Home Penny blacks The day courageous Kiwi fighters in jerseys stopped the powerful American secret service

The day courageous Kiwi fighters in jerseys stopped the powerful American secret service

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As for the international incidents, it was strange.

On one side the American Secret Service, all menacing with their spiky guns and black sunglasses, and on the other, quivering Kiwis in shorts, singlets and spiked sneakers.

Moments before, US President Lyndon B Johnson was heading towards Wellington Airport along Evans Bay Parade. A shot rang out. Chaos ensued. His convoy came to an abrupt halt.

It was October 1966, when tensions were high – anti-Vietnam War sentiment was growing, and less than three years before John F Kennedy was assassinated in Texas.

Quickly, the Secret Service went into emergency mode, locating a man with a gun on the grassy field – it was Alan Singer, starting the Kiwi Athletic Club’s midweek club night.

Protesters against the Vietnam War outside Parliament during Lyndon B Johnson's tour in 1966.

National Film Unit/Nzonscreen.com

Protesters against the Vietnam War outside Parliament during Lyndon B Johnson’s tour in 1966.

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Today club chairman Peter Jack, a Kiwi member for 58 years, remembers the incident as a scary moment that turned into a laughing matter.

“We were just doing a normal 100m, with a hooded gun start… ‘BANG!’ Then we were confronted by the police and security guards to see what was going on,” he says.

Peter Fraser, Prime Minister during World War II, has been with the Kiwi Athletic Club for over a decade.

Alexander Turnbull Library

Peter Fraser, Prime Minister during World War II, has been with the Kiwi Athletic Club for over a decade.

“They were dressed in the old dark glasses. We felt a little taken aback, a little scared. But the thing is, we chilled it. Alan Singer told them what was going on, and they could see the funny side of it.”

As well as LBJ and his henchmen, the Wellington-based club’s 95-year history is littered with famous names, as well as knockdowns, flying shot puts, a discus or two and javelins sharply.

Approaching its 95th birthday, Kiwi is a reflection of New Zealand society itself and its DIY attitude.

Kiwi has survived the Great Depression, a World War, the advent of Saturday shopping, burgeoning business engagements and professional sports to stand on the brink of 100 years.

Peter Jack has been a member of the Kiwi Athletic Club for almost 60 years.

Provided

Peter Jack has been a member of the Kiwi Athletic Club for almost 60 years.

Kiwi – nicknamed “the people’s club” – has long been maintained by the volunteer administrators of the No 8 wire. In addition to Jack being there for 58 years, the late Vic Marks has passed half a century.

Club patron Singer first joined in 1945 and has served as assistant secretary, assistant club captain, starter, club captain and manager. Geoff and Marion Jackman, life members of Athletics NZ, were stalwarts at the club.

As well as Olympians and Commonwealth Games athletes, there were politicians: World War II Prime Minister Peter Fraser was a member, joining in 1929 along with three other MPs.

Bevan Smith, 1974 Commonwealth Games 200m bronze medalist and 1950 Empire Games silver medalist June Schoch, were both members.

Auditors General Sir Alexander Roberts and John Henry Fowler competed, as did All Blacks manager Ernie Todd, best known as the man who sent prop Keith Murdoch home in 1972.

Kiwi club member June Schoch (silver), Shirley Strickland (gold), Janet Shackleton (bronze) after the 80 meter hurdles, at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland.

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Kiwi club member June Schoch (silver), Shirley Strickland (gold), Janet Shackleton (bronze) after the 80 meter hurdles, at the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland.

There were All Blacks: Eric Tindall, Owen Stephens and Nelson Ball. Black Ferns: Sue Garden, Erin Rush and Serena Curtis, then Kiwi rugby league captain to Colin O’Neil.

Twelve members have received New Zealand accolades – Jack was awarded the QSM in 2017 – they have captained Olympic teams and four have been general managers of other sports.

Through all the twinkling stars, there have been darker times. The number of members varied from 75 to less than 10.

In the depression of the 1930s, club athlete Les Veitch was banned from athletics for three years for running as a professional to support his family. During World War II, membership dropped to less than 10 members. Ten athletes from the club never returned.

“We had our ups and downs, but we kept on running – as if the first committee we had had 22 members, you wouldn’t believe it. Now we’re down to five,” Jack said.

Bevan Smith won bronze at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in the 200m behind Don Quarrie of Jamaica and George Daniels of Ghana.

Things

Bevan Smith won bronze at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in the 200m behind Don Quarrie of Jamaica and George Daniels of Ghana.

Kiwi celebrates its 95th anniversary with a function in mid-October. Among those expected are high-level administrator Glenda Hughes (who won five New Zealand shot put titles), Olympians Anne Hare and Penny Hunt, and Paralympian Stu Minifie.

“These days, it’s damn hard to recruit members. People play so many other sports and their jobs don’t allow them to get the training they need to really enjoy the sport,” says Jack.

“We are managing again, we have three more members joining the club… new members. There is a future, so hopefully we can reach 100. We are on our way, we have 96 to come.

“I like to see other people join in, stay out of trouble, bloody crimes, to stay happy.”

That rings true for Hughes, who laughs that he joined Kiwi aged 14 after missing out on the Wellington Girls College netball team.

“While I’m happy to say it, I think it got me out of trouble, and I’m aware that’s one of the reasons my parents sent me home,” Hughes says.

Glenda Hughes competing in the high jump in 1976. As an athlete, she was best known as an outstanding thrower.

Don Roy / Stuff

Glenda Hughes competing in the high jump in 1976. As an athlete, she was best known as an outstanding thrower.

Hughes, who went on to compete in the 1982 Commonwealth Games, was a frontline police officer, public relations specialist, administrator and councilor for the Greater Wellington region, remembers those formative years fondly.

“We used to go to each other’s house for barbecues, which made my mum and dad very comfortable. For me, it was very family, it was like my family, you know what I mean?

“It was part of my social life. When I finished school and went to work it became part of my social life…there was a house we called Kiwi House.

“Where other people could party everywhere, a lot of Kiwi athletes just went there. And so you made a lot of contacts, but it was also a good safe place, because it was like a community.

“I did everything: sprint, hurdles, high jump, long jump. When I started, my key event – which will surprise people – was the high jump. And yes, she won a Wellington title.

“And I can’t believe that as a shot putter I ended up on a relay team. They made me run with my back straight, because that’s where the headwind was.

Kiwi Athletic Club members Masaaki Ono, Vincent Issa and Joseph Thang with coach Peter Jack.

Lucy Swinnen/Supplied

Kiwi Athletic Club members Masaaki Ono, Vincent Issa and Joseph Thang with coach Peter Jack.

Jack and Hughes talk about the influence of Bevan Smith. He showed what was possible: you could be a sprinter in New Zealand, you could belong to a small club and go to the top, you could only train in your free time and win medals.

But why devote 58 years of your life to the cause, Jack was asked.

“I’m a loyalist,” he says with typical understatement. He is also still at Wellington Football Club, which he joined the same year he went to Kiwi.

“When I joined the club I found that they helped me so much to find a coach that they took care of me,” he says.

“And I thought, it’s going to keep my body healthy and fit and good for rugby. The club is really helping me, I’m going to help them back, so I kind of kept going.

Kind of?