For Gerry Hill

From A celebration of Gerry’s life. Held at the Grey Lynn RSC. 1 Francis Street, Grey Lynn. 11 January 2020.

How much more easily is the leave-take loved. For the flame burns more purely for those vanishing in the distance fuelled by the fluttering scrap of cloth waved from the ship or the train carriage window. Separation penetrates the departing one like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance.”

Walter Benjamin.

Gerry Hill (13 May 1954 – 4 January 2010). Seafarer, union official, political activist, community leader, Ponsonby historian, author.

Gerry Hill was my friend and my political ally.

My friendship with Gerry was founded on the friendship between our fathers in Wellington.  Both of us of were always aware of that. So our friendship was a bit different – more like a family relationship.

Gerry’s father was the famous trade unionist Toby Hill – a historically important figure in New Zealand in the 20th century – who at the age of 27 became the national secretary of the powerful NZ Watersiders Union, and was a leader, along with Jock Barnes, of the unionists during the infamous 1951 waterfront lock out.

My father, Ted Lee was a rank and file member of the Watersiders Union, a Union company shipwright on the Wellington watefront. Both of our families went through the 151 day lockout. My dad with a wife and 4 kids and a mortgage and no income for months.

The Hill family I believe suffered even more: During the dispute it was a criminal offence to print or broadcast the wharfie’s side of the story but the Hill family tribulations did not end with the lock out.  With the defeat of the unionists, the old NZ Watersiders Union was broken up. Toby Hill became a victim not only of the industrial dispute but also of international cold war politics and McCarthyism. Toby Hill was demonised as a dangerous ‘red’ (he was actually a practising catholic), a ‘wrecker’ and an enemy of the state. He was blacklisted and could not find work anywhere.  No-one would employ him.

The injustices of 1951 marked the both of us but I think because of his father they marked Gerry more deeply, more personally.

Toby Hill finally obtained a menial job in the Wellington gas works at Miramar. My father who was by then a member of the newly established and much smaller Wellington Shipwrights Union led a deputation to ask Toby to become the secretary of the Shipwrights Union. So from being the General Secretary of one of the biggest unions in the country he took up that role in one of the smallest. But that was Toby’s road back to official public life.

I first met Gerry Hill in 1989 and interestingly enough it was in the columns of the NZ Herald (and what a wonderful eulogy for Gerry by John Roughan in the Herald today [See link at end of this post]. As fate would have it, it was the occasion of another bitter maritime dispute. In January 1989 the Labour government of the day began the privatisation of the NZ Shipping Corporation. This was bad enough, but it did so in the most ruthless and unscrupulous way – without notice, breaking contracts, reflagging the ships and replacing officer and crews with international non-union labour.

Gerry at the time was a Cooks & Stewards Union official in Auckland and I was a radio officer in the NZ Shipping Corp, a member of the Merchant Service Guild.

The Herald story was about my formal complaint to the race relations office over the inferior pay and conditions of the Indian non-union officers on the reflagged ships as opposed to the European non-union officers. Gerry issued a statement backing me up.

Mike Lee delivering a eulogy at the Celebration of Life ceremony for Gerry Hill at the Grey Lynn RSC. 11.1.20 (Photo Odette Shaw)

I really came to know Gerry after meeting him and Sally at the 40th anniversary commemorations of the 1951 dispute.

I left the sea after that to go into regional politics. Gerry was later involved in the amalgamation of the Cooks & Stewards & NZ Seamens Union, which became the Seafarers Union and the amalgamation of the Seafarers with the watersiders to become the NZ Maritime Union. He left the sea in 1999 to move to Auckland to build with Sally their successful Great Ponsonby Art Hotel business in Ponsonby Terrace.

Gerry always staunchly supported me during my time in politics – right to the end.

 I remember one election campaign in the early 2000s, Gerry was helping me take down election signs.  We got back to Gerry and Sallys’ about 9pm. Gerry was just about to pour a drink when I realised I’d left my hammer out on one of the sites. Gerry said don’t worry get another from the Warehouse. I said It was my dad’s, I‘d better go back. Gerry said I’ll come with you.

And he did and we found it – at Green Lane I think.

Gerry became a well-known figure in Ponsonby. Passionate, flamboyant, who sometimes ruffled feathers – because he cared.

He persuaded the former Auckland City Council to change the name of ‘Pompallier Street Park’ to ‘Pompallier’ Park to properly associate the name of the park with the historical Bishop Pompallier – and to also upgrade the park. Not only that but he persuaded the chairman of the ARC to speak at the opening (which was actually quite easy) but also he persuaded no less than the French Ambassador to come and speak which was quite a feat.

One for the road. With Gerry Hill at his beloved Grey Lynn RSC. June 2019.

Whenever Gerry Hill was about, in any situation – be it social or be it political – there was action.

Gerry had the commitment, the ambition, the political talent and most of all the integrity to serve in politics – but sadly much to his disappointment he was never allowed to. Auckland, or more to the point Auckland council, was the poorer for it.

In the end Gerry overcame those wounding disappointments, and grew achieving a greater maturity and greater mana. He continued to work for the local community and became recognised as a respected authority on the history of Ponsonby.  He loved Ponsonby and Grey Lynn and its heritage and just like John A Lee who came from Dunedin, he adopted it as his home. Gerry perceived well before most the tourism benefits of protecting our unique heritage townscapes.

Gerry campaigned tirelessly and in the end successfully to ensure 154 Ponsonby Road, the ‘Nosh site’ would become a whole-of-park park – not a part park as the council bureaucracy preferred. Really the 154 Ponsonby Road site should be called ‘Gerry Hill Park’. He truly merits this.

He and Sally entertained extensively – usually for good causes. Gerry had a real verve for life, travelled extensively visiting a network of friends all around the world.

Last year he wrote and published a fascinating memoire of the Cooks & Stewards Union – an important addition to NZ’s trade union and maritime history.

Marching in support of locked out Maritime Union workers, March 2012. Gerry Hill, Cathy Casey, Pat Lumber, Mike Lee, Sandra Coney. (Photo John Miller).

Tragically his illness came when I believe he was just coming into his own – it was a cruel blow and terribly unfair – but in the courageous way he faced his illness, it was Gerry Hill’s finest hour.

Someone once defined courage as ‘grace under pressure’ and if so Gerry Hill was a very courageous man indeed..

Gerry of course, as we all know ( and as you would expect from a former crew delegate), was never adverse to raising a complaint – but he never once complained to me about his own terrible misfortune. He was amazingly brave about it. That is why I think that apart from Sally so many friends and neigbours came to help him and nurse him as he battled through the last two years. Here I would like to thank especially Richard, Melissa, Ashad, Alex, Jane, Tau, Ross, Everill, Jacopo and especially Sally.

In one of our last conversations Gerry told me he’d had 20 years taken from him – but he was stoic and philosophical about.  Steeped in the ethic of socialism and proud of his working class background, Gerry’s cares were the cares of others, improving the lives of his fellow Ponsonby-ites, his fellow Aucklanders, his fellow New Zealanders, his fellow man.

When I last called on him on the evening before Christmas Eve he could hardly breathe let along talk but I was astonished that he was passionately lobbying against council’s privatisation of the crown endowment Kathmandu site by Victoria Park for which he had his own vision as inner city pensioner housing.

Me deepest sympathy to Sally, Mel, Josh and family.

Farewell Gerry, my dear friend.

You will be in our hearts for ever.

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