'Uncle Bill'

Justine Tyerman talks to ‘Uncle Bill’ Aston about his lifetime of community work.

Justine Tyerman talks to ‘Uncle Bill’ Aston about his lifetime of community work.

Bridge Builder: Bill Aston has devoted most of his adult life to helping others. Pictures by Rebecca Grunwell
LOVE AND LAUGHTER: Nona and Bill Aston at home.

BILL Aston is a bridge builder — literally and figuratively.

As a young man he helped to build around 100 bridges in the Tairawhiti district, and as a mature man he’s built many a ‘bridge’ to help people out of dire circumstances.

Known universally as ‘Uncle Bill’, the 79-year-old was named as one of Gisborne’s local heroes in the 2017 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards for a lifetime of tireless community work.

Born at Waipiro Bay on the East Coast, Bill’s father was a Scotsman who worked as a blacksmith at Tokomaru Bay, and his mother was Ngati Porou and Te Aitanga Mahaki from Tikapa.

When I asked about his early days, he said he had the distinction of having attended two schools in one day.

“When dad went to enrol me at Tokomaru Bay Public School, the school master there said I couldn’t attend the school because I was Maori. He said I had to go to a native school across the road.

“Dad, a proud Scotsman, was very angry, but that’s how it was in those days. No-one was allowed to speak Maori back then either.”

Bill’s parents split up when he was six years old, and he and his mother shifted to Mangatu to live with his maternal grandmother.

“I had one year at Whatatutu School and then went to Puha School. Mum had to go to work so I lived with my Aunty Mabel Rutene. I had a very happy childhood. Puha was a wonderful place to grow up.”

Bill did half a year at Te Karaka High School and then at age of 15 years he started work.

“I got a job as a sheepo in a shearing gang for the next three years, bringing the sheep from the yards to the shed. There were 18 farms at Mangatu so there was always plenty of work for young fellas in those days.

“I also cut fence posts and strainers for the fencers. It was a good life and I enjoyed the outside work. It was challenging and I had great people teaching me.”

At 18, Bill went to work for CW Ireland, bridge builders at Te Karaka.

“We built more than 100 bridges in and around Gisborne, including in the Waioeka Gorge, at Matawai and Motu and in remote areas like the Waikura Valley. We built swing bridges too like the one at Te Hou Station at Mangatu.”

After 20 years of building bridges, Bill was ready for a change so he moved from Te Karaka to Gisborne in 1967.

He took a labouring job at the freezing works until 1970 when Fletcher Challenge offered him work.

Construction of the new hospital was under way and Bill was in charge of managing the back storage area in Lytton Road.

It was his responsibility to get all the parts and equipment from out of town to the construction site.

“Working on the new hospital was a real highlight for me but that all came to an end when the complex opened in 1984.”

Employment adviser

Bill was then approached by Mike Ransley, manager of the Department of Social Welfare, about a position as an employment adviser.

“The unemployment rate, especially among Maori men, was on the rise so my job was to find work for these people.

“I had never been out of work so I didn’t realise how high the level of unemployment was in the district. I was to target the long-term unemployed (LTU) some of whom had not worked for 10 years or more.

“The National Government was in power at the time and there was very little trade training available and not much incentive to work for those on a benefit.

“The system blamed the unemployed and I blamed the benefit system.”

Bill set up programmes for the men at Tapuihikitia Marae, Puha, where he and his whanau ‘built bridges’ and helped turn lives around.

“The people we worked with were Maori males aged 25-35 who had moved away from home, lost their pride and mana and had no purpose in life.

“A marae elder, Charlie Pera and I, used to work on their attitude for a start and rebuild their mana and sense of who they were.”

Modesty

At this point, Bill’s wife Nona chips in to add the things that Bill is too modest to talk about.

“Bill is such a gentle, kind, intelligent man, he won their respect. He has a special way with people, young and old. They all called him ‘Uncle Bill’, even the tough gang members he worked with,” she said.

