A life well led - Wattie Thomas (1916-2017)

By P Smith | Posted: Monday February 26, 2018

He'd been our own Old Soldier for so long that the death of Wattie Thomas, at the age of 101 years, came as something of shock.

We'd thought he'd live forever, the stuff of Anzac Day legends at Rowena Jackson, his retirement home after the death of his wife Ito some years ago.

His was a remarkable life, begun in the early days of World War I, continuing with distinction, mentioned in despatches, as he served in Egypt and North Africa in World War II, returning home to become a family man with a tried and true record of service in the community.

When he celebrated his 100th birthday last year on October 16, people recalled how he had served 48 years as a Justice of the Peace, still with the clear methodical mind for which he was known.

That same year he was honoured for his 70 years with the Freemasons, members of whose brotherhood formed a guard of honour at his farewell, laying sprigs of acacia among the scarlet poppies placed by the Returned Services Association where he held the top national honour, the Gold Star Award.

Southern RSA leader Ian Beker spoke of Thomas' service.

It fell to Anne Thomas, wife of Wattie's youngest son Roy, to speak of her father-in-law's life in more recent times when he was older, a widower, living in care but retaining the strong spirit of independence and of quiet good humour which had been a feature of his earlier days.

She told of his love of salt and butter and all the things that keep a man fit and in good fettle and of his courtship of Ito, the girl he met at badminton, of the diamond ring and fur coat that sealed their engagement, of the happiness of their life together, of their pride in their three sons.

They had married on February 28, 1944, at St John's Anglican Church in Tay St.

Trevor was born in 1945, Neil in 1947 and Roy the following year.

In 1950, Wattie became a foundation member of the Invercargill Tin Hat Club, a life member in 1987.

The family lived in Margaret St, Princes St and later, when it was just the two of them, in Lowe St.

A great gardener, Wattie was said to have grown the best peas in the country, or so Neil's garden-raiding school mates would attest.

Neil remembered family holidays in a bach at Oreti Beach and later in Alexandra in the summertime but in winter too, when they skated on the Manorburn Dam.

Wattie spearheaded fund raising for the Southland Badminton Association's hall which was opened at Surrey Park in the early 1950s.

He became the accountant, later the general manager of the Southland Farmers Co-op and such was his work ethic that he happily accepted office in any committee he joined - he was chairman, secretary or treasurer of fundraising groups, sporting organisations, soccer clubs, Plunket, school committees.

Walter William Thomas was born in October 1916 in Dunedin, the first of three boys, the only one to reach such an age - "remarkable", said fellow military man retired Judge EB Joe Anderson after his war service.

All three - Walter, Percy and Albert - went to school at Moray Place and then North East Valley, and in 1928 Wattie started what were to be six years at Otago Boys' High School.

In January 1934, he started as a junior lad at John Chambers and in 1937 was transferred as assistant accountant to the Invercargill branch of the firm in Tay St.

In 1938, he met Ito at a dance and in 1940, found himself in Burnham military camp on the way to war in the Middle East.

They married on his return.

Judge Anderson recalled meeting Wattie Thomas when he came south in 1970. The younger man remembered the welcome he received, from a fellow serviceman, one who came from Dunedin too.

And they remained friends.

Wattie Thomas is survived by his sons Trevor (Hastings), Neil and Robyn in Sydney, Roy and Anne in Invercargill, by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He asked that any charitable donations made in his name should go to the RSA Welfare Fund