Old soldier's grave finally marked
It's taken 18 years, but war veteran Frank Kearns finally has a headstone to mark his grave.
Francis Thomas Kearns, known as Frank, died a bachelor, aged 94 in 1994.
Mr Kearn's niece, Mary Gilligan, who lives in Manaia, arranged his funeral but believed the Returned and Services' Association (RSA) would take care of the headstone.
Somehow, that didn't happen and his grave was left marked with a white cross, which eventually rotted away.
Over the years, his grave was tended by Barbara Moore and Elizabeth Lawn, who knew "Frankie". Ms Moore managed the rest home he was in, and Ms Lawn worked there as a carer.
Ms Lawn would place flowers on his grave on Anzac Day, while visiting the graves of other family members at the Kelvin Grove Cemetery.
"He was just a lovely old beautiful guy, I only worked part-time, but I didn't see anyone visit him," Ms Lawn said.
After years spent seeing his grave remain unmarked, she decided enough was enough and approached the RSA for help in May.
It wasn't until then, when contacted by RSA welfare officer John Tranter, that Mrs Gilligan realised his grave didn't have a headstone.
Mr Tranter was able to track down Mr Kearns' service number number, a task complicated by the fact he had enlisted as "Frank" rather than Francis, and learned he served as a gunner in World War II. Despite spending six years overseas, he had never claimed his service medals.
Six months later, about 20 people gathered at his graveside to see his new headstone unveiled. His nieces, Mrs Gilligan and Hazel Meier from New Plymouth, and great-niece, Delwyn Shirley, were there, as were Ms Lawn and Ms Moore.
Peter Mudgway, who worked with Mr Kearns after the war at a racing stable in Feilding when he was a teenager, recalled Mr Kearns as devout Catholic with a sweet tooth.
"He always had a tobacco tin of blackball lollies - they tell me he was still carrying them when he was in the rest home."
Ms Moore, of Rimu Lodge Rest Home, said the way Mr Mudgway talked about Mr Kearns was the way he was as she knew him too, and confirmed he still had his lollies in an old tin.
He had a great sense of humour, she said, recalling a time when she and another woman were on either side of him walking with him and he told her he wished he was 19 instead of 90.
Another time, not being a big fan of the shower, he told her very seriously that he wasn't a fish.
"He would always say something then giggle," she said.
After the headstone unveiling, the group went back to the RSA, where Mrs Gilligan was presented with her uncle's war medals, mounted on a clip so they could be worn on Anzac Day and framed in a display case.
From the accounts of those at the unveiling, Mr Kearns didn't talk about the war to anyone other than to say "it was a terrible thing".
Mrs Gilligan told the gathering she felt a little guilty that she hadn't realised her uncle's grave had gone unmarked for so long, and thanked Ms Lawn and Ms Moore for setting the wheels into motion to see he got a headstone.
She described Mr Kearns as a private and spiritual person, who always carried his rosary beads with him. When she was a child, he bought her a set that had been blessed by the pope, she said.
Mr Tranter said the undertaker at the time of Mr Kearns' funeral should have informed Mrs Gilligan of the process.
"But when [Frank] died those sorts of things didn't happen and we're trying to catch up. It's now up to us to catch up on old ones, we've got another 30 to go," he said.