Civil Contractors New Zealand Life Member June Margan passed away on 25 October at age 94.
CCNZ Chief Executive Peter Silcock said Ms Margan had made a “massive contribution” to CCNZ’s predecessor the Contractors Federation throughout her lifetime.
“June contributed a great deal of time and energy to improve conditions for contractors over several decades. Her effort and initiative helped grow our national association into what it is today. She showed unwavering commitment to the industry. Her passing marks the end of an era.”
Mr Silcock said her contributions to Contractors Federation included speaking up for women in contracting, persuading the Federation to allow female members to enter conference in the 1950s. June Margan was made the first female Life Member of the Contractors Federation on 4 August 1993, in the leadup to the 50th anniversary of Contractors’ Federation.
Along with her husband Noel ‘Baldy’ Margan – a past president and a member of the Executive Council for more than 25 years – she was also heavily involved in the decision to purchase premises in Wellington for a national office.
That national office is now known as Margan House, renamed in honour of the work of the Margans to support civil contracting in New Zealand.
Memories of a Grande Dame
First published in the December 2010/January 2011 edition of Contractor Magazine. Re-published with permission.
June Margan is far too busy to remember she’s supposed to be an octogenarian. A long-time supporter of contractors and contracting, and widow of a famous industry leader, she remains remarkably vigorous and involved with life. By GAVIN RILEY
One hesitates to refer to June Margan as “spry”, that worn-out adjective used patronisingly to describe any elderly person who still manages to get about. So let’s just say the 85-year-old widow of one of the contracting industry’s legendary figures, Noel “Baldy” Margan, is active, self-reliant and (to borrow an old-fashioned phrase) “a good sport”.
She still drives (her fourth Audi), goes walking several times a week, regularly takes the stairs instead of the lift to and from her third-storey apartment, uses a computer, and (the good-sport bit) as part of a charity auction prize she recently went for a Sunday-morning spin round her neighbourhood on the pillion of outgoing Auckland mayor John Banks’ Harley Davidson motorcycle.
It was energetic June who persuaded the Contractors’ Federation in the early 1950s to let women attend its annual conferences and who went on to grace those conferences with her presence for the next half century, long after her husband had died. For her loyalty and support she was made an honorary member of the Auckland branch in 1977 and became the federation’s first woman life member in 1993. The following year she and her son Ian were special guests when the federation’s national office in Wellington was named Margan House in honour of Noel, who in 1965 had pressed for the building’s purchase.
June’s enthusiastic “can do” spirit goes back to her childhood, which began on a farm near Carterton in the Wairarapa in 1925. The youngest (by eight and a half years) of the five Phelps children, she learned to drive the family’s 1928 Hudson car at 13 and could also handle a 22 Caterpillar tractor and a three-wheeled Farmall at haymaking. During the war she knitted socks, scarves and balaclavas for soldiers and helped run canteens and farewell dances for those going overseas.
At 17 June stayed for a while in Auckland with her sister Lynda, who had married contractor Jim Dryden. Through a contract to transport transmission poles for the power line from Bunnythorpe to Atiamuri, Jim met Noel Margan, one of eight offspring of a brickmaker turned baker, who was operating a 20-truck carrying business in the King Country, west of Taumarunui. The two men became friends and won a bizarre bet when they took the donkey used in the delivery of the power poles and dragged it to the top of Mt Ruapehu.
When Noel’s head driver returned from the war Noel delivered on his promise to sell him his business. He and Jim had already formed a contracting company, based in Papatoetoe. The two bought heavy construction machinery left by the American military in the Islands towards war’s end and won work at the Otorohanga, Rotowara and Huntly coal mines, as well as undertaking bush-clearing, developing land and forming roads in the central North Island.
During the building of a section of road between Mangakino and Tokoroa in 1946, there was so much pumice dust that machines had to have their lights on all the time. This contract was followed by the preparation of the Kinleith and Kawerau mill sites, construction of the Mutapara railway line, and clearing for housing of large tracts of land in the Tokoroa, Reporoa and north Auckland areas. Heavy rollers were used to crush the scrub before burning, followed by giant discing and grass sowing.
Noel and June had met and begun going steady in 1944 at a time when Noel felt contractors should work together and not against each other. “While courting me he would detour through the Wairarapa to see me on the way to Wellington to help set up the Contractors’ Federation,” June recalls.
