By Tom Blake
As 2019 draws to a close, this column is a tribute to our readers’ friends and loved ones who’ve passed away this year. Two world events in Dec. inspired this topic; both are related to New Zealand.
Why the unusual subject? The idea came to me while stand-up paddleboarding in Dana Point Harbor, with my usual paddling buddy, Russell Kerr, a native of New Zealand. Russell and his wife, Pam, have dual New Zealand/USA citizenship. He and I discuss world events whenever we are on the water together.
The first event Russell reflected upon was the Dec. 9 White Island volcanic eruption off the coast of New Zealand, in which 18 people perished.
I couldn’t help but think of the friends and relatives of those who died, and how those people are trying to cope from this tragic event.
And the second world event that Russell and I discussed occurred on Dec. 12, with the passing of Peter Snell, New Zealand’s greatest athlete ever, a middle-distance runner, who would have been 81 on Dec. 17. I never met Peter Snell. Why did his passing sadden me?
In the summer of 1960, I traveled in Europe with four friends. We spent several days in Rome at the Summer Olympic Games. On Friday, Sept. 2, 1960, we watched Peter Snell win the 800 meters track and field event at Rome’s Olympic Stadium.
I was a college cross country runner at the time and admired the grit Snell had shown in that race. Snell broke five world track records in his career. In the 1964 Olympics, he won both the 800- and the 1500-meter events.
Fast forward to 2011, when my partner, Greta, and I were on a cruise around New Zealand’s North and South Islands. One of the ports where the ship docked was Wellington, located at the southern tip of the North Island.
On our way back to the ship after a fun sightseeing day, we stopped in a shop called the Olympic Games Museum. I was curious to see if Peter Snell was featured there. Inside, there was a pair of worn-out track shoes on a podium under glass. I asked a man working there if they were Peter Snell’s shoes. (They weren’t).
The man judged from my accent that I was from the United States. “Why is an American interested in Peter Snell?” he asked. I told him about seeing Snell win the gold medal in Rome.
The man’s name was Terry Daly, the Commercial and Marketing Director for the New Zealand Olympic Committee. He gave me an official New Zealand Olympic Team lapel pin and told me he wanted to give me something else, but it was in his office in Auckland. I told him our ship would be there in two days. He gave me his card and asked Greta and me to come by.
After sightseeing in Auckland, Greta reminded me that we needed to go to Terry Daly’s office. He gave us an Olympic Team jersey autographed by the great Peter Snell. I was incredibly honored by this Kiwi’s act of kindness.
Snell’s jersey hung on the sports wall of fame at Tutor and Spunky’s, my Dana Point deli, from 2011 until I sold the deli in 2015. Since then, it’s hung on the wall in our garage.
When Peter Snell passed away, I went to the garage and took down the framed jersey to photograph it.
I took several minutes to ponder Peter Snell’s life, and my life, and how blessed I’ve been, and how fortunate I was to have seen him run.
So, here’s to Peter Snell, and to the people lost in that tragic White Island volcano, and to my Dana Point deli customer, San Clemente police officer Vern McGarry, as well as all of our fellow employees and readers’ friends and loved ones who’ve passed this year. Each one was incredibly special to the people who knew and loved them.
May 2020 be a good year for all of us.
Tom Blake is a retired Dana Point business owner and San Clemente resident who has authored books on middle-aged dating. See his website at findingloveafter50.com. To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.