Journey ends for much-loved Raglan letter writer

Dyslexia never stopped Barry Ashby from writing many letters to the editor in defence of  animals, democracy and free ...
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Dyslexia never stopped Barry Ashby from writing many letters to the editor in defence of animals, democracy and free thinking.

OBITUARY: Barry Alfred "Barney" Ashby, June 19, 1938 – March 25, 2017

Barry Ashby was an avowed atheist, a man whose beliefs bordered on communist but who lived by Christian values, a forceful critic of perceived injustices, a poet, and a thorn in the side of bureaucrats.

His chosen weapon in the defence of animals, democracy, and free-thinking, was rather old-fashioned – the carefully penned letter.

He was well known to Waikato Times readers for his frequent contributions, sometimes jumbled and muddled following a stroke, in which he championed animal rights, challenged bigotry and racism, and crossed quills with those of the conservative Christian and political persuasions.

At the time of his death, Barry had written an estimated 1200 letters to a string of editors.

What many did not realise, however, was that Barry was dyslexic, and letters could take him hours to compose.

Son Craig noted at his funeral that a young Barry would spend long hours at Mt Albert Grammar being forced to rewrite assignments.

"We saw this again much, much, later in the way he wrote his letters to editors of various newspapers – they were not instantaneous creations. I saw him spend many hours rewriting and rewriting, sometimes to the point that I felt they completely lost their meaning."

Barry set out his philosophy in a suitably rambling and jumbled memoir. "A guiding suggestion is, so long as you are living in one of these rather lax democracies, never to be frightened to question authorities but, wherever possible, always put it in writing."

He certainly took his own advice, perhaps most memorably, when the Adult Adoption Information Bill passed into law in 1985. The law allowed parents who had put children up for adoption to veto any later request as to their identities. Barry, whose wife Tricia was adopted and never able to trace her birth father, felt strongly on the issue. Each year for more than 20 years he wrote a personal letter to every politician deploring the veto, finally giving up in 2008 on Tricia's death.

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On a second occasion, he certainly went further than most in questioning those in power. Invited to make a video link submission to a parliamentary select committee on replacing the Privy Council, Barry was taken aback, at the start of his submission, by what he perceived to be three or four committee members nodding off. Not wanting to waste his allocated 15 minutes, he demanded they all stand up and wave their hands. The startled chairperson took exception, but Barry said he would name those asleep. They all stood and waved.

Barry Ashby was a farm boy who grew up at Orere, about 90km southeast of Auckland, on the Hauraki Gulf. His first experience of shoes was when he was sent away to the city to join a Third Form class. Academically average, his forte was sport – rugby, boxing and, especially, rowing. Schoolboy Barry was a two-time winner of the Maadi Cup as part of the Mt Albert Grammar rowing eights, on the last occasion as captain.

It was rowing that led him into his career as, at the time, he understood teacher training at Ardmore allowed rowing as a sport.

He had a Fifth Form School Certificate with "very average" marks. "New Zealand at the time," he recalled in his memoirs, "was very short of primary teachers and, being male and able to talk and walk, I was duly accepted".

Nevertheless and despite his dyslexia, he spent two successful years at Ardmore before opting, in 1958, for a third year in specialist training at Christchurch in what was then called "nature study". Ten years later he was sequestered to the Department of Education's curriculum unit to help prepare a biology text for senior students. A Darwinian, Barry noted of the experience: "It was a time when Western scientific endeavours were largely freed from the confining constraints of bigoted Christian dogma."

After completing his teacher training he was posted to Nelson, where he met Tricia Ann Harley, a local ballet teacher, while singing in the chorus of the Nelson Operatic. He won his way to her heart by giving her a present of a single peanut in a brown paper bag donated by a milk bar attendant. They married in Nelson Cathedral in 1960, honeymooned on Waiheke Island, and were together 48 years.

Struggling on a teacher's pay packet, he worked many part-time jobs – he milked cows, and did stints as a wharfie in Nelson, as a national park historian during the school holidays, as a truck driver delivering sand in Northland, and evenings at a milk bar.

The couple, now with sons Craig and Gregor, settled in Hamilton in the mid-70s and Barry gained his guidance qualification. He taught at Te Kauwhata from 1980, and then Huntly College from 1984, commuting from Hamilton. Such was his effectiveness as a teacher, ex-Huntly College pupils, some 30 years older, travelled to Hamilton to speak at his funeral in the Hamilton East Methodist Church.

He also travelled widely as a science adviser, visiting many isolated settlements. "It was in poor taste," he wrote later, "to arrive at a school without the latest newspaper and, if one was going to stay for lunch, without a loaf of fresh bread."

Always able to turn his hand to anything, he later worked as a director for the Epilepsy Association, representing New Zealand at world congresses in Dublin and Sydney. In addition, he toiled as a community liaison officer for five years for the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand.

Barry was rocked by a stroke at Christmas 2000, and spent the next year learning to walk without the aid of a stick. He took a position as weekend cook for the Eventhorpe Rest Home and Hospital, a job he loved. It was around this time his letters to editors began in earnest, and he got stuck into local body politics. He and Tricia moved to Raglan in 2004. Barry served two terms on the Community Board, was an active member of the Residents & Ratepayers Association and, by dint of his aptly named Journey's End B&B, was a vocal member of the local Chamber of Commerce.

Chair of the board at the time, Rodger Gallagher, said Barry could always be relied on to provide the common sense view of community matters.

"For many years he worked to get the council to overturn its Bow Street dog ban. Until the ban was overturned, Barry's tiny dog, Sir Barney Grub, waited patiently in the car for Barry to return from his shopping and talks to everybody he met.

"On the other hand, he also put forward ideas that tested people's thinking – such as establishing a naval training base in Raglan."

However, when all was said and done, it was family that mattered most to Barry.

Craig noted that Barry's love for his immediate and extended family was so extensive that it stopped at nothing. If you asked Barry almost any question in the last few years, the conversation would always turn to the accomplishments of his grandchildren.

"He was a big person, with a big heart, and, although cautious, he had an infectious smile, and laughed a lot."

Barry was a devoted husband to Tricia; father and grandfather to Craig, Gregor, Chelsea, Judy, Julie, Isabella (and Ben), Henry, Bradlee, Claudia, Alexander and Zeke.

  • A life story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the Waikato community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email Charles.riddle@wintec.ac.nz

 - Stuff

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