was on the literary theories of Jean Paul Sartre, the noted French writer, philosopher and socialist. Roger’s interest in Sartre was in his intellectual commitment and aspiration to change the world rather than his political beliefs.
Over subsequent years we saw too little of each other. We lived in different cities and our careers took us in different directions, but we managed to maintain contact. Growing up in Nelson, the melanoma capital of New Zealand finally took its toll and Roger failed to slay his last dragon. It has been a great privilege for me to spend time with him and help with his care during his difficult final last few weeks. I am particularly pleased that he was able to have quality time with Margaret, his ex-wife who still cares for him deeply, and with their son Richard. His personality asserted itself in lighter moments even in his recent semiconscious state with stuff like “Alan, you’re a tyrant”, “You’ve been reading the wrong books”, and “Catherine, you’re 42 minutes late”.
I want to acknowledge the wonderful care Roger had during his final illness. Dr Brian Ensor and the staff of the Mary Potter Hospice were superb, as were the District Nurses. We are especially grateful to his oncologist, Catherine Barrow, who has explored every possible treatment option for him. Diana Morrah provided constant moral support and a seemingly endless supply of delicious date scones.
Finally, a huge tribute to Catherine, whose time with him I know to have been the happiest of both their lives. Her care for him over this sad time has been truly heroic.
Fare well, Roger. As our mother would have said, “it’s been nice knowing you.”
(The eulogy given by Bryce Wilkinson at the service can be found here.)