Pentecost Sunday this year marked an anniversary in my family and, in a sense, in my Auckland church community. It was 30 years to the day since my grandfather, Walter Otto, died at St Joseph’s Home in Ponsonby, aged 79. He had just attended morning Mass and had received Holy Communion. Shortly afterwards, he died sitting in a chair, holding a newspaper in his hands, so we were told.
It seemed fitting that Walter – “Grandpa” to his grandchildren – should die so “well prepared” for heaven. So people said to us at his funeral at Sts Francis and Therese church in Pt Chevalier. This was the little church where he had worshipped, alongside his wife Gwen, for many years – well over half a century. Many others at the funeral said that Walter was a “great man” for the Church.
As grandchildren, we did not really know why so many people said this. We knew he was a great man and that he was a great “Grandpa” for us. He had also played a leading role in the building of the then-new church hall in the Pt Chevalier parish. And we knew he was well respected in business – having been general manager of Dominion Breweries and on the board of the Reserve Bank. We certainly knew that he was a very devout Catholic, as was his wife. He was the sort of man who would get up before dawn on holiday on Waiheke Island and walk miles to weekday Mass and back – in roman sandals.
We grandchildren had a vague idea that he had been involved in some sort of education project for the Church in the distant past. Many Catholic people, when they heard our surname, would ask “are you related to Walter?” The phrase “hear the case” kept cropping up. I heard from family that this was about “state aid for Catholic schools” and that it was something at which he often worked late into the night for a prolonged spell in the 1950s.
Conversations on this topic had receded into the mists of memory, until, a few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to obtain, through the good offices of the Auckland Catholic Diocese librarian Lynnette Harris, a copy of a 2014 Massey University PhD thesis by Barry Buckley titled “’As loyal citizens . . . . . .’ The relationship between New Zealand Catholicism, the State and Politics, 1945-1965”.
A whole chapter was devoted to the time of the battle for state support for private schools (which Catholic schools were at the time). And in the thick of that battle was Walter, who had a leadership role in the Holy Name Society. The author stated that “Walter Otto was the public face of the campaign and contributed a great deal of drive and energy”. The campaign my grandfather led was multi-faceted, as set out by Dr Buckley, and culminated in the presentation of a petition to a parliamentary select committee. In a nutshell, the argument was “since all citizens contribute to taxation and Catholics contribute towards the wider cost of state education, the refusal of financial assistance for private schools created both a hardship and an injustice”.
Walter prepared a submission that was “extensive and detailed, focusing particularly upon the justice of the case”. After other parties made their submissions, mostly in opposition, he put together a 26-page rebuttal of their criticism. He gave a detailed and robust defence of the Catholic case, the thesis stated.
But it was to no avail. The committee made no recommendation, and the petition ultimately failed. The thesis referred to correspondence Walter subsequently had with the then–Prime Minister, Sidney Holland, venting my grandfather’s frustration about the process and the make-up of the committee, among other things. Without going into too much detail – there was a question of breach of privilege – Walter subsequently stated he regretted what he had written and asked that the correspondence, which was not made public, be withdrawn. The Prime Minister accepted this from my grandfather and the letters were returned.
Dr Buckley stated that the involvement of the Holy Name Society . . . “allowed the [Church] hierarchy to maintain control of events from behind the scene, while the society’s leader, W.S. Otto, its national president, took the political ‘heat’, so to speak”.
Walter was not a politician and was maybe a little naïve in thinking the strength of his case would prevail in the political and religious climate of the day. But it was good to see that his work was not forgotten.
As his grandchildren, while we saw many signs of his prodigious energy and drive that had been shown in the “hear the case” campaign (in later life, this was focused, for instance, on tree-planting and landscaping projects on his Waiheke properties) – we had never really seen the “hard man” that one friend at Walter’s funeral said he could be in his business and commercial dealings. Reading the chapter in the thesis showed that this label could well have been apt.
What I did see, in his final years, was the “sick man”. Walter developed what was believed to be a type of Parkinson’s Disease and spent his much of his last three to four years in pain and discomfort, with a diaphragm that would heave and pulse uncontrollably. I will never forget the sight of him, in this state, praying the rosary with his wife for the recovery of their sick friends – an intention that came before any prayer for himself. I also saw his personal Bible – with notes jotted on many pages, especially those of the Gospels.
There is much more I could write about Walter – about his humble beginnings in Te Aroha, Murupara and Reporoa, his going bankrupt as a general store owner in the 1930s because he kept giving destitute locals food on tick, his being received into the Catholic Church (he was raised as an Anglican) in order to marry Gwen (they say converts make the best Catholics!), his doing a commerce degree at night while working to support his family, and his being honoured with a CBE by his sovereign when he retired in 1982. One can only say so much about a life such as his in a few words.
But I can say, 30 years after his death, that he really was a “great man”. May he rest in peace.