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The nicest man you could ever hope to meet

I used to keep a photo on my desk. Two photos, one on each side of a card. They were my two grandfathers. As you learned two episodes ago, I lost my father when I was very young … so I guess this was one of my many ways to look for a male role model. 

On one side is my Grandpa Young, at his desk. We’ll meet him later. His picture was to remind me about knuckling down and working hard. 

On the other side, is my Granddad Rockel. Brian Rockel.  He’s the one on the left. The best dressed one of the three, and this photo was to remind me to be someone that people like to be around.

Brian Rockel was born on March the 1st, 1909 in Taihape, in the central North Island of New Zealand. Family legend has it that he was born the night the town burnt down, which always sounded kind of amusing … but when I think about it, that would’ve been quite scary for the parents of a newborn child!

Brian was the eldest son of Cecil Rockel, then aged 24, and Ethel Rockel, 22. Cecil was a school teacher, which in those days meant an itinerant life manning schools all around the country. So Brian, and his sister Ivy, and his brother Fritz, grew up all across this beautiful land, living what looks like an idyllic life in the country. 

Rugby was a hobby for Brian, as it was for everyone, but shooting was his passion. He won trophies for it. 

By his late teens, the family was living in Wellington, and in 1927 Brian was one of the first recruits in the newly formed Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve, which had a commitment period of ten years, meaning if World War II had started a couple of years earlier, he would’ve been shipped off to the war. 

However, that was not to be. 

Brian became a sewing machine mechanic, working in Wellington’s rag trade and making sure the machinery ran smoothly. 

In the mid-30s he gave up shooting. Why? It had something to do with Lois. 

Lois Kelly, born in Napier in 1914, the eldest daughter of Herbert and Mildred Kelly, was a good Christian girl. The Kelly’s were a big part of the Brethren church - more on that in future episodes. 

Brian and Lois got married in 1937, and in 1938 their first daughter Annette - my mum - arrived. 

Mum hadn’t been in this world for long before the world changed. Britain was at war. Therefore, New Zealand was at war. Brian relocated - but unlike his mates who were shipping off overseas, Brian and family shipped to Auckland, to ensure clothing factories could continue to produce uniforms. 

Brian served as part of the local home guard - yes, that’s the same kind of Home Guard we used to laugh at watching Dad’s Army. While New Zealand never got invaded, Granddad did suffer injuries in a bike accident during blackout. He got concussion and had a hearing impediment for the rest of his life.

The war came, the war went … rationing went, but took just a little bit longer to go away than the war did. 

Brian and Lois raised three girls. Being of a very practical bent, and perhaps wishing for sons, Brian raised three very practical girls. Just because they weren’t sons, didn’t mean they couldn’t learn how to do anything a boy could do. 

The fifties saw summer camps at Martin’s Bay, and church picnics on Waiheke Island. In the sixties the daughters married off and went their own ways. Brian and Lois volunteered in Every Boy’s and Every Girl’s Rally, the Brethren equivalent to Scouts. Lois also volunteered at Kiwi Ranch, a youth camp in Rotorua. 

In the mid-seventies, when I was just 18 months old, Lois passed away. I know her only from photos and Mum’s stories. 

In 1979, at almost exactly the same time as my father died, Brian remarried. Grandma Grace was the grandma I knew growing up. A kind, sweet lady. 

Looking back, some of my most precious memories are of walking along the beach with Granddad and Grandma Grace. At the time, I looked forward to more material things, but from the perspective of today, that time spent … looking, talking, feeling the wind, watching boats, sharing memories … was a gift precious beyond compare. 

Granddad broke his first bone well into his seventies. He had always been fit and healthy, but time catches up with all of us. In 1988 he developed a heart condition that eventually took his life. 

Granddad and Grace were married for only 9 years, but as a couple they filled the grandparent-shaped-space in my heart. My dad’s parents lived in another town, so Granddad and Grace were the ones I saw. 

I remember about a decade ago noticing that brands - especially men’s brands - were embracing nostalgia. The logos, fonts and design tropes of 100 years ago were being used to sell reliability. 

I pondered this probably way more than I needed to. And I realised: to every boy, his granddad is perfect. His dad, is too close. You can see the flaws. But one generation removed, the saintly halo endures. And maybe that’s why I see Brian in this way. 

Of course, maybe he was so nice because he couldn’t hear what other people were saying … there’s always that possibility. 

But Brian Rockel remains to me the nicest man whom you could hope to find. And I’m grateful to him for helping me learn, One Ancestor at a Time.

If you enjoyed this, please subscribe to One Ancestor at a Time on YouTube so you can be updated everytime there’s a new video.  Thank you.

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