Inspiring Wellington policeman dies
Popular policeman Senior Constable Dean Gifford has died from a brain tumor. Joseph Romanos interviewed constable Gifford in December last year, after The Wellingtonian named him as its Wellingtonian of the Year.
Dean Gifford talks about being Conrad Smith's team-mate, battling cancer and sending paint to the Solomon Islands.
Where did you go to school?
Marist Newtown and then, from 1983 till 1987, St Pat's in Kilbirnie.
Were you a big rugby bloke at college?
Not as much as you'd imagine. I was tall, but really skinny so I mainly concentrated on basketball. St Pat's has always been good at basketball.
You had a pretty varied rugby career.
I did. Once I bulked up a bit I was OK. I was a lock. I played for Ories, Wellington, Old Boys- University, Marist-St Pat's and, later, Petone Police.
Were you just going to the highest bidder?
Not at all. I wanted to play a good standard of club rugby but sometimes I liked a club or a team and sometimes, like at Petone, I wanted to play with my mates.
You also had an unusual rep career.
I had a game for Nelson Bays. I don't know where they got my name from but they invited me to play for them, so I had one game, at Trafalgar Park. I had a blinder, scored a try and made a few runs. The next season Wairarapa-Bush asked me to play for them, so I did. I'd go over the hill twice a week for training and then for the game on the weekends. I loved it.
What was the big game for Wairarapa-Bush?
We played Manu Samoa at Memorial Park that season. It was awesome. The ground was packed.
You had a stint in England.
Yes, in Wigan, which is rugby league territory, though there's a lot of interest in rugby there, too. I enjoyed it, but it was bloody cold and we seemed to train in mud all winter.
Any regrets not going further in rugby?
No, I wasn't quite big or strong enough and didn't have the X-factor. When I was playing for Old Boys-University, Conrad Smith played with us. He was just young but straightaway you could tell he was special. He was pulled into the rep side and he was away.
Did you go straight into the police when you left college?
I had a couple of years working in places like Sol Bar and Shed 5 but I always wanted to go into the police.
What's the attraction?
There's something different every day. You don't know what you'll get. It's a buzz. I was in Lower Hutt for 14 years and have spent the last four in Wellington.
What do you do now?
Field intelligence. I'll go and talk to people when they have been released from prison, see what they want, talk about goals and so on. Some people don't want to know you, and some are happy to talk and very eager to get a job. If they want a job in a specific field I open the phone book and start ringing people until I'm able to hook them up with someone.
Does that usually work?
Some people won't even turn up and some will. The ones who really want to make a go of it, it's very rewarding to see them turn their lives around.
You've been battling cancer.
Yeah, it's a bugger. About five years ago I developed a brain tumour. I finished a rugby game and felt really odd so I drove myself straight to A and E. When I was there, within just a few seconds I couldn't even talk. They thought I had concussion, though I was dubious because I didn't recall having taken any big hits during the game. They ran a CT scan and told me I had a tumour.
That must have been devastating.
You hear "tumour" and it's a shock. It was really upsetting - there are no good tumours, just degrees of bad. I had a young family - my wife, Penny, was pregnant with our second child. They did an operation to cut out some of the tumour and I did a course of radiation. It went well and I've been all right for five years, though I knew it could return.
In about May it came back. It has grown and affects the right side of my body so my leg drags a bit. I do chemotherapy in the form of taking pills and the tumour seems to be getting smaller, so fingers crossed.
Are the pills expensive?
They cost $200 each, so $1000 a week. I do a one-week course every five weeks.
You seem very positive considering all this bad luck.
It's a pain but you have to be hopeful. You can't sit around feeling sorry for yourself. I have no idea what the future holds but I do swimming, cycling and rowing - taking care of myself physically.
The reason you've come to our attention is because of the help you've given children at Wellington Children's Hospital and in the Solomon Islands. How did that come about?
When I was up at the hospital because of my tumour, I popped over to the children's ward. That puts things in perspective. They were in the same boat as me but they were only five. Then I started thinking of ways I could help them. I visit the children's ward quite often and take various people with me - All Blacks, the armed offenders squad, Helipro, the fire service, the national dive squad, police dogs. I took a group from the hospital to Weta one day. I've gone up to the hospital with face painters, musicians, a magician. The kids love it and so do some of the parents and staff. The All Blacks are always very popular.
How do you get hold of them?
Through Conrad Smith. Every time they're here for a test, I'll get in touch with Conrad and he'll organise for some of them to go up to the hospital. They even did it during the World Cup. Brad Thorn went every time. All the All Blacks who went were really great the way they dealt with the kids.
What's your connection with the Solomons?
A girl I knew was in the Solomons. I'd see pictures from there and the kids were dressed in rags - their clothes were really perished. I had a whip-round to help them out and walked down to the $2 shop to pick up some stuff. That turned into going to places like Rebel Sport and asking for some of the stuff they hadn't sold at Christmas. Lots of companies have come on board since. Nike have given us 300 soccer balls. Colgate Palmolive have been amazing. They've given more than three tonnes of goods over five years - shampoos, soaps, Ajax, that sort of thing.
How much have you sent there in total?
About 7 1/2 tonnes to the Solomons. It's gone up on Hercules aircraft. Not everything goes to the Solomons. Nearly all the toys we've got have gone to the Children's Hospital here.
What else have you sent up?
At Lower Hutt [police station] we had a whole lot of old bikes. I got a mate who was a bike mechanic to make a list of things we needed to fix them. Then I went to a bike shop and they gave me what I needed, so all the bikes got fixed and sent over. The latest thing has been paint.
Yes, I went over there one time, to see how the stuff was being used. I visited the Honiara Hospital. I thought, "This place is terrible." The paint was peeling off the walls and it was dark and depressing. I came back and did a thing with TV One about it. After that I got a call from Resene, offering help. They've given more than 900 litres of paint, plus test pots. PAL and Haydn's helped with the brushes, rollers, scrapers and such like.
How do you manage to get so much stuff?
The first thing you have to do is ask. And you need a good cause. Also, the fact that I'm a policeman, turning up in a uniform, helps.
There was a big gala event held in your honour last month. That must have been a fillip.
It was amazing, very humbling. I was kept in the dark about it. Four people organised it - Ben Quinn, Katie Armstrong, Matt McLaughlin and Erin Moyle. Then I heard Colin Meads was coming, so I started to get some idea it was going to be quite big. In the end they had to stop sales at 550 people. It raised more than $100,000. I have no idea about my future so our family is incredibly grateful for that.