“Firefighters never die. They just burn forever in the hearts of those loved ones they left behind and the people whose lives they saved.”
Cambridge would have made Don Gerrand proud last Saturday.
Hundreds of people lined the streets to farewell their much-admired fire chief. Hundreds more filled the Town Hall or watched outside, many applauding respectfully as the engine ‘Flick’, carrying Don’s casket, led a cavalcade of service vehicles polished to the level of perfection he would have expected.
What the genial fire chief probably wouldn’t have expected was the moving outpouring of love and respect.
His service was likely one of the biggest held here, yet the man at its heart was a deeply humble person.
There is no doubt he was proud of the awards he amassed during his career – his 2008 Queen’s Service Medal, the Cambridge Community Board Community Award, the coveted Lions Federation Melvin Jones Fellow Award, even the Cambridge News Person of the Year award – but he often said the recognition belonged as much to the local brigade as it did to him. The two seemed indivisible for a very long time.
Each tribute heard on Saturday acknowledged Don’s 53 year-service with the brigade, 28 of them as fire chief.
His family’s generosity in sharing him was acknowledged, and speakers referenced his gift of selfless service to the community, his roguish humour and high expectations, his readiness to go ‘above and beyond’ whenever the call came.
Don’s deputy, Dennis Hunt, said that call came 9316 times for Don during the 53 years and five months he served after joining the brigade in November 1968. “His final one was on April 16.”
Dennis said it was Don’s leadership and determination that made this one of the best brigades in the country. “He always gave 110 percent. His largest project would have been the building of the new station in Cambridge… it opened in February 2003. Don helped raise almost $100,000 towards that.”
Dennis raised a laugh with tales of the chief’s less impressive dashes to the station when the siren sounded. One had Jocelyn pushing a non-starting vehicle, one made immobile simply by Don’s failure to engage the clutch and turn the key. Another saw him overshoot a corner, hit a kerb and drive into someone’s garden, only to find that call was a false alarm.
Don was one of eight children. His brother David said the family moved around to follow their father Allan’s work as a saw doctor, but settled eventually in Cambridge where Don attended Cambridge East, Cambridge Intermediate and Cambridge High schools. They were jam-packed and happy in a three-bedroomed Robinson St house their dad built. It was there that Don came to know young Jocelyn, a daughter of brigade stalwart ‘Bush’ Hooker. His ‘persuasion’ on the young couple’s wedding day helped launch a Gerrand dynasty that continues today through their son Richard’s 33 years with the service, and grandson Kase’s four.
David said: “The family is very proud that for someone who didn’t have much for most of his young life, Don’s 24/7 commitment to serving the community was outstanding.”
Don’s daughter Steph Taylor described her father as a strong man, one of few words. They shared a ‘father-daughter’ penchant for rum, usually at sea and always after Jocelyn had gone to bed.
The funeral was attended by Waipā mayor Jim Mylchreest and his deputy Liz Stolwyk, councillors, Cambridge Community Board members, fire service representatives and volunteer fire crew from around the region.
Taupo MP Louise Upston spoke about the man she called her friend. “Our Cambridge community would not have been the same had it not been for Don’s devotion and unselfish volunteer work over the last five decades.”
Her voice faltered as she recalled “his beaming face” when she dressed in his jacket and helmet. “I will always remember his graceful presence and bloody-mindedness. I can’t think of any other family in the New Zealand fire brigade that will have four generations serve their community.”
Daryl Trim, Waikato Fire and Emergency district manager, commended Don’s pride and strong values which he said resulted in the station, the fleet, equipment and people always being immaculate. “Don was a stickler for rules … usually his rules, but always with good intent behind them.”
President of Fire Brigade Gold Star Association Warren Feek said Don’s service had been tireless, and Cambridge had lost a legend.
Donald Richard Gerrand Q.S.M. “Don” – 9 August 1949 – 2 May 2022