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Team effort . . . Des Kearns says his volunteer work would not have been possible without the support of his wife Judy. PHOTO:CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

Otipua residents Des Kearns (83) and his wife, Judy (79), celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary the weekend before last.

But their anniversary, a happy time for them as well as family and friends, was also poignant.

Mr Kearns has been battling health problems.

Late last year, his cardiologist said he had six months to live.

For a man who played cricket until he was 56 and squash to 73 and had kept active right up until recently, this came as a shock.

But he has moved on from that response and it is now seven and a-half months since he had the cardiologist’s dire report.

Although he has lost weight and cannot do some activities, Mr Kearns is still positive in his outlook.

Perhaps that optimism comes from having a positive view on life and the satisfaction derived from knowing he has made a significant contribution to the community over many years.

From the time he was growing up in Oamaru, Mr Kearns said, he had been drawn to helping out and volunteering and being active in the local community.

He was a scout and cub leader, a member of rugby, cricket and squash clubs and played bass in a dance band, the Moderaires.

But he struggled to explain what motivated him to get as deeply into volunteering as he has done.

Community spirit

Des Kearns’ volunteer activities over the years:

Timaru Squash Rackets Club (life member), Round Table No8, Timaru South Rotary, Timaru Municipal Band (now Alpine Energy Brass Band, life member), Timaru Boys’ High School board, Pareora West Primary School committee, Life Education Trust, Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, Justice of the Peace from 1989 (marriage celebrant around 100 times and taken 100 funerals),  Timaru District Council community awards panel member, Budget Advice, Waitaki Old Boys’ Association, volunteer collector for heart, blind and cancer societies, Christmas Candles for Candlelight (MC 15 years), Chalmers Church alterations project chairman.

Awards: QSM for community service (2001), Timaru District Council citizen award 2001.

“I don’t know; it was scouts in the early days and I was an inaugural member of Oamaru Round Table.

“It got me into volunteering and continued in Timaru. I developed leadership skills and because of that, people approached me to help.

“I found I could get people in a room and explain ‘here’s the task, how do we do it?’

“Through Round Table and squash, and later Rotary, I knew a lot of people.

“On a Sunday night I could ring a dozen people asking if they could do something.”

He said as well as having strong community contacts, it was necessary “to build integrity in tasks you’ve already undertaken”.

All of these skills were used in what Mr Kearns said was his major project, leading the Centennial Park Lake Development Committee in its struggle to make a recreation area from what had been a neglected Timaru reserve leased out to graze sheep.

Timaru Round Table48 initiated the project in 1985 but it had ground to a halt.

Mr Kearns was approached to keep the project alive and a committee was appointed.

For the next six years, a tough battle went on to develop the reserve in the face of opposition, apathy and a chronic need for funding.

Overcoming the latter problem needed the skills Mr Kearns had acquired.

He addressed dozens of meetings.

“You must sell them the benefits first, then with the final word ask for money. I’d say if you’ve got some money, perhaps you can contribute.”

He found they did.

A few days later, cheques would arrive with money to pay for plants and the development of paths and walkways and bridges, as well as Otipua Creek into a lake.

The public enthusiastically supported tree-planting days and other activities, as did local companies and contractors.

The Timaru District Council was supportive also, as were mayors Dave Walker and Wynne Raymond.

Mr Kearns said when the army and navy visited Timaru they were politely asked for some muscle power for various tasks, which was happily given.

The fear was the committee could overcommit, leaving a debt.

But in 1993 the park was formally handed over to the Timaru District Council debt-free and the town acquired a greatly enhanced recreational area.

“It cost a quarter of a million dollars, which was a lot of money in those days, and took a fair bit of grunty work and sweat; it was a major task.”

Having spent countless hours in meetings and community activities, Mr Kearns said it would not have been possible without the support of wife Judy.

The couple have two children, Andrew and Susan, and four granddaughters and have made their home in the quiet village of Otipua for 53 years.

Their home, greatly altered, was originally a shop dating back to the 1860s-70s, which the couple operated for about five years.

Mr Kearns worked mainly in the travel industry and volunteering was always fitted around his job and home life.

“I would encourage others to take a wider interest in their community but you need a wife and partner like Judy, who made it easy.

“In today’s world it might not be so easy.

“We’re just an old-fashioned couple; we’re pleased and proud of what we’ve done.”