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Dr Prior: A man of many specialties

Dr Owen Prior got excited about most things. He loved life, family, friends, medicine, Masterton, his Methodist faith, singing, and the bach at Mataikona.

The indefatigable doctor took life by the scruff of the neck and lived it fully for over 95 years.

He died at Lansdowne Park on Thursday 17 August 2023 and today the Wairarapa community, he served so voraciously, gathered to remember him at his funeral in Masterton.

Following in his father Norman’s footsteps, Owen becoming a doctor was a natural move. He had seen the enthusiasm with which Norman had cared for the Masterton population. He had also witnessed his older brother, Ian, heading to Otago Medical School in Dunedin. Both boys had been born and raised in the huge brick homestead at 46 Perry Street, which housed the doctor’s surgery, and had seen first-hand, life in general practice medicine. Their older sister, Elaine, went on to be a nurse. Medicine ran in their veins.

But Owen Prior will also be remembered for so much more than his inquisitive, gentle doctoring.

His massive involvement in the community resulted from this ‘active relaxer’ wanting to see things done, and even better, “improved.” Organisations like the 1970s Wairarapa Community Action Programme [CAP], which morphed into REAP, had Owen behind it. He was on the Masterton Trust Lands Trust [Chair 1999-2003], acting Superintendent of Masterton Hospital, a member of the Wairarapa Hospital Board and other governance forms, the Methodist Children’s Home Board, St John Ambulance [awarded a Fellow], the Ararangi Outdoor Education Camp at Akura, Masterton, and a member of the Wairarapa Singers.
In the mid-70s when the Wesley Methodist Church was made redundant [Wesley and Knox combined to become St Luke’s in 1972] and McDonald’s was eyeing up the site, Owen encouraged the building to be moved and it became part of the Wairarapa Arts centre, later Aratoi, another institution, he greatly supported. Education and the arts were the foundation of many of his interests, along with religion and he joined the Explorations Group in Masterton to discuss Christianity and the Bible within a modern-day context.

Owen Fordham Prior was born on 19 May 1928 at the Perry Street house. Fordham was a family name of a great grandfather on his mother’s side. He already had a half-brother, Arthur, from his father’s first marriage [wife Bessie died of septicaemia following childbirth], an older sister, Elaine, and brother Ian.

“I don’t know where Owen came from, but we children thought we were named after the vowels of the alphabet – Arthur, Elaine, Ian, and Owen. Una never arrived,” he’d drily joke. Then he’d add, “I was born on that day because my mother witnessed my four-year-old brother, Ian, disappear under father’s car as he drove off to deliver a baby. Ian was ok but my pregnant mother was so shaken, it was enough to precipitate my birth.” Whatever the truth, Owen was full of stories and anecdotes which delighted friends and family heard time and again. Known to all those close, he was ‘Owie’ and ‘Docca’ to his seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Owen joined his father’s practice at 46 Perry Street, Masterton as a GP in 1958, worked as a surgeon at Masterton Hospital, and was its acting medical superintendent for a time. When he finally retired in the early 2000s, he had served Masterton medically for almost half a century including before and after study in the UK.

Owen’s mother was Jessie Miller, the daughter of a Masterton police sergeant, Nathaniel Miller.

She caught Norman Prior’s eye when singing and dancing in amateur theatricals. He was fresh home from war service in the medical corps gaining a Military Cross for bravery. He was pleased to be back in Masterton ready to settle down in his medical practice. Norman had originally arrived in Masterton in 1909 and there was an established medical practice just waiting for him. Norman and Jessie married in 1920.

Norman was a fresh air fanatic believing it was the best way to fight off germs and ailments like TB. Hence, Owen and Ian slept on the open upstairs porch of 46 Perry Street in a double bunk with just canvas blinds protecting them from icy frosts and howling southerly winds.

When Owen was 13, he was dux of Hadlow School. Later, he admitted to his grandchildren that there were only three vying for the award in 1941. After attending Wairarapa College, he headed to Otago Medical School. Owen loved his years in Dunedin. “The post-war years were full of joy and eagerness to learn.” He had met Helen Wilson in Masterton when just 15. She also went to Dunedin to do kindergarten teacher training and in later life she trained as a nurse.

