In this interview, Taumarunui’s local historian, Ron Cooke talks about his career, his role within the King Country community and his latest challenges with the closure of The Memory Bank. Enjoy.
I conducted this interview with King Country legend in his office behind the now defunct Memory Bank in December 2018. I first met Ron in January 2018, and caught up with him recently. He was clearly in a pickle with recent developments and needed a hand to help sort things out. We engaged meaningfully over the period of a week or so and this interview took several sessions, going around in circles a little – something that would make sense to those who know the man!
Ron is a character. He’s very trusting and helpful (probably too much so) and he’s a man of detail. Whereas many would whack something like a document or a book out with a spelling mistake here or there, or guesswork when facts are not fully known, not so Ron. It’s got to be right, and he’ll “have the original document here somewhere” as he charges off into the depths of another file or literary resource to show you!
It seems that the dysfunctional relationship between himself and the Museum Trust that he established decades ago has finally broken down. Local community leader Weston Kirton had resolved most of the nasty historical tensions but it’s now ‘curtains’ on his current setup with the trust selling The Memory Bank building and gifting back (or abandoning depending on your take) the core museum resources.
The King Country Education Trust is a joint venture I helped him establish recently and should protect the valuable community resources that the King Country has entrusted him with over the years. Historical photographs, newspapers, documents and so on.
Let’s hear from Ron, then.
DS: I heard recently that you’ve got to move on Ron. What’s happened?
RC: Yes, the [Taumarunui] Museum Trust has sold the building and I’ve got to move out. The new owner has said that I can stay in my office for a few months but we had to clear out all the files to give him vacant possession of the main building, which created me a huge problem.
DS: And you didn’t know that this was coming?
RC: No, I found out through the media. Then later I just got a letter out of the blue telling me that the building sale was proceeding well.
DS: I understand that you spent quite some time moving the resources into safe storage. Tell me about this. You got help?
RC: Yes. I spent 116 hours since the sale moving boxes and boxes of photographs, books, newspapers,documents and negatives. Everything that has ever been donated to us. Fortunately I had some trusted volunteers helping me with some of it but I had to do the majority of the sorting, and it has really caused me problems.
DS: So the trust owned the building but you looked after the resources. Is that how it went?
RC: Yes, pretty much.
DS: And when they sold the building, you moved everything into safe storage, at your expense?
RC: Yes, but only the stuff given to me or that I had promised people to look after. I had to. I had no choice.
DS: Why do you say that?
RC: Because the people had given it all to me over the years and they trusted me as custodian to protect their valuable photos and so on. I had to save it and to protect it all as best as I could.
DS: OK, so I’ve helped you establish a Charitable Trust to hold and protect the resources, tell us why you’ve done this.
RC: Well as you know, this was your suggestion, but I like it because it means that the value will remain after I’m gone. I’m knocking 80 years old now and I was considering donating it all to the council in my will but this is not really core council business. A Society is fine if you’ve got a group of active people but it comes down to the people. A Charitable Trust has tax advantages and has a better chance of protecting the valuable things from generation to generation. A small number of professional trustees with accountability to the government seems to me to be a better way. That’s why I’ve taken your advice.
DS: So there’s work for you to do now but a good future for Ron Cooke?
RC: I hope so! I’ve got several projects on the go at the moment but I’ve got to get over this current challenge . . .
DS: You mean finding a place to work from?
RC: Yes, and funding and sorting out all the resources. It’s a difficult time but when we have to do something we just do it. He helps too, like with your coming back to help.
[Ron is not overtly religious but points up to God when he says “He helps”, meaning that he believes that things happen in his life for a reason]
DS: The council is supportive of your work isn’t it?
RC: Yes, they have helped with part-time office people who have been cataloging all the resources, entering it into a database. They also house the microfiche records of the Taumarunui Press in the library and make it available to the public.
DS: And your son Bevan?
RC: Bevan’s a great help. He does all the database and server work.
DS: In talking around town it seems to me that you’re very well known. You are the go-to guy for everything historical – information, contacts, especially photos . . . how did you become the local historian that everybody knows and respects?
RC: I started as an engineer and then moved into photography. My photography work built up over the years and I gained the trust of the newspaper men of the day. When they moved on I ended up with their historical newspapers and the books of local history I’ve written [Roll Back the Years] have sort of kept me going.
DS: You are spritely for your age but you are aging and have a limited productive time ahead. With the bulk of the resources now in safe hands what is your wish moving forward Ron?
RC: Well first, I need to get back into productive mode. We have to get through this current crisis, but within a year I would hope that we’re in a position to build the collection. Virtually every family has valuable photos and history that is too easily lost. I’d love to be in a position to open the doors and actively invite King Country residents to put their history into the collection. Despite our current problems, when it comes to protecting resources, there really is safety in numbers. A collection like we have is generally recognised as something of value whereas it is too easy for someone to throw out old stuff like photos – either by mistake or because they don’t recognise the value. I’ve seen it happen so many times before. The next generation (like you) will find ways to use and share this resource.
DS: Indeed. Thanks for sharing Ron. Is there anything further that you’d like to add?
RC: Yes . . . thanks. Thanks to you first. You’ve done an incredible amount for me in such a short time, but also the people of Taumaunui too, there’s so many people who have helped me over the years, and who have donated their valuable resources into my custody. Thank you all!
The King Country Education Trust website is www.kcet.nz and we’ve got developments planned for Q1, 2019 – a transition phase as Ron prepares for less of an active management role and more doing what he enjoys and is good at – researching and writing.
My wish is that he can wind down gracefully, rather than burn out and crash! I think he deserves it! 🙂