Bill says: “Just as we were beginning to make some progress, the government pulled the plug. They wanted quick results which we couldn’t deliver. The system let us down badly.”

Along with Richard Brooking at the Employment Service, Bill came up with the Paint the Town initiative to provide employment for hard-to-place, LTU clients like gang members.

“If shop-owners provided the paint, we supplied the labour. We had a lot of interest but some of the councillors were not happy with the concept,” he says.

Bill carried on working with the unemployed, running three-day marae-based programmes with the aim of bringing them back to their roots.

“On day 1, we helped them get to know who they were and how important they were; on day 2 we looked at the skills they had, and on day 3, Kath Harrison from the Ministry of Social Development would teach them how to put those skills down on paper and make a resume.

“One of the highlights for me was to see a person going from thinking they had no skills to realising they actually did, even if it was playing a guitar. It was a confidence-building exercise.

“One chap went on to become a New Zealand Silver Secateurs champion.

“I used to pick him up and take him to work every day and after a while, he realised how good he was at the job. Initially, he went there for a three-week placement but the boss wanted to keep him on. He went to the wananga to learn his language and tikanga. What a transformation we saw in that guy. There are lots of success stories like that.”

In 1994 Bill began visiting prisons with Hona Manuel and there he met Temple and Olive Isaacs, prisoner rehabilitation workers from Gisborne.

“I was shocked when I saw all the Maori faces at Mangaroa Prison. I was not aware of the numbers in prison so it woke me up to what was going on around me.

“Hona’s aim was to reconnect the inmates with their Maori side. We were ready to launch a programme to help these men but sadly Hona passed away. He was a very special sort of guy.”

After a decade in social and community work, Bill needed a break.

Apia, Bill’s first wife and mother of their eight children, was from the East Coast and she decided the family should go back to her marae at Te Araroa for a while.

“It was like walking into paradise with the sea in front and the bush behind,” says Bill.

“I worked as carpenter, finishing the rebuild of Hinerupe Marae which had been destroyed by fire in 1996.”

Tukutuku panels

Apia was in charge of the women who were creating the tukutuku panels. They gathered kiekie (flax), peeled and boiled it in dye and then wove the panels.

“I loved the work on the marae. Those two years were some of the happiest times of my life. Sadly, Apia died of cancer six months before the reopening of the marae in March 2002. All that work and she never saw the marae finished.

“Apia and I were married 44 years, had eight children of our own and brought up many others — I missed her terribly.

“After she passed away, I decided to stay on up there so I could be close to where she was buried. But a few months later, a nurse came to see me and encouraged me to take a job at Ngati Porou Hauora at Te Puia Springs.

“Diane Gibson was the manager at the time and my job was to greet the oldies in Maori and make them feel welcome. I met wonderful people like Dr Pat Ngata, who wanted me to come to the Kaiti clinic as a kaiawhina.

“So I moved back to Gisborne and began work at Kaiti Mall, where I met the inspiring Dr Tipene Leach and Dr David Belfield.

“There had been a sudden increase in diabetes among Maori so Dr Pat told me I had to get my old mates in for check-ups.

“Prostate cancer was also on the rise with 600 Maori men dying of the disease every year.

“I tackled the problem the Maori way — we had a cup of tea and I somehow convinced them to come to the clinic.”

As part of his work, Bill also went to Turanganui-a-Kiwa Health to spread the health message among the men playing bowls and doing tai chi.

Diane Williams, a nurse practitioner at the hospital, came up with the concept of taking health to the workplace.

“We went to sites like Juken Nissho where I talked to the men at lunch break. The problem with Maori men is that they don’t seek medical help until they are really sick. It’s a macho thing.”

Bill would pick them up for doctors’ appointments or they just wouldn’t go.

“They used to come with me because they got a free ride.”

In 2004, Bill was approached by the Ministry of Health to help deal with problem gambling.