Owen and Helen married in December 1951 and began life together in Wellington where Owen was a medical registrar at Wellington Hospital. Towards the end of 1953, they returned to Masterton for a brief time to save money to go to England where Owen could do his surgical fellowship. During this time, their son Simon was born in 1954 and so with a young toddler in tow they headed
off to England, Owen paying the way by working as the ship’s doctor.

Their daughter Anna was born while they were in England and by 1958 Owen had his surgical qualifications, and the young family returned to Masterton. Owen hit the
ground running, taking over his father’s medical practice in Perry Street. Another daughter, Jane, was born in 1959.

Owen quickly realised he needed extra help and called on his friend Dr Tenick Dennison whom he studied with in Dunedin. They had also kept in touch in England. Tenick and his wife, Janet grabbed the opportunity to join the practice in Masterton and this began a long successful business relationship and friendship. Apart from GPs, Tenick was the paediatrician and Owen, a surgeon.

The institution of ‘Happy Hour’ with “a whiskey or two” at 129 Renall Street [Tenick’s former home] was fostered by the two doctors for decades and concluded with the 6pm TV news. The two old friends enjoyed a raucous time sparring, fuelled by their differing political persuasions. Owen the committed socialist and Tenick, more right-leaning.

Owen and Tenick moved their surgeries next door in Perry Street to number 50 where decades of health care was dispensed. This was coupled with surgery at the Masterton Hospital. When it was decided that it was not safe to continue operations at the private Glenwood Hospital in Masterton, Owen was one of those who persuaded the Wairarapa Hospital Board to consider re-establishing the private hospital in dis-used wards at Masterton Hospital. By early 1996 agreement was reached with private insurers and alterations were made to the old Ward 5, or Children’s Ward.

The Selina Sutherland Private Hospital was born taking on the name of the nurse who had raised money to begin the first hospital in Masterton in 1879.

Another role Owen took on from his father was as a medical advisor to the Methodist Children’s Home in Masterton’s Herbert Street. At the end of WW1, the Wellington Methodist Charitable Board formed to educate impoverished children and decided to build a home in Masterton.

It was opened in 1921. The daily running was managed by a Masterton Committee made up of members of the Methodist Church. Owen continued this caring role until 1978 when the home closed.

Owen’s son Simon happily replaced his father in general practice in 1984. Owen carried on another decade at Masterton Hospital until the mid-90s. Sadly, Simon died in 2013. Among Owen’s grandchildren are David, an anaesthetist in Lower Hutt. Sarah is a GP in New Plymouth and Elliot a doctor in Auckland.

When Owen celebrated his 80th birthday, Tenick Dennison spoke at the event describing Owen as the ‘complete doctor.’ He praised Owen’s surgical expertise and predicted that in today’s specialised world of surgery, it would take at least seven surgeons to replace him – a neurosurgeon [he would elevate your depressed skull and drain your subdural haematoma], plastic surgeon [he would graft your burns and correct your bat ears], ENT surgeon [he would take out your tonsils and fix your broken jaw], general surgeon [he would take out your gall bladder and staple your stomach], gynaecologist [he delivered about 150 babies each year], urologist [he did many prostatectomies in his day] and an orthopaedic surgeon [he’d pin a hip with the greatest of ease]. And, then if you did go and die – he could do your postmortem.

There was never any pretension on Owen’s part about being a doctor. He saw the role as a privilege. He would often quote times before social security payments in NZ were made available post 1930 reforms. “Before that many people could not afford to pay my father and so grateful people often paid in eggs, jam. Pretty lean days they were. We were a fortunate family, but we would still be so careful with delicacies like oranges.”

While many medical consultants may carry around an elegant leather bag, Owen was a familiar figure in hospital corridors toting his notes in a Woolworth’s plastic bag. He regularly arrived at the hospital on his 50cc motorcycle wearing an orange helmet.

People were Owen’s priority and his daughters, Anna and Jane, remember multiple times when someone would quietly approach Owen to thank them for his help. It came in many forms and rarely did he ever mention it. Such was the man who most would agree has left Masterton a better place for his involvement.

Owen is survived by his two daughters, Anna and Jane. Seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

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