Alex Staines met with Bert ten Broeke – butcher, businessman, athlete, family man – at his home at Sevenoaks Midlands Trust Retirement Village on the Kapiti Coast, in 2011.
Bert is the archetypal “staunch” human being, with a genius for self-possession. This goes much deeper than self-confidence, because confidence can be built on unsound foundations. Throughout his life, Bert has seen opportunity in seemingly impossible situations, and has drawn on a personal fund of determination that appears inexhaustible.
Bert was born in the small Dutch town of Nieuwe Schans in 1924. His parents owned a butcher shop. People were brought up the hard way, with no government handouts.
Bert decided at 14 that he wanted to become a butcher like his father. He worked from dawn till dark – and longer on Saturdays – in his father’s butchery.
Harder times came for Bert’s family with the German occupation in 1940. The teenaged Bert profited from black market dealing in farm produce. One of his customers was an army sports instructor who taught Bert boxing and unarmed combat skills.
Then one day, Bert was caught without a permit, deported by train to Germany and ended up at an industrial town in the Ruhr.
Bert regarded the deportation as a free holiday. He convinced the bloke in charge of the camp that he was a cook, not a steel worker, and began work in the camp kitchen.
There were men and women inmates in the camp, including many Russians. Bert announced one day that he needed some Russian girls to help him make pancakes. So a guard opened the gates to the Russian girls’ camp and told Bert to help himself. Most of the girls knew Bert from collecting food from the kitchen.
The inmates saw Bert sauntering by with four of the loveliest Russian girls on his arm.
When the air raid sirens went and everyone ran for shelter in the cold, Bert would enjoy a hot shower with the most beautiful girl in the camp. Then they’d drink real coffee. He would walk out of the front gate of the camp with his girlfriend to go to the pictures and have a few drinks. Because she wore a dress instead of a camp uniform with “Ost” stencilled on it, no-one took any notice.
Sometimes I can see more with my eyes shut than a lot of people can see with their eyes open.”
– Bert ten Broeke
Always very fit, back in Holland after the war, Bert trained hard in typically vigorous fashion for a year and became the 5000 metres, and cross-country champion of east Holland, and silver medallist in the 3km steeplechase at the Dutch national championships in 1949. Not bad for a beginner. He was also a pretty fair footballer.
He had an arrangement with a couple having problems conceiving a child, which involved sleeping with the woman repeatedly in the hope she would become pregnant. She didn’t, but became very fond indeed of Bert. Nice work if you can get it.
Bert had been interested in emigrating for several years and had chosen New Zealand. In 1950, he landed in Auckland and began work as a butcher almost immediately. After only a few hours in the country, Bert could see his future would be in the sausage and salami trade. “Meat in Holland was very expensive and labour was cheap. Here the meat was cheap and labour was expensive,” said Bert. “When I came out to New Zealand, I had six pounds in my pocket. When my brother immigrated a decade later I had three butcher shops in Wellington and a beautiful place in Khandallah. And it was all freehold.
“I’ve been in business a very long time. I’ve always looked after my staff. I’ve never robbed anyone and I’ve always been fair. I’m more interested in happy customers than a happy Inland Revenue Department.”
Bert has been engaged in gladiatorial conflict with bureaucracy for most of his time in New Zealand. His two pet hates are queues and committees. “That’s why nothing ever gets done,” said Bert. When Bert started his smallgoods factory in Elsdon, near Porirua, someone said to Bert that the way to get on with the council was to give them a ham for Christmas. “If they want a ham, they can pay for it themselves,” was Bert’s reply.
A friend once said to Bert that he was the only bloke he knew who could insult a person in a nice way. Bert said he’s only rarely become angry, usually when playing sports. Once, he smacked an opponent in the jaw during a football game in Wanganui because the fellow wouldn’t stop grabbing him. They ended up in adjacent hospital beds. Bert greeted his victim with a pleasantry. “But the guy had no sense of humour,” said Bert.
Bert’s presence of mind seems to be something he was born with. To illustrate, Bert says, “A little boy went to his father and asked, ‘Dad, where did I get my brains from?’ ‘It must be from your mother, because I’ve still got mine’, was the reply.
“Sometimes I can see more with my eyes shut than a lot of people can see with their eyes open,” said Bert. But it is a little spooky how Bert always ran into the right people at the right time. “I’m easy to get on with, providing things go my way,” said Bert.
“I’m only 87,” said Bert. People ask him how he does it. “It’s easy,” Bert tells them, “never give in. Be honest, be straight and don’t be frightened. I have an attitude, when I wake up in the morning, I say ‘thanks very much, there’s another one’. There was a woman back in Holland who said to her husband, ‘water the garden, Charley’. ‘But it’s raining’, Charley replied. ‘Well, you’ve got a raincoat, haven’t you?’ she said.” There are so many negative people. They’ve got the wrong attitude. A business competitor once told Bert that he hated him. Bert was all smiles. “Nobody hates someone who sleeps in the Basin Reserve,” said Bert. “I must have been doing something right.”
I asked Bert about the parlous economic situation in Europe and the United States. “What I can’t understand,” said Bert, “is that all these so-called clever people are so clever, they don’t know that if they earn $100 a week, they can’t spend $120 a week. When we were kids, you had five gulden in your pocket when you took a girl out, and when the money was gone, that was it. Now, there are credit cards, and the banks are sitting there, rubbing their hands together. It’s as simple as that.”
Bert said that where we have gone wrong is to do with greed. People are never satisfied. And people don’t realise that the greedier they are, the worse it is for them.
Stupid people think everyone else is stupid, too. When Bert owned a beautiful farm near Bulls, he used to visit the Feilding sale yards, and couldn’t understand how the farmers operated. “They would buy when the prices were high. If the prices were high, I would go home.” Once, Bert sold all his 550 head of cattle when prices were at their peak. He got a big cheque. The consensus was that Bert was stupid. Then three months later, everyone was de-stocking. But Bert had lush grass on his spread and the only animals around were birds. Farmers from as far away as Marlborough were trucking their yearlings up, trying to sell them. Bert bought stock at low prices and he had plenty of feed for them.
“I’m very happy, and I sleep well at night. I’ve done my best. I’ve got two children and three grandchildren. I’ve bought them all a house,” said Bert.
Bert’s thrilling autobiography, Can’t is not in my vocabulary, was published in 2010 by Maurienne House.
Story reproduced with the permission of NZME. Educational Media