(The following was delivered by Dr. David Leonard at the service to honour Roger Kerr’s life on Thursday 3 November 2011 at 2.30pm at Old St Paul’s in Wellington.)
Roger and I first met on the rugby field when we were playing for opposing schools. My earliest memories of him were of a rather angular, lanky, lock who played like a terrier. Off the field, he was gracious in defeat.
In the following 50 years, I was not to observe this again – the defeat, that is. The graciousness, however, continued to the end. His inherent politeness and consideration of others was not just his public persona. As Alan mentioned, Roger scored top marks for New Zealand in School Certificate. Equally amazingly, he did this without displaying any trace of nerdish behaviour.
At Canterbury, he enthusiastically contributed to the communal life of College House. There he gained notoriety as “Fido.” Some wits joined the dots between KERR and CUR and FIDO dog food. These were presumably Arts students, as they obviously had time on their hands to go on to formally register Fido with the Christchurch City Council and receive papers for him. The prank went well until they received a notice that Fido was due for his rabies shot, so they decided to write to the dog control officer stating that sadly Fido had died.
But the name did not; and Roger is affectionately remembered as Fido by College House alumni throughout the country.
Roger’s first class honours, his sporting ability and his debating skills would have made him a strong candidate for a Rhodes scholarship, and certainly a shoe-in for a PhD. Instead he chose to embrace the real world, and discovered the allure of women. He joined Foreign Affairs, and shortly after married Margaret.
Before this he had to honour his conscription into military service. He ambled into Burnham Camp in early 1967, only to be marched out a week later, accompanied by privates Bromley, Fraser and Leonard en route to officer training at Waiouru. It was at the time of the Vietnam war. In Australia, conscriptees had already been sent to the war, so it was serious stuff. We had intensive training in jungle warfare. Roger was a great mate to have on patrol, whether he was leading it or just part of the team. He was someone who would give his best, help those who were less able, and he did so with unfailing good humour.
The four southern men bonded well, and as it turned out, for life. Since then we have met annually; initially staying in backpacker type accommodation, but with time and circumstance, moving up- market. In recent times, we have usually managed to persuade Roger that we didn’t need to stay in the most expensive lodge in the district; but we were happy to share his most expensive bottle of champagne, which he invariably brought along.
Roger imbued his personal relationships with the same energy he demonstrated in his professional ones; coupled with an empathy which was not always perceived with the latter. His warmth, his enthusiasm for life, were infectious. Like many professional men, Roger was the butt of stories about “absentee fatherhood.” He loved his boys, and the pleasure he gained from them increased with time. In Roger’s last few weeks, Richard came in each evening, and whatever was Roger’s level of drowsiness, he would open his eyes, smile, and chat. There was a similar response when Bernard or Nicholas phoned from the United States. The pleasure he gained from granddaughter Penelope was very evident. You can see this in the pictures we see today.
Roger has been called “a national treasure” – aptly I think. But for me, by the manner in which he was cherished, I will remember him in sharper focus as “Catherine’s treasure.” Catherine’s care of Roger has been all encompassing; or to paraphrase Roger in a lucid moment a few days before he died, “absolutely amazing.” In this regard I am reminded of the words of John Donne:
all other things, to their destruction draw,
only our love hath no decay;
this, no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
running it never runs from us away,
but truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.
I will remind you of Donne’s words to the rest of us:
no man is an island entire of itself,
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee