Medals displayed in Zayd Ian Blissett’s living room mark his service in the Korean War.
The Blenheim man is shy when asked what he received for them, just smiling and claiming to have ‘‘a PHD in cowardice’’.
‘‘That’s why I have lived to be 73. I’ve always made sure I had big friends.’’
Making friends and doing what he can for others has resulted in him being one of five Marlborough people named this week as Local Heroes in the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards 2012.
A press release says he has volunteered for Meals on Wheels, collected for Red Cross appeals, is a Justice of the Peace and helps immigrants adjust to life in a new country. ‘‘I’m a white man, a European, so I get [migrants] . . . asking me,’’ he says.
Married to Nisha, a Fijian Indian, Zayd Ian is a spokesman for the Blenheim Muslim faith they share, but was baptised in the Church of England.
Chesterfield, Derbyshire, was Ian’s home town and his two older brothers still live in England.
‘‘I was the one that left the Empire,’’ he says, settling down to tell his story.
He describes Chesterfield as a small, rural place where he was one of the church choirboy sopranos from the earliest age he can remember. ‘‘While the other boys were playing soccer, we were singing these ethereal, beautiful Latin hymns.’’
He nearly sang at the Queen’s coronation, he adds, but in the final practice his voice had started to break and another boy from the Chesterfield choir took his place. ‘‘But I can say I sang with someone who went to sing at the coronation!’’
At 20, Zayd Ian left England to work for an uncle living in the United States.
When the young ‘‘hunt servant’’, who minded the horses and hounds at a Derbyshire manor house estate, told his ‘‘landed gentry’’ boss he was leaving, the latter wasn’t impressed. ‘‘I was part of the estate, part of the chapel. [Workers shouldn’t] just go off to America when [they] want to.’’
And it did feel like a mistake when he arrived in Los Angeles, he says. In 1962 the city had no trees but was just a maze of smog, concrete, and power lines.
Zayd Ian had gained permanent residence – ‘‘easy back then because the quota from England was never full’’ – and soon he was called up to join the army.
‘‘I went to the United States as a shy English country boy . . . [believing] we British were the apex of civilisation. Everyone else was behind us . . . except the colonies, of course, because they were British stock!’’ Army life challenged those views. The 29 other soldiers in his battalion came from Italy, Germany, South America, China and Japan. ‘‘We all had to work together as a team and look out for each other. I realised rapidly that underneath we were all the same.’’
After three years’ service, Zayd Ian settled in San Francisco where he met his first wife, who talked him into leaving the United States and moving to New Zealand.
Wellington was their first base, then they opted for a quieter life in Blenheim, where Zayd Ian worked for the next 30 years with the railways.
When news came that five jobs at the Spring Creek depot would be lost, the then-61-year-old decided younger men with young children and house mortgages had a greater need to work. It is the sort of response one might expect from a local hero, a title he is shrinking from a bit this week.
Religious faith dictates that after family, neighbours are the most important in anyone’s life and Zayd Ian regards anyone in Marlborough a neighbour.
‘‘I can’t take care of everybody’s problem, but there are things I can do and should do.
‘‘That sounds a bit pompous,’’ he adds. ‘‘But it’s not meant to.’’
This is the first in a series about the five Marlborough residents named Local Heroes in the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards 2012.
Local hero Zayd Ian Blissett says he never regards the things he does as official ‘‘community work’’.