A letter from the Queen, a signed card from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and a shindig at the local RSA is how long-time Mangawhai resident Ron Piaggi is celebrating his forthcoming birthday – the magical milestone of 100.
Born in Wellington on June 9 1920, Ron’s life has spanned many eras and been witness to many changes in culture, social structure, fashion and politics. He can recall childhood memories of being hungry through the Great Depression and has served through World War II in three different services, the first Kiwi to ever to do so.
At the young age of 12 he nearly died while saving his brother from drowning, and recalls how ‘my whole life flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds, it was so spooky’, and survived both malaria and yellow fever in the war.
Married for over 50 years to late wife Marjory, and a father of six, Ron’s large family now includes 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
The active, independent centurion still cooks for himself and is known for his ‘scrumptious’ tomato relish, ‘I’ve cooked all my life, you name it, I’ve cooked it’.
He even holds a current driver’s license, often driving to local shops, to Waipu’s butchery or to Hakaru RSA, where he is Patron, to meet friends for a drink.
Through all his years, and apart from family times, the WWII veteran says his favourite days were just before the war.
“Things were different back then, men were gentlemen, opening doors for ladies, that kind of thing,” he says. “A crowd of us would go dancing five nights a week in the local dance halls which were everywhere back then, that’s where I first met Marjory briefly; we didn’t meet again till after the war.”
Growing up in Wellington, Ron was the second oldest of four brothers and a sister, attending Marist Brothers School before leaving in Year 6 to work at Croxley Printers. Then war came to New Zealand.
“When I was 20, I went down to enlist with my older brother but you had to be 21 so I joined the local army service corps in Dannevirke instead,” he says. “One night while out on the town having a few drinks a mate and I joined the Merchant Service, and I ended up doing four round trips between Wellington and Egypt aboard a hospital ship.”
Ron spent the next two years and four months travelling across oceans and seas from Egypt to Australia, Ceylon, India, Middle East, South Africa and New Zealand, transporting injured soldiers back to their homelands.
“I then did three years and seven months in hazardous service on a minesweeper for the Royal New Zealand Navy… a total of five years and eleven months in service.”
After the war a chance meeting led Marjory back to Ron, when she happened to board his ship which was touring the country. The couple soon married and eventually moved to Auckland in the 1950s to raise their growing family.
Passionate about cars, his favourites being his former ’64 V8 Ford Fairlane and ’39 Chevy and a love he shares with son Chris, Ron’s working life often revolved around vehicles, from auto parts sales and employment in garages. He also drove trucks for Winstone quarry and was a weekend coach driver from Auckland to Ruapehu as well as driving skiers and crew up and down the mountain, ‘called ‘the goat run’, it was good fun’.
Daughter Heather Tobin remembers her father often worked two jobs to support the family.
“With six children, I remember Dad would often come in and have his meal then would have to go out again at his secondary job, pumping petrol or working in a garage at night,” she says. “He always worked hard to give us the best, we never went without, always got great Christmas presents… had a great family life.”
When Marjory became unwell in her later years, Ron cared for her until she passed away in her early 80’s, moving to Mangawhai a short time after in 2000.
Although a smoker till his early 70’s, Heather believes she knows her father’s secret to a long life: ‘keeping his brain active’.
“He never turns the TV on until five o’clock, loves music, loved dancing, likes to talk to people on the phone, does word searches, is dedicated to jigsaw puzzles and cooks for himself,” she says. “Up to a few years ago he also would have a whiskey every night… I think it’s all helped him to stay young.”
§ A real hero at his local returned serviceman’s association, Hakaru & Districts RSA and the family are holding a special birthday celebration for Ron Piaggi at the RSA , 733 Settlement Road, on Saturday June 13, starting 12pm.
“Out on the town having a few drinks a mate and I joined the Merchant Service…”
Family man and centurion Ron Piaggi, with three of his six children by his blue car which he still drives regularly. Pictured from left, Sandra Tobin, Chris Piaggi, Ron, and Heather Tobin. Absent are Steve, Gail and Richard Piaggi. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
A showcase of dedicated service along with the veteran’s medals and a ‘Certificate of Appreciation’ signed by former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Friends Sue and Charlie Shepard say ‘Ron is a very loved and cherished man by all his family… a special person to many’. PHOTO/JULIA WADE