John Ward said he spent most of his life on wheels.
It is very likely true. For more than 50 years, this tourism everyman was a mercurial cog in the industry.
He was a coach driver, escort, agent, a strategist and the pioneering sales manager for the Mt Cook Group's operations in Auckland. And, it has to be said, a pioneer of contemporary rail tours, including the annual tours of Wellington's newspaper readers.
Ward was an incorrigible optimist who put countless thousands of bottoms on seats. New Zealand, he claimed, was a destination where dreams were fulfilled, and where thrills could be marketed as easily as bread.
He expanded his views in the past five years to include China, where he road-tested and then guided tours of the republic.
Ward's stamina for punishing schedules only recently diminished, though his salty humour never declined.
He lost count of the number of tours he escorted and the number of foreign media crews he accompanied while they documented New Zealand's scenic wonders. It was a far cry from the days when tourism was more sedentary, and Ward was a newly-ticketed fireman with New Zealand Railways in Invercargill. He was 18 when he got his fireman's ticket, though he was already afflicted with itchy feet. He knew that it would be years before a coveted steam engine driving job would come up, so he quit and moved to Wellington.
Ward was headstrong. It was a characteristic he carried everywhere. He could be at once abrasive, charismatic and charming. He appeared to have just one speed – full steam ahead – and keeping pace was not for the faint-hearted.
Much of it can be sheeted to a childhood grounding in hard knocks and it is a fair bet that a signal event in his childhood was instrumental in his personal brand of adult resilience.
Ward was 10 and living in Dunedin with his mother and sister when his mother packed a suitcase with the youngsters' clothes and announced they were going to Invercargill.
"I thought she meant we were all going to see my grandparents," he recalled. "We were on the footpath when she gave me the train tickets. A motorbike pulled up. She swung her case on to the tank and jumped on the back. They just took off. She never waved."
Ward lugged the case and his sister from Stafford St to Dunedin's railway station. They caught a southbound train to begin a new life on their grandparents' small farm near Invercargill. As for his mother, he never saw her again.
In 1948, he joined the Wellington City Corporation's tramways as a conductor and then motorman. He was the second WCC driver to hold licences for trams, buses, trolleybuses and the cablecar.
After three years with the capital's tramways he shipped out on the coaster Ranginui and scow Paroto for voyages between local ports."What I really wanted to do was get into tourism," he said, "and the only way I could see my way in was to go bus driving."
He drove briefly for GK Prisk Ltd's Luxury Landliner operation between Wellington and Auckland, before joining the New Zealand Railways Road Services at Christchurch as a coach driver.
By 1959, he was making a name for himself. With the Road Services, he had driven a coach over the Arthur's Pass route to the West Coast when the Lewis Pass was considered the only safe route. That pioneering run made an impression on Aub Rollinson, the Wigley family's Mt Cook company general manager who was looking for skilled drivers for the Christchurch-Queenstown run.
Ward was hired and soon graduated to the prestigious 14-day South Island grand tours.
When the entire Haast Pass route was complete in 1966, Ward made more ground for the Mt Cook company. He drove the first coach over the entire route that completed the highway circle of the South Island.
A step up the promotional ladder was in the wings. When Squib McWhirter, Mt Cook's traffic manager for the South Island, became ill, Ward replaced him.
While a career with buses and coaches consumed most of his time, Ward had not abandoned his interest in steam power. He was one of the founding members of the Canterbury Steam Preservation Society, though his hobby was shelved thanks to Henry Wigley.
Wigley decided to add the Auckland region to the company's domain. He needed able staff, and in 1969 he gave Ward short notice to leave Christchurch and take his wife to Auckland.
Over the next decade, as sales manager at Auckland, Ward was in the thick of Mt Cook's expansion, which in Auckland saw amphibian aircraft and catamarans added to the group's fleet of Hawker Siddley 748 airliners and numerous alpine aircraft in the South Island. Using the Mt Cook network it became possible to fly from Kerikeri to Queenstown in a day.
Ward's role with Mt Cook ended with Air New Zealand's growing influence and shareholding in the company.
He was soon organising tours or escorting them on behalf of tour companies.
John Ward was a compelling individual who reserved his best for passengers, close mates and a group of younger people who, needing a leg up, were treated with kindness and encouragement. He is survived by his wife and family in Invercargill.
- © Fairfax NZ News