“It was a problem I didn’t even know existed,” he said.

“No one had any real data about it but the two women I worked with, Aroha and Connie, had an idea of what was going on.

Addicted to pokies

“Sadly most of the victims we saw were women who were widowed or separated and addicted to the pokie machines. There were 16 venues back then.

“It was a sad situation — we had to go and spy on our own people. I was shocked and upset to find children left alone in cars outside pokie venues.

“Aroha and Connie worked their butts off.

“The government had set these things up as a means of funding for the community, but no one was monitoring the harm.

“The amount of money going out of the district was terrifying — about $10 million a year. Families broke up and people lost their homes because they were evicted due to unpaid rent.”

“Unlike violence and alcohol, the harm from problem gambling is invisible. But it’s just as harmful and does as much damage as alcohol.

“Those pokie machines are so addictive. People just keep feeding them in the hope of a big win. Most of the victims are lonely women.”

As a result, the Te Ara Tika Maori Problem Gambling group was formed to tackle the issue.

About this time, Bill went to the flea market to buy some watercress for a ‘Maori boil-up’.

“I saw this lovely girl there selling mystery envelopes so I started chatting to her and asked her to the movies, Sione’s Wedding.

“You never know what you are going to get at the flea market. I went to buy watercress and ended up with a wife. Nona and I were married in 2005.

“He’s a cunning old bugger,” says Nona. “In order to tackle the city’s gambling problem, he went to the top and married the deputy mayor. He knew I wanted to shut down the pokies as much as he did.”

Nona served nine years on the District Council, six as deputy mayor, and she was a member of the committee dedicated to a sinking lid policy on pokies.

In 2004 Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer but this did not dull his fervour to help those in need.

While he was in the midst of treatment in Palmerston North, his son phoned him to say the country’s first ever Koti Rangatahi (Youth Court) was being held at Te Poho-o- Rawiri Marae in Gisborne.

The concept went back to an idea of Sir Henare Ngata’s and the first hearing was held in May 2008 with Judge Hemi Taumaunu presiding.

Bill became involved as a kaumatua, teaching the youngsters a pepeha (an introduction) to explain to the court who they were.

“I knew their names so could tell them who they were related to.

“I had seen the young ones waiting outside the regular court, full of anger and acting tough, but as bad as these kids may have been, they knew they had to behave on a marae.

“To appear before the Koti Rangatahi, they had to be tidily dressed, have their family with them and have a pepeha ready.”

The courts are a tremendous success and have since spread throughout New Zealand.

These days, Nona and Bill are semi-retired but they still work alongside the police as liaison people for under-17s who are brought in for questioning.

“If the youngsters have no family, we sit with them while they are being questioned.”

Last year was “a real roller-coaster for Bill healthwise”, says Nona.

The cancer had spread, but there were countless delays in his treatment and in the middle of 2016 he was told he had terminal lung cancer.

“I asked the specialist, Mr Bolton, ‘Can surgery make my life any better?’ ” says Bill.

“He said ‘No, go home and enjoy life’.

“So we thanked him for his honesty and went away relieved to know the truth.”

Nona says: “Mr Bolton was flabbergasted that two people could look at the end of life so positively.

“But we have love, laughter, happiness, a home and help from Hospice Tairawhiti to deal with Bill’s pain when needed.

“And we have a wonderful large family, some here, some in Taranaki and some in Australia. Between us we have 17 children, stepchildren and others from the extended family, 58 grandchildren and 42 great- grandchildren.”

They also have faith in God.

“I’ve never lost my faith. The good Lord will say when my time is up,” says Bill.

“And I’ve got a live-in registered nurse too,” he says referring to Nona with a chuckle.

“I told you — he’s cunning,” says Nona.

• In addition to his involvement in community work, Bill had a stellar rugby career.

He played for Waikohu and Gisborne Old Boys’.

He coached Poverty Bay and Old Boys, a team that had 44 games unbeaten.

