Murdoch Ross on his beloved 1954 Massey Ferguson tractor. Photo / John Stone
Whangārei Heads stalwart Murdoch Ross lived a life true to his favourite saying: “Aim for the top and don’t look back.”
The 72-year-old’s determination, generosity, and character are being remembered after he died peacefully at home on February 12.
At around a year old Murdoch was diagnosed with cerebral palsy which affected his speech and physical capabilities but the life that followed was brimmed with freedom and adventure.
As a youngster, his tenacity had him running up the hills on the family farm in Parua Bay with his trusty stick in hand to help him along the way.
His only sibling Jennifer Ross said her brother’s determination and independence were ingrained in him.
“[…] if he did accept help he always expressed how grateful he was for the offer.”
Murdoch’s self-rule crested in 1964 when he learned to drive his trusty steed, a vibrant red Massey Ferguson 28 tractor.
“He loved that tractor, it symbolised freedom for him,” Jennifer said.
Back in 2012, Murdoch told the Advocate of his faithful Fergie: “I liked to feel the wind blow through my hair.”
A nod to his sense of humour that would stir his “wide open smile” and “infectious giggle” before he had even finished telling his own funny story.
The idea that Murdoch could pick up enough pace on his Fergie to whip up a breeze may be a surprise to some given he was known to back up traffic as he dawdled along.
One time he even held up a parliamentary cavalcade ushering then Prime Minister Helen Clark to a ceremonial event at Parua Bay School.
Murdoch honed his brilliance as a stockyard salesman in his teenage years when he would make a weekly pilgrimage to the Kauri Saleyards to buy and sell cattle.
He believed himself programmed to become a cattle dealer, like his grandfather Murdoch McGregor, because it was in his blood.
He eventually went on to establish Ross Livestock Ltd before diversifying into commercial forestry in a joint venture with former Whangārei Heads Primary School principal Peter Coates, an experienced farm forester.
Early on Murdoch gained a reputation as a salesman of anything on four legs – cattle, sheep, puppies, kittens, and alpacas – and chooks.
“His most amazing transaction was in 2007 when he got a call on Christmas Eve asking if he would be able to sell an Indian elephant,” Jennifer said.
His response: not tonight.
Jennifer said he had initially taken the call with a grain of salt, thinking someone was having him on.
But the request was genuine and once the ad was placed in the paper Murdoch’s phone “rang off the hook” – a Waikato buyer eventually became the elephant’s new owner.
Jennifer said while her brother never learned to read or write, his memory was “incredible”.
“You couldn’t put anything across him. Our mum used to say, I swear that Murdoch can hear grass growing. Such was his sense of hearing.”
Jennifer said her brother’s roots were deep in Parua Bay and Whangārei Heads, which Murdoch had called home his entire life.
The siblings, both descendants of the early European settlers in the area – the McGregor and Ross families, embody their parents’ sense of community.
But that wasn’t the only borrowed trademark as Murdoch also absorbed his parents’ love of connecting with and helping people.
“He loved to talk and the phone was his best friend,” Jennifer said.
Murdoch’s memorial was held in the Parua Bay Community Centre – the same hall he as chair of the Parua Bay Hall Committee led a huge fundraising drive to build more than 30 years ago.
He also initiated the 1993 opening of the Parua Bay Medical Centre so locals didn’t have to travel to town to access a GP.
The idea crystallised during a visit to his Onerahi doctor when Murdoch asked: “How would it be if I built a medical centre on my land at Parua Bay? I’ve got the land and a spare bit of cash.”
Jennifer said living in the flat next to the medical centre gave Murdoch “immense satisfaction” as he watched the cars come and go knowing he had helped establish “such a welcome service”.
Murdoch’s love of the land formed his strong tie to conservation.
Jennifer said he followed in their father Mervyn’s footsteps by establishing several QE2 Covenants to preserve native bush and wetlands. His gestures were acknowledged in 2007 when he won the Ballance Farm Conservation Award.
“In fact, Murdoch’s life has been commended with a number of awards,” she added.
In 2012 he was an Attitude Awards of New Zealand finalist. Then a semifinalist for the Ryman Senior of New Zealand Award and in 2021 Murdoch became a Whangārei District Council Civic Honours recipient.
But one of Murdoch’s proudest achievements, and maybe lesser known, traces back to 1976 when he won two bronze medals for javelin and shotput at his first-ever New Zealand Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Games in Christchurch.
The loved son, adored brother, and cherished uncle had spent the last 10 years of his mother’s life caring for her as she became ill with Alzheimer’s disease.
But it was part of Murdoch’s commitment to support those who had in turn propped him up.
He said in his memoir that people had given him incredible help over the years and many had been willing to bend the rules to go the extra mile. For this, he expressed much gratitude and wanted to do something for the people of Parua Bay.
Murdoch was emphatic that his role in life was to bring out the best in others and protect them.
“You don’t ask for much in life but what you do ask is important to you,” his lasting words from his memoir read.