Desmond Piggin 1923-2001

Desmond Picture

My father Des was born on 9 September 1923 at Papatoetoe, the youngest of six children.

He attended Papatoetoe Primary School until the age of 12. Papatoetoe in those days was a village. As a child my father and his friends would range over the miles of open farmland round about. Although that was the time of the Depression and there was not much to go round, Dad, I think, had a happy childhood.

His secondary education was at Sacred Heart College in Ponsonby. He would travel up to town every day on the train and on to school on the tram.

His independent, free-thinking streak seemed to have developed during those teenage years.

At 16 he started university at Auckland where he studied law and at the same time worked at the Public Trust Office (a state agency whose main task was to prepare wills and administer trusts) for two years, which at that time was the usual way of going into tertiary education, a blend of the academic and the practical, and which was a mix of skills which he retained and applied throughout his life.

He was called up for military service at the age of 18, at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. He served in the Army for one and a half years and was discharged at the age of 19.

He was called up again in 1944 at the age of 20. He joined the Air Force when he trained as a radar and wireless technician and was later posted to Fiji for 6 months as the War drew to a close.

He was finally discharged and returned to the Public Trust office and completed his law degree and graduated and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1948.

Probably as a restless young man, he resigned from the Public Trust and travelled to Sydney in Australia. He went on from Australia to spend 12 months skippering a mission yacht around the Solomon Islands and working on mission stations there. At that time he contracted and almost died from malaria. The malaria resurfaced from time to time in later life.

He returned to Australia and using his Air Force training, obtained a partial ship radio officer's certificate and worked on fishing trawlers off the east coast of Australia.

Later he obtained a full ocean-going-ships radio officer's certificate and travelled to England and all over the world on oil tankers and cargo ships, to Galveston (Texas), San Francisco, Osaka and the Crimea in Russia to name a few destinations, but always returning to England.

He and my mother Rita were married in London in 1953. They returned to live in New Zealand the same year, and began their family of 5. Their first child was born when they were living at Lurline Ave around the corner from the church where his funeral was held. Later they built their first home in Waiohua Road, One Tree Hill, for their baby-boom children.

Des went into general practice as a solicitor in partnership with his late brother Tom and later on his own account. He built up a large practice with up to 12 staff at its peak.

In the early 1960s he began a long association with the Ngati Whatua at Orakei through friends he made in the Maori Affairs Department. He was the solicitor to the Orakei Marae Trust Board and actively promoted the building of the marae meeting house and of the ecumenical chapel at Okahu Bay. He was honoured to be made a kaumatua of the Ngati Whatua at Orakei.

In his youth he had been an active rower. He was the honorary solicitor to, and later the the patron of the St Georges Rowing Club.

After we, his children had started school in Ellerslie, he joined the parent-teacher association which was the beginning of his service in the cause of Catholic education. He became a leader in the campaign for state aid for Catholic schools in the diocese and on a national basis. At the heart of this was what he and other like-minded people saw was the injustice of a substantial number of children being educated in Catholic schools without government funding although their parents were taxpayers as much as any others. He saw through a campaign in which the PTA movement obtained grants of 50% of teachers' salaries in Catholic schools, a system of direct payment by the government to the bishops to run the schools. Before the percentage could be increased there was a change of government and the system was converted to integration, whereby the teachers were paid direct by the government.

In 1967 the family moved to Epsom, where Des lived for the last 30 years of his life. He took a full part in parish life and was active on the parish-school PTA.

In his late 50s his restlessness returned. When other men were coasting towards retirement, he reinvented himself. He sold his solicitor's practice and he and my mother travelled extensively overseas, to Europe and the Holy Land.

On returning to NZ he undertook a master's degree in law and returned to practice, not as a solicitor, but as a barrister, engaged in civil and criminal litigation, practising at all levels, in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. He had done court work early in his career. At at that time it was not remunerative, so with the demands of supporting a growing family he had had to turn away towards the better-paid work of a solicitor in general practice. He enjoyed the cut and thrust of litigation: and there was no such thing to him as a hopeless case; he felt if he sweated hard enough, drawing on all his skill and intellect and worked, he would make a difference—and he did.

He continued in practice as a barrister until recently. 1998 was his 50th year in the law. The law to him was truly a profession and not just a business.

That is something of his life.

The man himself was not always what you expected.

He had great personal charm, making many enduring friendships over the years from his schooldays, university, his time in the Public Trust Office and the law, the PTA and the church. To the end of his life, down to the last months and even the last weeks, he was constantly making new friends. If someone was what he termed "interesting", Des was hooked, young or old. He ignored age altogether, his own and everyone else's. He forbade his grandchildren to call him grandpa: they were to call him Des the same as everyone else.

In himself he was a sensitive, shy person who could be easily hurt. Characteristically, his way of overcoming the problem, when required to speak in a public way, was to say, "You shouldn't be afraid of making a fool of yourself, as long as you get your message across."

On a one-to-one basis he had a droll sense of humour which would draw the listener into being an accomplice to the joke. He could be a terrible tease, but appreciated a strong counterattack.

Entertaining was one of his great pleasures. At his Sunday morning elevenses you got a lot more than a cup of tea and a scone. Everyone was welcomed and introduced around the party. He took care to have drinks on hand to meet most tastes, served in measures large enough to stop an elephant. Sometimes his eclectic nature got the better of him, or more correctly got the better of guests who had been left to sip politely from one of his port and gin concoctions.

Throughout his life he was a voracious reader, of detective novels, science fiction, theology philosophy or whatever else he found thought provoking.

In April last year he was diagnosed with cancer. He thought there must be some mistake, as he was the youngest in his family and he felt he had a lot more of life to live. Surgery bought him some time but the cancer was spreading.

In the last 10 months of his life he showed great dignity and faith when others might have been crushed. He was good humoured when others might have been angry and dismal. He did not want a fuss.

He rose to the occasion. His great love for his Catholic faith and the mass carried him forward.

By Christmastime his illness was closing in on him. In his last weeks he was at peace with himself. Still, he held tenaciously on to life. He continued to attend daily mass here until the cancer robbed him of the last of his strength. He died peacefully in the early hours of 29 January at home with his family around him.

Des gave much during his life, but above all else he gave an example. He taught us always to be self critical and avoid false beliefs. He taught us to be humorous and to have a childlike lightness of heart no matter how old and weary and ill we become. Des gave us his time—and sometimes a hard time. But it was always a privilege to have such a man in our midst.

Address at Desmond's funeral by
Stephen Piggin (brother of Jean-Baptiste)
2001 February 1

© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009. This page may not be copied, published or placed online elsewhere without express permission from the author.