Bill coached school teams from under-8s to seniors.

• A film crew from Waka Huia recently sought Bill out to talk about his work and inspect some of the bridges he’s built. The programme will air early next year.

BILL Aston is a bridge builder — literally and figuratively.

As a young man he helped to build around 100 bridges in the Tairawhiti district, and as a mature man he’s built many a ‘bridge’ to help people out of dire circumstances.

Known universally as ‘Uncle Bill’, the 79-year-old was named as one of Gisborne’s local heroes in the 2017 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards for a lifetime of tireless community work.

Born at Waipiro Bay on the East Coast, Bill’s father was a Scotsman who worked as a blacksmith at Tokomaru Bay, and his mother was Ngati Porou and Te Aitanga Mahaki from Tikapa.

When I asked about his early days, he said he had the distinction of having attended two schools in one day.

“When dad went to enrol me at Tokomaru Bay Public School, the school master there said I couldn’t attend the school because I was Maori. He said I had to go to a native school across the road.

“Dad, a proud Scotsman, was very angry, but that’s how it was in those days. No-one was allowed to speak Maori back then either.”

Bill’s parents split up when he was six years old, and he and his mother shifted to Mangatu to live with his maternal grandmother.

“I had one year at Whatatutu School and then went to Puha School. Mum had to go to work so I lived with my Aunty Mabel Rutene. I had a very happy childhood. Puha was a wonderful place to grow up.”

Bill did half a year at Te Karaka High School and then at age of 15 years he started work.

“I got a job as a sheepo in a shearing gang for the next three years, bringing the sheep from the yards to the shed. There were 18 farms at Mangatu so there was always plenty of work for young fellas in those days.

“I also cut fence posts and strainers for the fencers. It was a good life and I enjoyed the outside work. It was challenging and I had great people teaching me.”

At 18, Bill went to work for CW Ireland, bridge builders at Te Karaka.

“We built more than 100 bridges in and around Gisborne, including in the Waioeka Gorge, at Matawai and Motu and in remote areas like the Waikura Valley. We built swing bridges too like the one at Te Hou Station at Mangatu.”

After 20 years of building bridges, Bill was ready for a change so he moved from Te Karaka to Gisborne in 1967.

He took a labouring job at the freezing works until 1970 when Fletcher Challenge offered him work.

Construction of the new hospital was under way and Bill was in charge of managing the back storage area in Lytton Road.

It was his responsibility to get all the parts and equipment from out of town to the construction site.

“Working on the new hospital was a real highlight for me but that all came to an end when the complex opened in 1984.”

Employment adviser

Bill was then approached by Mike Ransley, manager of the Department of Social Welfare, about a position as an employment adviser.

“The unemployment rate, especially among Maori men, was on the rise so my job was to find work for these people.

“I had never been out of work so I didn’t realise how high the level of unemployment was in the district. I was to target the long-term unemployed (LTU) some of whom had not worked for 10 years or more.

“The National Government was in power at the time and there was very little trade training available and not much incentive to work for those on a benefit.

“The system blamed the unemployed and I blamed the benefit system.”

Bill set up programmes for the men at Tapuihikitia Marae, Puha, where he and his whanau ‘built bridges’ and helped turn lives around.

“The people we worked with were Maori males aged 25-35 who had moved away from home, lost their pride and mana and had no purpose in life.

“A marae elder, Charlie Pera and I, used to work on their attitude for a start and rebuild their mana and sense of who they were.”

Modesty

At this point, Bill’s wife Nona chips in to add the things that Bill is too modest to talk about.

“Bill is such a gentle, kind, intelligent man, he won their respect. He has a special way with people, young and old. They all called him ‘Uncle Bill’, even the tough gang members he worked with,” she said.

Bill says: “Just as we were beginning to make some progress, the government pulled the plug. They wanted quick results which we couldn’t deliver. The system let us down badly.”

