A special ability

I would not change anything, JB Munro (78), QSO, of Mosgiel, says, reflecting on a life that has...
I would not change anything, JB Munro (78), QSO, of Mosgiel, says, reflecting on a life that has mixed hardship and accomplishment. Photo by Christine O'Connor.
Munro (right) with Abbeyfield New Zealand chairman Dr Bruce Kaye (left) and Abbeyfield founder...
Munro (right) with Abbeyfield New Zealand chairman Dr Bruce Kaye (left) and Abbeyfield founder the late Richard Carr-Gomm in this 2002 photo of the vacant Abbeyfield House site in Balmacewen, Dunedin. Photo by ODT.
Munro being inducted into the Attitude Awards Hall of Fame in December  last year. Photo supplied.
Munro being inducted into the Attitude Awards Hall of Fame in December last year. Photo supplied.

JB Munro is stepping down. The former head of IHC, fundraising maestro and global disability advocate talks to Bruce Munro about the polio-victim foster child who left school without any qualifications and went on to play a pivotal role in the most significant advance in disability rights in the history of New Zealand.

A photographer at the Otago Daily Times tells a story about JB Munro that is hard to reconcile with the quiet, elderly gentleman sitting here in the armchair of his modest Mosgiel townhouse.

''I was a cadet photographer and I asked him what the JB stood for,'' the photographer recalls.

''He replied,'It's JB. Go ask your chief of staff','' the overawed youngster was firmly told.

''JB - he's a legend,'' the now senior photographer concludes.

The incident occurred in the mid-1980s.

Mr Munro was in the middle of a 20-year reign as national director of IHC, the organisation providing services for people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

It was a tumultuous time for the disability sector and the country: The end of institutionalisation for thousands of people who were now being integrated into mainstream New Zealand life, often for the first time; The rise of disability rights, which was challenging social stigma and expectations around disability; The culmination of two decades of slow but steady progress, now spilling over into people's everyday lives.

And in the eye of the storm stood JB, enthusing, cajoling, envisioning, and sweating towards his vision for a better tomorrow for everyone.

''It was a very hard battle. But I wouldn't change it for anything,'' says the 78-year-old in the blue cardigan with a glint in his eye.

''No-one should be institutionalised. It must never be lost.''

Mr Munro was born on August 15, 1936, the son of an unwed 16-year-old girl from Gore.

He became a ward of the State and was fostered, at a few months old, by William and Lily Munro, who farmed on the outskirts of Invercargill.

The Munros had begun fostering when their own children, including Burt Munro, of World's Fastest Indian fame, had grown up and left home.

''Burt was 36 years older than me. He lived at the far end of the farm on Tramway Rd and liked to speed along the gravel road on his motorbikes,'' Mr Munro says.

''He probably had more sheep per acre than any other farmer in Southland, because he just fattened them ... He used the money to try to meet his costs for his [speed record attempt] trips overseas.''

More than 100 children were given short or long-term care in the Munro home.

At only a few weeks old, JB Munro contracted polio.

As a result, his left foot was twisted outwards at a 90-degree angle and his heel hung in the air.

In 1944, he came under the care of orthopaedic surgeon Major Renfrew White.

The next eight months were spent in Dunedin, between the hospital and Kew Convalescent Home, enduring four operations that included the grafting in of a bullock bone to lengthen his leg.

(Some four decades later, Mr Munro would buy the South Dunedin Convalescent Home he had spent so much time in and convert it to the service of people with intellectual disabilities.)

When, at 8 years old, he returned to Invercargill, he was met at the railway station by Mrs Munro and an officer of the child welfare section of the Department of Education.

The officer informed the aghast elderly woman and her foster son that she and her husband were too old look after him.

He was placed with another family. But the Munros went to court to adopt him.

''The magistrate told me, `John Baldwin, from now on you will be John Baldwin Munro'.''

So, JB Munro he became.

Teased for his callipered limp, and then unable to get School Certificate despite repeated attempts, Mr Munro left school at the age of 18 and took work at the Vacuum Oil Co (later Mobil).

