When Keith Tahu retired at the end of last year from Bellingham Quarries in Kaitaia, where he worked with three generations of the Bellingham family, the directors were there to salute him. By David Bellingham.
When my brother Brian and I started work at Bellingham Quarries in 1976, 42 years ago, Keith Tahui had already been working here for three years, hired by our Dad to operate the drilling rig.
He was already a big strong hard-working guy with a cheeky grin, one of the top dogs around the place, not just because of this stature – but because he was a nice guy and a hard worker.
Keith was born in Pamapuria, where he went to school, before he went to Kaitaia College. After that he spent two years on a farm at Wairoa in Hawkes Bay that grew corn for Wattie’s.
Keith went back to the Far North and spent a year breaking rocks all day using a spalling hammer at North Cape serpentine quarry.
At the age of 21 he was called up for compulsory military training and he decided he would actually join the Army. However, he never thought he would end up walking through the jungles of South Vietnam carrying a machine gun.
Keith served in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment as a machine gunner in Victor 5 Company.
During a close encounter with the enemy he was hit in the leg by shrapnel. His good mate, who was right beside him, was killed. Army records show he was listed as Wounded in Action in 1970. By then his leadership skills had already been identified and he received the “best soldier” award for his platoon.
Keith started with us at Bellinghams on May 1, 1973 on his return from Vietnam.
His first position was as a rock driller, operating an Atlas Copco 601 air-track, but he could operate anything, and he also became a very competent machine operator, manager, engineer and all-round nice guy, and someone who is valuable to a small operation like ours.
At that time, he was constantly moving around the many quarry sites from Cape Reinga to Panguru to Mangonui, and we often had to camp on site due to the long travel times. I recall him chasing some would-be battery thieves one night at Templetons in his undies, and it was only soft feet on sharp stones that saved the thieves from an unhappy ending.
On these occasions it was the meals I remember the most; Monday night stew, Tuesday night roast mutton, Wednesday night at home, and Thursday night brisket or oxtails, cabbage and spuds all in the same pot. Beautiful!
After three years with us he became a B grade quarry manager (1976) then progressed to an A grade unrestricted quarry manager in 1984. For this Keith had to travel to Auckland and sit two, three hour written exams in one day, one on plant and machinery the other on explosives.
He then ran various mobile quarry operations feeding the crushing plants with front end loaders.
In those days some of the loaders didn’t have cabs and even the big new loaders purchased in the late 1970s and 1980s had cabs but no air conditioning, stereos, heaters, sound proofing, air seats, or seat belts.
Keith always stepped up and got involved with any new plant construction or modifying the mobile plants.
He spent the past few years overseeing the management and running of the company’s three agricultural lime plants, organising annual preventative maintenance programmes, and was crucial in implementing the revised health and safety systems regarding these plants.
We now miss his initiative, ability and skills to get the job done without any dramas, and the way he always led from the front and got stuck in to get the job done. And his work was always finished to the highest standard.
It was Keith who taught me how to operate the drill, mark out shots and use explosives, so you could say he is the blame for the holes I put in the roof of the workshop all those years ago.
We’ve shovelled a lot of metal together, did our managers’ tickets together, and worked with a lot of different characters together over the years.
And here’s the thing, I never saw him lose it. Keith worked with people that yelled and swore, threw things (but never at Keith, nobody is that dumb) but he always remained calm and quiet.
No wonder he was the top solider in his outfit during his Vietnam war days.
His farewell was an emotional one, especially for my father, Don.
Keith had borrowed a Vernier gauge off my father about 25 years ago, who told him he could keep it, as long as he remained with our company.
At his retirement ceremony, Keith handed Don the gauge, still in its original case.
Left to right David Bellingham, Keith Tahu, Don Bellingham, Brian Bellingham, Back: Jarrod Bellingham.