Works and schemes

Max Smith and his wife Velda at the opening of Max Smith Park at Lake Ruataniwha.
Max Smith and his wife Velda at the opening of Max Smith Park at Lake Ruataniwha.
Flag at half mast to commemorate the death of Max Smith. Photo supplied.
Flag at half mast to commemorate the death of Max Smith. Photo supplied.
Transporting the first house to Twizel through Sailors Cutting in 1969. Supplied photo
Transporting the first house to Twizel through Sailors Cutting in 1969. Supplied photo

A memorial service near Twizel today will remember Max Smith, the man many credit with saving the town. But eulogies will have many other stories to draw on, writes Dave Cannan.

When you peruse the Otago Daily Times' 40-year-old file for S. M. J. ''Max'' Smith, the yellowed clippings pasted inside it tell much of the story about a single-minded man who succeeded in doing his job the only way he knew - his way.

Yet the results of that determination, which ultimately ended, prematurely, an outstanding career in the public service, are a legacy of rare value; a thriving township once doomed for dismantling, an internationally recognised rowing facility and a necklace of recreational areas still enjoyed by thousands of holidaymakers and visitors every year.

Mr Smith, who died in North Canterbury on November 1, aged 87, will always be remembered as the man who built Twizel, in the Mackenzie Country, its world-class rowing venue nearby on the artificially created Lake Ruataniwha, the Waitaki Lakes' reserves and the Mackenzie hydro park.

The headlines in the file start with ''Engineer wins appeal case'' (13.8.70), which confirmed Mr Smith's appointment as project engineer for the Upper Waitaki hydro-electric power development schemes, at the expense of previously appointed J. P. Keller, of the Ministry of Works.

Then there is a brief story ''Awarded QSM'', (31.12.81), which records him being awarded the Queens Service Medal for having seen the ''huge development through to the last stages of completion''.

But then, in quick succession, the tone of the remaining clippings change dramatically.

''Retirement for engineer'' (1.2.83) announces Mr Bill Bailey as the new project engineer for the scheme, with Mr Smith's ''early retirement'' confirmed for the following month ''because of a dispute with his superiors over the spending of public money''.

This is followed by a banner headline of an ODT front page lead story ''Dispersal of workers national disaster'' (28.2.83), in which Mr Smith lambasted the Government for ''breaking up'' the workforce that built the Upper Waitaki power project and insisting the staff needed to operate the scheme be based at Omarama instead of Twizel.

And, the final instalment ''Twizel engineer bidden farewell'' (7.3.83) tells how a large crowd of Twizel residents and visitors turned out to say goodbye to Mr Smith.

That emotional departure, which featured speeches by the chairman of the Twizel Community Council, Malcolm Walls, and Charlie Saunders, South Island patron of the New Zealand Rowing Association, signalled the end of Mr Smith's 38-year career with the Ministry of Works.

During those latter years, his passion for completing the huge project assumed legendary proportions.

Mr Smith was not, apparently, a man to be trifled with; he tolerated, barely, any interest from head office in Wellington in various aspects of the development and his pragmatic attitude towards what he felt was good for the newly born town of Twizel meant he was sometimes referred to by locals as ''God''.

Mr Smith's daughter Philippa Sutherland, of Waipara, agrees her father could be fairly described as ''single-minded'', with a clear idea of where and how things should go and look.

''This was part of who he was and he was always like that. He was an engineer but he also had an engineer's mind - everything straight and orderly.

''This did cause some friction with some people at times.

"However, I think the majority realised that he had a role to play and that in the end this was a government project.''

When Mr Smith took over as project engineer in 1970, he had a vision for the Upper Waitaki and Mackenzie areas: he wanted to create a resource that could be used by New Zealanders with small pay-packets or older folk living on little more than their pension.

And he succeeded.

If you have ever used and enjoyed the boating facilities at places like Sailors Cutting, on Lake Benmore, or camped under the willows at Waitangi on Lake Aviemore, or even caught trout or salmon in the network of canals, then you have Mr Smith to thank.

As the ODT observed in a February, 2000, feature: ''Visitors to the lakes can not but appreciate the vision of Mr Smith.

Prefabricated toilet blocks, water supplies, boat harbours and ramps, trees and concrete fireplaces suddenly appeared at key spots, often without planning consents.''

But it could be fairly argued his determination to develop rowing facilities par excellence was both his piece de resistance and, ultimately, his downfall.

Former Mackenzie district councillor and long-time Twizel resident Rick Ramsay served as the information officer for the Upper Waitaki project under Mr Smith - their offices were across the hall from each other and both men favoured the open-door policy.

Mr Ramsay recalled how one year he was sent to the national rowing championships at Lake Waihola, near Dunedin, by Mr Smith with a purpose-built trailer, a model and lots of drawings to show rowing officials what he could build for them once Lake Ruataniwha was formed by damming the Ohau River.

Strictly speaking the rowing course was not part of the hydro scheme but Mr Ramsay insists there was no secret about it being built and head office was well aware of the project. The only cost to the Rowing Association was to fund the regatta control building.

However, when a shortage of money threatened to mar the official opening of the lake as a public facility on April 24, 1982, Mr Smith authorised the spending of $130,000 to ensure the main rowing building was built in time.

As he told the ODT in February, 1983: ''For about a year before the opening and six months afterwards, those concerned were familiar with the work that was being done. Eight months later I was dismissed from the Ministry for misuse of public funds in building the rowing building.''

In the same interview Mr Smith acknowledged he was aware of the consequences for both speaking out against the Government over its plans to dismantle Twizel and also the rowing funding issue.

But, his daughter, Mrs Sutherland, says her father believed he was doing the right thing by the community, which, to his mind, far outweighed any consequences.

''History is now speaking for itself with the Twizel region. However, it was a huge gamble and he took a tremendous personal risk for his own position.

''Max was in no doubt that the workforce should be kept intact for future projects outside the region and that Twizel should be retained.

"It was a new town with all-new infrastructure and people wanted to remain living there for all sorts of reasons.

''Many of these workers and their families had known no other lifestyle and Max felt a duty of care for them to be able to purchase their homes and remain there if they wished.''

So, was Mr Smith left a bitter man by such a public humiliation? Did he feel as if he'd left the job unfinished?

Or did the fact he made regular trips back to Twizel over the years, especially for rowing events, mean he was proud of what he had been able to achieve?

Mrs Sutherland is in no doubt about that.

''I don't think he was 'bitter'. He managed to stir a community into fighting for what was theirs and what could be theirs.

"He fought a fairly lonely battle for a while until momentum gathered and in all reality a community won its future. He always said he won the battle but not the war.

''To his dying day he believed he'd done the right thing and had no regrets at the time or latterly.

"No-one could have given him a better gift than the view looking down the area alongside the rowing course on finals day at Maadi Cup.

"He was always very delighted to see so many young people and their families partaking in sport and having fun.''

Indeed, there are two public acknowledgments of Mr Smith's huge contribution to the area.

The main road which runs from SH8 along the length of the rowing course at Ruataniwha is named Max Smith Dr, while at Easter two years ago, he was delighted to be asked to open Max Smith Park at the venue.

Part of the inscription on the plaque, affixed to a huge boulder by South Island Rowing Inc, acknowledges Mr Smith was ''staunch and solid as a rock'' in ensuring the rowing facility was developed.

Mr Smith, Christchurch-born, grew up in Waddington, west of Christchurch, where his father was a poultry farmer.

He did his schooling at Waddington School then went to Christchurch Technical College for training to become a civil engineer.

He worked at various sites in the North Island - Ohakune, Mangakino and Te Teko - then, in 1955 he married Velda McKeown, of Lower Hutt, who he had met through mutual friends.

Four years later the couple shifted south, where Mr Smith worked first on the Waitaki hydro schemes (Benmore and Aviemore) and then the Upper Waitaki project when based at Twizel.

And what of his life post-1983, after Twizel? Mr Smith went farming.

That same ODT file of clippings also shows how, in November, 1976, he had bought the 3000ha Castle Hill Station near Porters Pass as a ''family concern''.

Later, around 1993, he sold the vast property he had run with son Andrew and moved to a 1500ha sheep and cattle farm in Waipara, North Canterbury, where, according to his daughter he ''got involved in everything from shearing to fixing any water leaks to attending meetings and functions''.

His final foray was developing a 12ha vineyard on the property, called Whitestone, which was sold last year when the Smiths retired to Amberley.

But Twizel, and in particular the rowing facility at Ruataniwha, was never far from his thoughts.

Having already been elected a life member of the South Island Rowing Association, Mr Smith was, in the 2011 New Year honours, made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for his services to rowing.

In an interview with Fairfax, he said he doubted such a project would progress through today's bureaucracy. ''There wouldn't be enough paper in the country to start it,'' he quipped.

Mr Smith is survived by his wife Velda, children Andrew, Murray and Philippa, and his eight grandchildren.

Service: The memorial service for Max Smith is from 4pm today outside the rowing centre at Lake Ruataniwha. 


Royal runaround 

Max Smith always regarded a visit to the Upper Waitaki scheme by Prince Charles, in April, 1981, as one of the highlights of his time as project boss.

According to an excerpt from a booklet Twizel - The Early Years, which he co-wrote with Bruce Scott and Rose Golding, and reproduced by the website recently, Mr Smith felt the project was missing out on visiting celebrities.

Given it was an all-New Zealand enterprise and quite large by world standards, he asked Internal Affairs officials if they could organise for the Queen to come to Twizel. They couldn't but he was happy to have Prince Charles instead.

It was, by all accounts, a successful visit but it did produce one hiccup for the visiting media and, typically, Mr Smith, who escorted the young prince throughout the day, was at the heart of the kerfuffle.

Among his activities, Prince Charles got to drive a 50-tonne dump truck to a quarry where, the ODT reported, the media photographers scrambled dangerously ahead of the huge truck in order to get a picture of him at the wheel and then, when he got out, insisted he get back up and pose beside the truck's cab for more photographs.

The Prince was ''visibly upset'' and was reported to have muttered ''this is stupid'', which was enough for Mr Smith to quietly intervene, organising for information officer Rick Ramsay to bundle the media into a bus and take them well away from the Prince.

Later, to quell any angry misconceptions about who had been responsible for the diversion, Mr Smith confessed it was him: ''I did the wrong thing. I do admit that. It was not done maliciously,'' he told the media.

According to Mr Ramsay though, Mr Smith didn't really care too much about the fuss.

''He was quite proud that he'd given the Prince some media-free time.''

In his own account, Mr Smith wrote: ''Except for a problem with the news media, the visit went very well. He [the Prince] enjoyed all he saw and gave good exposure to all of Twizel. I heard afterwards that the Twizel visit was one of the best days of his tour.''



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