It was just to pay the bills. His real focus was youth work.

He led the large local chapter of Boys Brigade and was superintendent of a Sunday school that had 35 volunteer teachers working with 400 children.

After two years youth-work training in Sydney, the energetic natural leader returned to New Zealand, married his fiancée Val (nee Sharfe), and shifted to Dunedin to work for the YMCA.

Adopting the radical approach of asking teenagers what they wanted, JB (as he was now known) organised and ran weekly and fortnightly dances which attracted up to 500 young people.

The money he raised went towards the construction of the joint YMCA facility and Dunedin City Council carpark later built on the Moray Pl site at the bottom of View St.

During this time, the couple's two children were born.

But the course of the young family's life was about to change.

Mr Munro had set up a trampoline in the ground floor foyer of the old YMCA building, in Moray Pl.

One day, he noticed a young man with an intellectual disability standing outside watching those on the trampoline.

Mr Munro invited him in to have a go.

The next day the boy returned with several friends.

''It was that young man who triggered John's interest in disability,'' Mrs Munro says.

By 1968, JB was the administrator of Southland IHC.

For several years, he combined that with being an Invercargill city councillor.

A fundraising escapade with a circus lion and a seesaw resulted in Mr Munro being invited to stand as the Labour candidate for Invercargill.

It was a timely offer as he was becoming increasingly concerned about the needs of people with disabilities.

''It was the reality that things could be much improved,'' Mr Munro says with feeling.

''We had 10,000 people with an intellectual disability in state institutions. Forty to a bedroom. A health department that was absolutely ... A lot of individuals who were self-centred so-and-sos.''

In Parliament, he championed the ground-breaking Disabled Persons' Community Welfare Act.

The Bill, which was passed during the last week of Parliament before Labour was defeated in the 1975 general election, gave disabled people community services as of right for the first time.

Planning to stand at the next election, Mr Munro worked as a Labour Party fundraiser.

One campaign, using simple money boxes and a clever idea, raised $400,000.

''We told them, `Every time Muldoon appears on the TV, put another one in the box','' he says as Mrs Munro chuckles.

It was during a chance meeting at Wellington airport that former IHC head Donald Beasley suggested Mr Munro apply for the top IHC job.

In October 1977, the family packed up for a new life in Wellington.

They would not return south for 21 years.

''It changed our lives completely. The things John was able to accomplish with a willing staff, '' Mrs Munro says.

Human rights had been slowly on the rise since the 1960s.

Women's rights, indigenous rights, gay rights ... Now was the hour for disability rights.

Up until then, the focus had been on keeping disabled people locked up and out of sight, Dr Hilary Stace, a disability researcher at Victoria, University of Wellington, says.

''He was really important in the deinstitutionalisation of people with disability and then in the shift from large community housing to smaller community housing in residential neighbourhoods,'' Dr Stace, who is researching a book on JB, says.

Fundraising continued to be an active sideline. The calf-rearing scheme he set up, and which still operates, was netting the IHC about $500,000 a year.

Mr Munro's vision continued to expand. And with it, the range of his involvement.

He gave seed funding to Parent to Parent, which supports families of people with disabilities.

Some of the money donated during the 1981 nationwide Telethon, which he co-chaired, got mobility taxis started in New Zealand and brought teletext to the country's television sets.

He founded what became the Fundraisers Institute of New Zealand, and hosted the first disability television show in the country.

In 1998, the same year he was made a Companion of the Queen's Service Order, Mr Munro voluntarily stepped down as chief executive of IHC and took up the role of Otago administrator, ''to get back to the grass roots''.

But two years later, he was on the move again, seconded to disability self-advocacy group Inclusion International as chairman and roving ambassador.

In recent years, he has been president of Rotary Mosgiel and served on Rotary's international service committee.

The New Zealand wing of Rotary International's disaster relief ShelterBox project has raised millions of dollars since JB was its first New Zealand secretary.