Along with Richard Brooking at the Employment Service, Bill came up with the Paint the Town initiative to provide employment for hard-to-place, LTU clients like gang members.

“If shop-owners provided the paint, we supplied the labour. We had a lot of interest but some of the councillors were not happy with the concept,” he says.

Bill carried on working with the unemployed, running three-day marae-based programmes with the aim of bringing them back to their roots.

“On day 1, we helped them get to know who they were and how important they were; on day 2 we looked at the skills they had, and on day 3, Kath Harrison from the Ministry of Social Development would teach them how to put those skills down on paper and make a resume.

“One of the highlights for me was to see a person going from thinking they had no skills to realising they actually did, even if it was playing a guitar. It was a confidence-building exercise.

“One chap went on to become a New Zealand Silver Secateurs champion.

“I used to pick him up and take him to work every day and after a while, he realised how good he was at the job. Initially, he went there for a three-week placement but the boss wanted to keep him on. He went to the wananga to learn his language and tikanga. What a transformation we saw in that guy. There are lots of success stories like that.”

In 1994 Bill began visiting prisons with Hona Manuel and there he met Temple and Olive Isaacs, prisoner rehabilitation workers from Gisborne.

“I was shocked when I saw all the Maori faces at Mangaroa Prison. I was not aware of the numbers in prison so it woke me up to what was going on around me.

“Hona’s aim was to reconnect the inmates with their Maori side. We were ready to launch a programme to help these men but sadly Hona passed away. He was a very special sort of guy.”

After a decade in social and community work, Bill needed a break.

Apia, Bill’s first wife and mother of their eight children, was from the East Coast and she decided the family should go back to her marae at Te Araroa for a while.

“It was like walking into paradise with the sea in front and the bush behind,” says Bill.

“I worked as carpenter, finishing the rebuild of Hinerupe Marae which had been destroyed by fire in 1996.”

Tukutuku panels

Apia was in charge of the women who were creating the tukutuku panels. They gathered kiekie (flax), peeled and boiled it in dye and then wove the panels.

“I loved the work on the marae. Those two years were some of the happiest times of my life. Sadly, Apia died of cancer six months before the reopening of the marae in March 2002. All that work and she never saw the marae finished.

“Apia and I were married 44 years, had eight children of our own and brought up many others — I missed her terribly.

“After she passed away, I decided to stay on up there so I could be close to where she was buried. But a few months later, a nurse came to see me and encouraged me to take a job at Ngati Porou Hauora at Te Puia Springs.

“Diane Gibson was the manager at the time and my job was to greet the oldies in Maori and make them feel welcome. I met wonderful people like Dr Pat Ngata, who wanted me to come to the Kaiti clinic as a kaiawhina.

“So I moved back to Gisborne and began work at Kaiti Mall, where I met the inspiring Dr Tipene Leach and Dr David Belfield.

“There had been a sudden increase in diabetes among Maori so Dr Pat told me I had to get my old mates in for check-ups.

“Prostate cancer was also on the rise with 600 Maori men dying of the disease every year.

“I tackled the problem the Maori way — we had a cup of tea and I somehow convinced them to come to the clinic.”

As part of his work, Bill also went to Turanganui-a-Kiwa Health to spread the health message among the men playing bowls and doing tai chi.

Diane Williams, a nurse practitioner at the hospital, came up with the concept of taking health to the workplace.

“We went to sites like Juken Nissho where I talked to the men at lunch break. The problem with Maori men is that they don’t seek medical help until they are really sick. It’s a macho thing.”

Bill would pick them up for doctors’ appointments or they just wouldn’t go.

“They used to come with me because they got a free ride.”

In 2004, Bill was approached by the Ministry of Health to help deal with problem gambling.

“It was a problem I didn’t even know existed,” he said.

“No one had any real data about it but the two women I worked with, Aroha and Connie, had an idea of what was going on.

Addicted to pokies

“Sadly most of the victims we saw were women who were widowed or separated and addicted to the pokie machines. There were 16 venues back then.

