Jim Simmonds pictured in 2004, at home with his drilling equipment in Kahutara, age 84. PHOTO/FILE

 

HAYLEY GASTMEIER
hayley.gastmeier@age.co.nz

 

Believe it or not, digging ditches, bee keeping, drilling bores, dairy farming, fathering five children, and being a prisoner of war are only a few of the things that Jim Simmonds achieved in his long, colourful life.

Born and bred in Featherston, Mr Simmonds died on March 25, three weeks short of turning 98.

Mr Simmonds’ granddaughter, Katrina Morison, from Ponatahi, said after all he had lived through, it was nice he died peacefully at home on his farm in Kahutara.

She said her grandfather was a bit of a legend.

A jack-of-all-trades, he was a pioneer irrigator and bore driller, and would do anything to help out a neighbour.

“He’s an unsung hero, a very humble, amazing man,” Mrs Morison said.

“He was a gentleman at heart, we love him to bits and we’ll really miss him.”

The fifth of seven children, Mr Simmonds grew up in South Featherston, attending the local school until aged 11, when he got his first job digging ditches.

Following this, he worked installing power lines over the Remutaka Hill, “making good money” according to his oldest child and only daughter, Elaine Gooding.

Mrs Gooding said her father also helped build the coastal road between Pukerua Bay and Paekakariki, and dabbled in beekeeping, before seizing a chance to doctor his personal file and change his date of birth so he could enlist in the army, where he was a signalman and dispatch rider.

In August 1940, aged 20, Mr Simmonds set sail on a passenger liner from Lyttelton, Christchurch, landing in Egypt two months later.

The men trained in a military camp near Cairo and were mobilized to Greece and then Aleppo, Syria.

As a dispatch rider, his job was to take messages to the front line by motorbike.

He travelled to Aleppo, to El Alamein and Benghazi, and he was one of 4000 New Zealanders captured in the lead-up to the Battle of El Alamein.

Mrs Gooding said her father remembered the enemy closing in.

“[My dad] said he tried desperately to get back to the line but he couldn’t, and he was captured on June 28, 1942.”

Mr Simmonds was moved through various desert camps and sailed to Italy.

He spent months in hospital being treated for malnutrition before being moved again, eventually ending up in Stalag VIII-B, in Poland, where he worked the coalmines for some time.

Towards the end of the war, Mr Simmonds escaped while he and other prisoners were being marched back to Germany.

“He was eventually sent home towards the end of 1945 through the port of Odessa on the Black Sea.”

Mrs Gooding said her father settled in Masterton on his return.

He took up beekeeping “in a big way” and had hives from South Wairarapa to Taranaki.

“He had some in Eketahuna, and some were on the farm where my mum was and that’s how they met.”

wta310505lfjim.jpg Jim Simmonds with his wife Dorothy (Dorrie), both 85, in 2005. PHOTO/FILE

Jim Simmonds with his wife Dorothy (Dorrie), both 85, in 2005. PHOTO/FILE

Mr Simmonds married Dorothy (Dorrie) Nagel in May, 1946.

She died in 2015.

He purchased his Kahutara property in 1952 and took up dairy farming.

“He put his first bore down on his own property for water, and it wasn’t long until the local farmers realised what my dad was doing and so he ended up well-drilling for years and years . . . the knowledge he had right until the end, the depth of the bores in the whole lower valley, he could tell you how deep they were, how much water was coming out of them, whether they were artesian or not.”

Mrs Gooding said after so much action in his earlier life, in later years her father preferred to stay at home on the farm, tending to his much-loved orchard.

“[But] he didn’t really stop working.

“Even when he could no longer take the drilling rig out, he was still going out and cleaning bores and doing things like that well into his 80s,” Mrs Gooding said.

“He had been through a lot and he was always more than happy to give someone a helping hand.”

Stories of Mr Simmonds’ eventful life will live on through the book ‘A Local Lad, My Life Story’, published last year and written by Kate McCarthy.

It is still available at Masterton Paper Plus.

“It certainly was a varied and full life, that’s for sure, and it’s pretty empty without him already.

“We were lucky to have him for so long,” Mrs Gooding said.

A humble man, Mr Simmonds did not want a funeral, so his family will celebrate his extraordinary life on April 18 – his birthday.