‘A true problem solver’: the life – and daring repair work – of Noel Robert Smith, 1940 -2022

In May 1977, Noel Smith was called to the Marsden A power station in Whangārei to repair a major steam leak in a faulty boiler valve. The operation lasted 18 hours. The consequences of failure were great. If the leak hadn’t been fixed, the Marsden Point Oil Refinery would have to close at a cost of $2.5 million—a large sum in any era, an absolute fortune in the late 1970s.

Noel was the first person in the country to perform high pressure leak sealing online. For his actions that day, Tokoroa’s then resident engineer won a resource conservation award. At the parliamentary awards ceremony, Lance Adams-Schneider, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, described him as the “Red Adair from New Zealand, a real problem solver.” With typical modesty, Noel dismissed the compliment, explaining that as a newly promoted manager, in charge of 16 employees, his days of individual heroism were behind him. He rarely mentioned the incident or the price afterwards.

A problem solver throughout his life, Noel provided support and practical advice in the workplace, for his large, blended family, and for any social organization privileged enough to have him as a member or director. A strong work ethic was balanced against a sassy, ​​inclusive sense of humor and genuine interest in and concern for his friends and the wider community. Generous with his time, the most pleasant company, his indulgence with his passion for classic cars and auto mechanics was enriched by his ability to share his knowledge and experiences with others.

Noel Robert Smith was born on May 29, 1940 in Dunedin, the first child of Robert Smith and Effie Smith (nee Mears). He had three younger brothers and a younger sister.

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Smith's 18-hour repair of a 1977 Marsden A power station leak that prevented it from shutting down.  Pictured is a clipping about an award he received.

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Smith’s 18-hour repair of a 1977 Marsden A power station leak that prevented it from shutting down. Pictured is a clipping about an award he received.

Noel attended Roxburgh Primary School and Roxburgh High School. In the latter, he befriended Moira Johnson, the relationship who survived the day on the bus when he consumed some of her household items, cakes baked especially for her parents. Noel and Moira dated for a few years before returning to the UK with her family. Subsequent correspondence between the two eventually disappeared.

At the age of 15, Noel left school and initially worked as a milkman. When the Smith family moved to Wairakei, he accompanied them. In 1958 he began an apprenticeship as a mechanic and turner with Downers Construction during the construction of the Wairakei Power Station.

Noel met Marie Taylor, who was from Taup, and began courting. Favorite memories of this time were adventures on Noel’s Norton motorcycle. Noel and Marie married in September 1960 and moved to Hamilton, where Noel took a position at Jas J. Niven & Co. Initially, they lived with Noel’s parents and moved into a newly built house on Masters Avenue. Jeanette, Noel and Marie’s first child, was born in 1961, followed by Malcolm in 1963 and Ian in 1965.

Noel was a loving, considerate father. The time spent at Karāpiro Lake on the family boat and supporting Jeanette in her marching band writs were typical of a proud and committed parent.

In 1971, the Smiths moved to Tokoroa, where Noel was employed by Valve Precision Engineering. A mechanic and turner, he rose to foreman and then took on the responsibility of manager after his exploits at the Marsden power station. Smith family camping holidays were enjoyed all over the North and South Islands. In 1975, Heather, the daughter of Noel and Marie, was born. In 1977, Noel and Marie broke up.

Noel stayed with Valve Precision Engineering for 15 years. During this time, he shared his enthusiasm for all forms of motorsports and enjoyed motorcycle rides with his children. Noel taught his son Malcolm his engineering trade and they worked together for a number of years.

When Noel met a new partner, he had three new stepchildren, Warren, Gavin and Rachel. Noel moved to Putāruru with Rachel and her mother in 1980 and started his own business, Post & Rail Painting. As he had with all his children, Noel taught Rachel to drive with patience and calm instructions. When Gavin’s car was stolen one night in Hamilton, Noel gave chase in his underwear, all the way from Te Rapa to Hamilton East. He passed on the love of camping and travel to his stepchildren.

Noel Smith with a Rotorua Morris Minor Club Award.  He was vice president of the club and vice president of the New Zealand Morris Minor Federation.

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Noel Smith with a Rotorua Morris Minor Club Award. He was vice president of the club and vice president of the New Zealand Morris Minor Federation.

In 1983 Noel sold the company and returned to his engineering profession, working for Furmanite NZ in Tokoroa.

In 1994, Noel reconnected with his childhood sweetheart, Moira, after placing an ad for a reunion in a newspaper. After being apart for four decades, their friendship was quickly revived. Moira moved to Tokoroa, where she and Noel married in 1999. As a result, Noel acquired two more stepchildren, Nigel and Shane. Together, Noel and Moira would be blessed with many grandchildren.

Noel and Moira often swapped early in their marriage, including stints at Whakamaru, Te Rau, Putāruru, and Opal Hot Springs, where they lived in a caravan. They eventually settled in Matamata and established a permanent home, where Noel could tinker with old cars and motorcycles in his shed and give the vegetable garden its due. Matamata was also a departure point for many travels, including holidays in Australia, cruising around New Zealand and attending several Morris Minor Club conventions, from Timaru to Palmerston North.

Noel did not go into full retirement on his own, continuing to hold his hand as a consultant for Pace Engineering in New Plymouth and part time working for IBE in Tokoroa and with son Malcolm for SGS-IVE (Industrial Value Engineering). Outside of his profession, he also assisted daughter Heather and her husband on their chicken farm, in this capacity until 2020.

Childhood sweethearts who rekindled their relationship 40 years later, Noel and Moira married in 1999 in Tokoroa.

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Childhood sweethearts who rekindled their relationship 40 years later, Noel and Moira married in 1999 in Tokoroa.

Noel and Moira’s association with the Rotorua Morris Minor Club dates back to a Sunday afternoon in 2013 at the Ōhiwa Oyster Farm outside Ōpōtiki. Immediately they bonded with the assembled members and iconic vehicles that were their own reflection, they became loyal members of the club, attending almost every monthly outing and biannual national convention, with Noel serving as vice president and eventually a double served as Vice-Chairman of the New Zealand Morris Minor Federation. His contribution to major events, such as the 2019 National Convention hosted by the Rotorua club, was as valuable as the welcome he personally showed to new or prospective members. This generosity of time and advice extended to helping mechanical problems or breakdowns, interactions became more friendly through a gentle manner furthest from condescension.

Noel, comfortable in his own skin, enjoyed a special kind of happiness based on hard work and family. His smile could light up any room, his humor was persistent, never cruel and often funny. He was attentive to family birthdays and insisted on coming in person whether convenient or not. He supported the sporting and cultural activities of his grandchildren as much as those of their parents. Taking granddaughters to their prom in his beloved Morris Minor was a favorite pastime. A man of his word, punctuality was a trademark, both in his personal and professional life. He was a caring, gentle and very loving man.

Noel Robert Smith died on September 8, 2022, surrounded by his family. He leaves behind his wife Moira, children Jeanette, Malcolm, Ian and Heather, stepchildren Nigel, Shane, Rachel and Warren and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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