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Merv and Rene “Mum” Otto

Posted by SC Comments Off on Merv and Rene “Mum” Otto

Merv and Rene Otto

The Ottos were at the centre of everything happening at Piha in the 1940 to the 1960s. Merv was a live-wire and Mr Fix-it man all around Piha, while Mum, or Rene, was the solid matriarch-type, not just of her Wright children and grand-children, but to a generation of young men at the Piha Surf Club. This is where she got the title “Mum”, as son, Don’s, mates came to regard her as their mother while at Piha. Rene was a distinctive woman with a wild head of hair – all frizz. This was apparently red when she was young, but was grey in her older years, but none the less spectacular, like a cloud around her head.

Rene was born Irene May Gill at Nelson in 1889 to Elizabeth and Alf Gill. The Gills later owned a lot of land on the tip of the Te Atatu Peninsula and you will find a Gill Crescent and Kelvin Reserve up there, recognising Rene’s family of birth.

In 1910 Rene married Cyril Wright and there were three sons in quick succession – Bill in 1911, Bob in 1913 and Don in 1915. Don Wright was later to  make an indelible mark on Piha as developer of the teardrop surf-ski as rescue craft and competition sport.

Bill, Bob and Don Wright

The Wrights moved around New Zealand, managing farms, with Cyril as farm manager and Rene as housekeeper. Each of the little boys was born in a different part of New Zealand.

With the advent of WW1, in August 1916, Cyril embarked for Europe as a Corporal with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. He was invalided to Britain and there formed a relationship with another woman. The separation from Rene led to the disintegration of his marriage, so that at war’s end Rene was bringing up her three boys on her own, with support from her Gill family, especially her brother Jack , who she lived with at Te Atatu.

At some point she met Mervyn Eric Otto and formed a relationship. Merv himself had been to WW1, embarking for Europe only a month before Cyril. He too was in the New Zealand Rifle Brigade, being employed as a motor driver, his occupation before the war.

Merv was born in 1897 so was eight years younger that Rene.  At war’s end, then in his early 20s, he went to live with his parents, Andrew and Beatrice Otto, at 12 Richmond Road. Once he met Rene, he took over the role of Dad to the Wright boys, then pre-teens and early teens.  He was an energetic and fun step-father who had much to teach the boys in practical skills. In 1926, Rene and Merv married.

Rene and Merv out fishing

The family lived at Kowhai Street while the boys went to Kowhai School, with Merv working as a motor driver for Grey and Menzies bottled drinks, which would have been popular with the three boys. Even before the marriage, in the mid-1920s, the family began going to Piha, and in 1938 the Ottos bought land – four sections in Garden Road, two at the northern end of what is today the Lily Pond and two sections across the road.

When Merv retired in 1938, the Ottos came to live at Piha. This was not really a retirement as both threw themselves into activities at Piha, Merv picking up a whole suite of jobs. He mended people’s tyres, mowed lawns, cleaned out septic tanks. At one time he was campground caretaker and had to get the boilers going every morning for hot water for campers and visitors.

Merv Otto with the Merv Otto Shield

He looked after bach owners’ houses and kept a whole wall of keys on hooks by the back door. At one time he was caretaker at the Piha surf club. In the 1940s he was on the North Piha Ratepayers Association committee and in the 1960s, the Piha Domain Board, and of course he was a devoted member and committee member of the Piha RSA, serving as president.  He donated a magnificent shield – the Merv Otto Shield – for competition between the Piha Bowling Clubs, and RSAs in the western area. Sadly, with the drop in the popularity of bowls it is no longer contested.

Rene too gave her time to local enterprises especially the Piha Bowling Club, where she was the women’s club president. She was renowned for turning out food for suppers, afternoon teas and working bees, as well as her own family. Surplus chooks’ eggs were pickled for later baking. With a steady stream of grandchildren visiting and constant visitors, she was always ready to bring out the cake or rustle up a meal.

Son Don and his children played leading roles in the Piha Surf Life Saving Club and the establishment of the jet boat and IRB services. During the War, Bob was sadly lost at sea in 1945 in an aircraft accident at Fiji. He is commemorated at Bourail New Zealand War Cemetery, New Caledonia. Not long before her death, Rene, with Merv, visited the memorial there as part of an RSA visit. His daughter Jude Morton has for many years been a Piha regular.

Rene died on New Year’s Eve 1969. Barbara Way went to live at Merv’s to housekeep for him. After a few years, Merv married Jean, Rene’s niece on the Gill side. It was not a long marriage, as Merv died in 1973.

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