The couple became engaged in 1946, married in Auckland the following year when Noel was 39 and June two days short of her 22nd birthday, and flew eight hours to Sydney by flying boat for their honeymoon.
Everyone except Noel’s family called him “Baldy”. He was given the name by a radio announcer during the six years he played rep rugby for King Country as a prop in the 1930s and it stuck. “I called him Baldy till we had children, then I thought I’d better change,” June says.
“It took me 12 months, during which time it was Baldy/Noel. Then I called him Noel for the rest of our time together.”
In 1949 Dryden & Margan was awarded a contract for the earthworks and formation of Auckland’s southern motorway. However, the following year the business partnership was shattered by a fierce in-office fist fight between the two physically powerful men that became part of contracting folklore. Noel had been strong enough to prop for Waikato-Thames Valley-King Country against the Springboks in 1937. Jim had been a 1938 Sydney Empire Games wrestling silver medallist who would lift massive wool bales as strength training when he visited June’s family’s Wairarapa farm as a shearer “Noel talked with his fists, Jim was quiet. It was a clash of two strong personalities,” June says.
“A lot of damage was done to office furniture and it was the end of the partnership.”
Noel formed his own company, NZ Roadmakers, which won contracts to work in the Kopuku opencast coalmine at Meremere, and at Auckland airport, the Managere oxidation ponds, the Auckland Harbour Bridge approaches, and the Marsden Point oil-refinery site.
For 10 years the company had heavy machines working in the Wellington region, including at Tawa, the airport, the approaches to the Rimutaka tunnel, and the motorway out of the capital.
Noel also worked with Harold Parsons, a Wairarapa family friend of June’s and later a Contractors’ Federation president. The two men acquired a Ransomes & Rapier dragline to help open the Lake Ferry outlet and build stopbanks to prevent further flooding in the lower Wairarapa.
NZ Roadmakers eventually had a staff of some 70 to 80, which meant that, including families, the welfare of about 200 people was dependent on the company’s prosperity. It was a responsibility which weighed heavily with Noel, who had left school at 12 or 13. “I was happy when I just had two trucks and a tractor,” he once confided to June.
Noel had helped set up the Contractors’ Federation, was elected immediately to the executive, served as president from 1954-57, and was on the council for 25 years before stepping down at a rip-roaring silver jubilee conference in 1969. Business sessions in Invercargill were followed by a knees-up at Te Anau and a visit to the Manapouri power project – from which the women were excluded as the Italian tunnellers considered their presence unlucky.
Noel and June lost their first child, Colleen Anne, in 1951 at the age of six months. Ian was born in 1952 and Maureen in 1956. The following year the family moved to the 180-acre Glendene farm at Waikumete Hill, Henderson, so the children “could grow up with animals and enjoy the kind of life Noel and I had had when we were young”, June says.
Over the years much of the land was sold for subdivisions, which later formed the suburb of Glendene and gave rise to a Pakiri Avenue, Maori for “Baldy”, and to a Phelps Place, after June’s maiden name. Eventually Noel wound down his contracting business, including Scoria Quarriers at East Tamaki, which was operated by his brother and fellow shareholder Alf, and in 1975 the Margans retired to the Parnell apartment with a magnificent harbour view where June still lives.
Noel died there 18 months later at the age of 70 after years of heart trouble and June coped with her grief by spending the next nine months in a flat in Berkshire, England, to be near her daughter. On her return home, Contractors’ Federation gatherings became very important.
“It’s been a very, very special thing to me not to lose that big part of my life,” she says.
“I’ve always been very grateful for it. I’d say to my hairdresser, ‘Make a good job of it, I’m going out with my one hundred men tonight’. When I went to conferences I was always treated like a lady, with full member privileges.”
June has had other interests in her adult life – 30 years of delivering Red Cross meals on wheels, 18 years as a Red Cross volunteer at Auckland Hospital (for which service she has a plaque), serving on school, church and pony club committees (receiving life membership from the last-named for her fundraising efforts), and participating in the Y’s Walking programme where 10-12km walks round Auckland’s bays became commonplace.
Busy though June still is today, thoughts of her larger-than-life Noel are never far away.
“He was a strong, strong character who loved company and who liked to see me dressed up,” she says.
“But he did have a soft side too. He was not averse to the odd tear. And he was very conscious of the men working for him, of the need for him to look after them.”