William (Bill) Gilmore: an Extra-Ordinary Kiwi Bloke by Colin Buck
When Sheila and I dropped in to see Bill and Isobel at their Paraparumu home earlier this year, Bill was hand-feeding his pet seagull Jonathan from an upstairs window. We knew about this 'man-bird' affair from previous visits and were also aware that it had not been all plain sailing for Bill and Jonathan.
Living in a retirement village where there are strict rules about having pets and following a neighbour's complaint, Bill had to front up to the village residents’ committee and defend his right to continue feeding Jonathan. The main thrust of the neighbour's complaint was about the bird's apparent lack of toilet training!
Now over the years I had found that Bill was capable of spinning a good yarn, and I'm sure he has applied this talent to good effect because he was allowed to carry on this affair, with the proviso that he changed Jonathan's diet from stale bread to dog roll, as suggested by Bill, to remedy the bird's careless toilet habits.
We first met Bill and Isobel, his Scottish-born wife, in March 1975 soon after arriving in New Zealand where I was to take up a position in the head office of the Ministry of Works & Development (MOWD.)
Bill and I were colleagues in the Mechanical and Electrical (M&E) Division of this large department, which was then a government control department ranked alongside the Treasury and the State Services Commission.
At that time Bill Gilmore was the Chief Superintendent of the M&E Division, responsible for the recruitment, training and career development of around 400 trades supervisory personnel employed throughout New Zealand.
We soon developed a strong rapport as we had both came up through the trades apprenticeship systems where a practical work application was foremost and, as Bill would say, ‘usually left a bit of dirt under the fingernails to prove it.’
From his early beginnings in Elizabeth Street, Wellington and later starting work as an apprentice motor mechanic with the MOWD at Wellington Residency, Bill has pursued his love of motor vehicles or any rotating, reciprocating, fuel-burning contraption he could lay his hands on; preferably on wheels and with or without tyres.
During the 1950s Bill Gilmore played a key role in the re-construction of the old Rongotai Airport into the new Wellington International Airport facility. He was responsible for overseeing the massive mechanical conveyor system used to move huge quantities of landfill to reclaim part of Lyall Bay for the new airport's runway. A full account of this highly acclaimed project recently appeared in the Dominion Post with Bill's role well-defined together with an up to date picture of his smiling countenance.
Bill moved up the promotion ladder in the MOWD, gaining recognition as a highly-regarded, experienced mechanical technician, astute organiser and a manager with the ability to handle human resources with tact and understanding to achieve good results.
He was also gaining expertise and respect in his handling of Pacific Island assignments notably through work on the development of the RNZAF Flyingboat Base in Fiji, Overseas Aid projects in Tonga and other Pacific locations or further afield through MOWD links with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bill's amiable attitude and understanding of Maori and Pacific culture created a sound platform for progress with these projects.
During the latter part of his career Bill also spent several periods on work associated with mechanical plant in the Solomon Islands.
For me, one of the special episodes in my association with Bill occurred in 1976 when he was required to commission a soap factory installation in Tonga and needed an electrical engineer to go with him. He briefed me on the project, and asked me if I would be willing to undertake this assignment if my boss agreed to release me for the three weeks needed for the trip. Bill sought and obtained that approval and we were soon on our way to Tonga.
The soap factory provision was part of a New Zealand Aid project to help Tonga's economy and provide employment by utilising equipment previously owned and operated by Rawleighs, New Zealand, which had earlier been shipped out to Nukualofa, the main island of the Tongan archipelago.
It was understood that a suitable factory building existed and the equipment had been installed by the local people. The purpose of our visit was to verify completion and test run the process of making hand soap from coconut oil and other ingredients.
On arrival at Nukualofa airport we were met by an agent from the Tonga Commodities Board, the local body responsible for the new soap factory, and learned that progress with the installation of equipment had been delayed. Our visit to the factory next day confirmed Bill's prediction that we would most likely be required to sort out various problems before any commissioning could take place.
For the next two weeks Bill and I were busy organising local labour and other resources for the placement of machinery, provision of power and water supplies, setting priorities, and ironing out wrinkles in the local decision-making to ensure we would have a soap-making system working before we were due to leave.
The heat and humidity of Tonga, with temperatures over 30 degrees most days, made working in the old factory building uncomfortable but Bill didn't seem to notice this as he rolled up his sleeves and worked alongside his Tongan helpers.
We were fortunate to be staying in the relative luxury of the Date Line Hotel where the beer was cold and the air conditioning provided pleasant relief. At the weekends we took the opportunity to visit some of Tonga's interesting tourist attractions in our old hire car.
Alas, the beautiful white sand beaches were off limits on Sundays, but on the last Sunday of our stay a Kiwi fella known to Bill as John offered us a boat trip to the lovely island of Pangaimotu, a short distance off the coast, where this prohibition did not apply.
We duly arrived at the jetty for our proposed outing and, after exchanging pleasantries with John, we were about to climb down onto the boat when Bill asked, “Where are the life-jackets, John?”
To which John replied, “No need for life-jackets – we'll be right, mate.”
“No life-jackets! No trip!” retorted Bill.
John gave Bill a dirty look, disappeared for a few minutes, returning with the necessary equipment for us to enjoy a safe trip to this beautiful location.
Bill was and still is a strong advocate for safety on the water and has played an active part in New Zealand Water Safety over the years.
The Tonga soap factory was in a state of readiness when we left for home, but the system had not been commissioned due to insufficient raw material being available to carry out a production run, so a further visit was arranged to suit the Commodities Board timetable.
Other areas of expertise or application that Bill played an important role in over the years included:
The Government scheme for conversion of motor vehicles from petrol to LPG and CNG gas during the 1980s.
Investigation and reporting on use of methanol as a fuel alternative for motor vehicles linked with the Government's 'Think Big' programme.
The development and fast-tracking of training for MOWD supervisory personnel in HVAC control systems to meet the expansion of the Government's office building programme in the 1990s.
Now in his 89th year, Bill can look back on a full and satisfying public service career plus a lengthy retirement period where he has enjoyed helping senior citizens to cope with the computer age through Telecom's Senior Net programme and his weekly stints at Southwards Motor Museum where he would have been something approaching a human encyclopedia on the finer points of motor vehicle engineering for the benefit and entertainment of the many visitors.
The Gilmores provided that initial foothold and helped cement in our settlement within New Zealand.
When we lived nearby in Tawa we joined them for barbecues by the Waikanae river, boat trips in Jet. Sam, Bill's self-built jet boat, or meeting for a catch-up over a cuppa or something stronger.
Later when we moved north we would have wonderful week-ends together in Turangi or Taupo, where they also lived from time to time.
Their home in Turangi backed onto the beautiful Tongariro river, famous for its trout fishing. Bill thought we should try our luck at this great sport, so after getting the necessary equipment and plenty of local advice we practised the art of casting, hour after hour, on the green turf of a riverside reserve.
Unfortunately, when we tried
the real thing we caught more flies than fish and spent most of our time recovering our gear from the adjacent bush whilst the trout popped up to giggle at our incompetence.