“It was a sad situation — we had to go and spy on our own people. I was shocked and upset to find children left alone in cars outside pokie venues.

“Aroha and Connie worked their butts off.

“The government had set these things up as a means of funding for the community, but no one was monitoring the harm.

“The amount of money going out of the district was terrifying — about $10 million a year. Families broke up and people lost their homes because they were evicted due to unpaid rent.”

“Unlike violence and alcohol, the harm from problem gambling is invisible. But it’s just as harmful and does as much damage as alcohol.

“Those pokie machines are so addictive. People just keep feeding them in the hope of a big win. Most of the victims are lonely women.”

As a result, the Te Ara Tika Maori Problem Gambling group was formed to tackle the issue.

About this time, Bill went to the flea market to buy some watercress for a ‘Maori boil-up’.

“I saw this lovely girl there selling mystery envelopes so I started chatting to her and asked her to the movies, Sione’s Wedding.

“You never know what you are going to get at the flea market. I went to buy watercress and ended up with a wife. Nona and I were married in 2005.

“He’s a cunning old bugger,” says Nona. “In order to tackle the city’s gambling problem, he went to the top and married the deputy mayor. He knew I wanted to shut down the pokies as much as he did.”

Nona served nine years on the District Council, six as deputy mayor, and she was a member of the committee dedicated to a sinking lid policy on pokies.

In 2004 Bill was diagnosed with prostate cancer but this did not dull his fervour to help those in need.

While he was in the midst of treatment in Palmerston North, his son phoned him to say the country’s first ever Koti Rangatahi (Youth Court) was being held at Te Poho-o- Rawiri Marae in Gisborne.

The concept went back to an idea of Sir Henare Ngata’s and the first hearing was held in May 2008 with Judge Hemi Taumaunu presiding.

Bill became involved as a kaumatua, teaching the youngsters a pepeha (an introduction) to explain to the court who they were.

“I knew their names so could tell them who they were related to.

“I had seen the young ones waiting outside the regular court, full of anger and acting tough, but as bad as these kids may have been, they knew they had to behave on a marae.

“To appear before the Koti Rangatahi, they had to be tidily dressed, have their family with them and have a pepeha ready.”

The courts are a tremendous success and have since spread throughout New Zealand.

These days, Nona and Bill are semi-retired but they still work alongside the police as liaison people for under-17s who are brought in for questioning.

“If the youngsters have no family, we sit with them while they are being questioned.”

Last year was “a real roller-coaster for Bill healthwise”, says Nona.

The cancer had spread, but there were countless delays in his treatment and in the middle of 2016 he was told he had terminal lung cancer.

“I asked the specialist, Mr Bolton, ‘Can surgery make my life any better?’ ” says Bill.

“He said ‘No, go home and enjoy life’.

“So we thanked him for his honesty and went away relieved to know the truth.”

Nona says: “Mr Bolton was flabbergasted that two people could look at the end of life so positively.

“But we have love, laughter, happiness, a home and help from Hospice Tairawhiti to deal with Bill’s pain when needed.

“And we have a wonderful large family, some here, some in Taranaki and some in Australia. Between us we have 17 children, stepchildren and others from the extended family, 58 grandchildren and 42 great- grandchildren.”

They also have faith in God.

“I’ve never lost my faith. The good Lord will say when my time is up,” says Bill.

“And I’ve got a live-in registered nurse too,” he says referring to Nona with a chuckle.

“I told you — he’s cunning,” says Nona.

• In addition to his involvement in community work, Bill had a stellar rugby career.

He played for Waikohu and Gisborne Old Boys’.

He coached Poverty Bay and Old Boys, a team that had 44 games unbeaten.

Bill coached school teams from under-8s to seniors.

• A film crew from Waka Huia recently sought Bill out to talk about his work and inspect some of the bridges he’s built. The programme will air early next year.

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