He has also raised funds, and served as international chairman for seniors community housing organisation Abbeyfield.

Now he is stepping down, stepping back. A move given impetus by the onset of Alzheimer's.

Mrs Munro says she noticed the beginnings of his memory loss up to five years ago.

''He actually was chairman of the international committee of Abbeyfield after we knew he had Alzheimer's, and it didn't impede him,'' she says.

A brain seizure last year, however, has sped up the degenerative process.

''There's no point taking responsibility if you can't remember something right at the crucial time or you make the wrong decision,'' a philosophical Mr Munro says.

Sitting in his airy living room, looking out on a view of a small well-groomed back lawn and garden, Mr Munro defers at times to his wife's recollections of events.

But there is still much of the mental spark and verbal skill that made him a fearless advocate and fearsome opponent.

He is talking about the early days with Mrs Munro, before they were married.

''I took my wife-to-be out to the movies and here, there and everywhere,'' he says.

''You started courting your wife is the way to say it, dear,'' she interjects. Pause.

''Well, I caught her anyway,'' comes the rejoinder.

Mr Munro admits he was always quick with his tongue. It was a skill he acquired to counter schoolyard bullies and then applied to fight for others.

''He is very caring. And he fights for anything, always with words, using his intelligence,'' Mrs Munro says.

They could just be the sentiments of an admiring spouse. But they are repeated in different forms by many others.

Alan Somerville, past president of Otago Playcentre and Abbeyfield Dunedin chairman, shoulder-tapped for the role by Mr Munro, says JB has an ''anything is possible'' attitude.

The downside of that is that it is ''exhausting for the rest of us'', Mr Somerville jokes.

Margy-Jean Malcolm has known Mr Munro since the 1990s, when they were chief executives of the New Zealand Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and the IHC, respectively.

''JB would never be afraid to speak his mind and often brought a bold strategic vision to such conversations, ahead of what others around him might have been confident to advocate for,'' she says.

''He has a heart of gold, a practical `can do' attitude and a strategic mind that is not afraid to work for bold future visions.''

It was the example of JB Munro's adopted parents that burned the notion of ''Respect for the other person, irrespective'' deep into his soul. His experience of polio channelled that value to powerful effect.

''It strengthened my resolve to not let issues beat you,'' he says.

''If clearly you could fix it, then I'd go for it. And sometimes, if you would be trampling on people, too bad.''

The trampling was not done viciously, but to make things better, Mrs Munro says.

Yes, and hopefully without arrogance, he adds.

It did upset people and earned him some foes, Dr Stace says.

''There are people who think he was too domineering or dominating. Strong leaders always have that,'' she says.

''But there was also this huge amount of affection for him from people for whom he made a difference, for them and their families.

''He was an energetic innovator, and those people often put people's noses out of joint. But he did an awful lot of good in the process.''

The aim was always to secure the change and assistance that was needed to help others, the couple say.

The chief example was ''bringing children out of institutions'', Mrs Munro says.

''Some parents were frightened that going into the big wide world, they [their children] were going to suffer for it. But it didn't happen.

''They would go off to dances, live by themselves, get a job. All these things happened. And they had been told by the doctors years ago that their children would never amount to anything and they needed to be put into an institution.

''In that way he did trample on people. And if he had to trample on government departments, well he had no sympathy for the department; they needed to learn there was more than one way of doing things.''

Mr Munro's only regret is that he was not able to raise more money to put IHC on a more secure footing.

''But the thing is, dear, you were focused on doing all the humane things,'' his wife replies.

''Ralph is building on that now. You got it all started.''

Beyond that, Mr Munro says there is not a thing he would change about his life, not even being a ward of the State.

At the age of 50, he was reunited with his birth mother, his siblings and relations.

''Now I have two wonderful families,'' he says.

Mrs Munro glances over at him, another reason to be grateful, not bitter, forming in her mind.

''If John hadn't had all those experiences, he might not be the man he is today. He might not have done the things he did.''

 

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