GIANTS OF THE PAST - The Peter Lyon Story:
Number 9 in a series by Des Williams
In all of Golden Shears history, only seven shearers have won titles in lower grades and gone on to appear in the open final. And only one of those - Brian Quinn (senior champ in 1962) has actually won the open.
And while there are a couple who may yet do that same trick - John Kirkpatrick and Paul Avery are possibilities - no one has yet been able to win the purple ribbon in three grades. Again, Kirkpatrick remains in the hunt for that, but only two other shearers in the past 40 years have even managed to give themselves a crack at that little slice of history - Hamahona Te Whata and Peter Lyon.
That little scene setter may help put into context Peter Lyon's feat of winning the intermediate (1974) and senior (1975) titles, and then finishing fifth in two consecutive open finals, in the years of 1978 and 1979.
Opportunities came too soon!
Though beggars can't be choosers when it comes to making Golden Shears open finals, Peter reckons he was a better shearer during the early to mid 1980s than he was in the late 70s. He would have had a better chance at winning the Golden Shears then - if only he could have made the final again!
"I started off winning the intermediate and senior titles at Golden Shears and then ended up in the open final, but I would consider myself more of a quality shearer in those days and I made those finals on quality without quite having the shed experience to match the occasion. I think in hindsight I got into those finals too soon.
"I always felt I hadn't had the hard shed experience to counter the pressure of a 20-sheep final. You tended to shear away, sheep by sheep, concentrating on keeping your second cuts down and your job right, but drifting off the pace. Even three or four years later, I would have approached it entirely differently."
Peter recalls feeling like he was just a boy in a man's territory, and some of the other competitors certainly made him feel like that too. "I can remember going up on the stage and hearing comments like 'You'll be feeling a bit nervous about this won't you boy?' - and you felt like a real little South Island country bumpkin. Really they were all good guys but it was just part of their tactics."
Finalists in finishing order for Peter's two open finals were 1978: Roger Cox, Adrian Cox, Ray Alabaster, Ivan Rosandich, Lyon and Martin Ngataki. 1979: Ngataki, Alabaster, Rosandich, Hamahona Te Whata, Lyon and Bob Michie.
"I think Martin hurt his shoulder in 1978 and was sixth, but he came back the next year and won it. With two fifth placings that early in my career, I guess I always fancied that that I might one day win the open, but it's a hell of a thrill just to make that six and I still remember the feeling. By the time I'd made myself a better shearer, I don't think I had the same application.
"Shearing in South Canterbury was a real sport and our Saturdays were devoted to it, but once I became a contract shearer and moved around a bit more I placed much more emphasis on my work and every day was a thrill. I'd get out there and really, the only person I shore against in the sheds that I couldn't handle was Rick Pivac. Rick was always either too fit or too cunning or too something because he'd always find a way to get one around you.
"The guys that I admired in my day were (obviously) Snow - we always looked up to him as kids, even though he's only 13 or 14 years older than me, but he was an idol. Then we came across the likes of Roger Cox - he was a guy that wasn't totally understood, but his ability was unreal and I personally believe that if Roger had been in the same era as David Fagan it would have been really interesting.
"Roger was a terrific athlete and he was only as good as he had to be in our day. Technically and psychologically he was superior to all the other guys around him at the time, whereas he and David would have been a real good match up."
Peter suggests that things started to change while he was enjoying his best years of competition, with the strictly quality shearers like Ngataki and Rosandich being challenged for finals places by the quicker guys.
"I'm not saying it was the end of the clean era, but the likes of John Fagan and Rick, and even Colin King, who started off their careers as quick shearers whose jobs were a bit more ordinary, started making finals. We always feared if they ever got it together we'd have our work cut out. Then the strictly quality shearers fell by the wayside as pace became more important.
"You've got to be quick and clean today. We could pick up points in those days because you had to shear the sheep right to the toes and they were more the traditional old fashioned Romney, whereas today's tend to be a bit more open, so it's more spectacular and these guys have got the technique to handle it. Ours was perhaps a more boring type of shearing where you had to clean them from the nose to the toes."
South Canterbury origins
Peter was born in 1952 and raised (together with twin brother, Bill, and sisters Denise and Joy) on the 500-acre, family sheep and cropping farm at Pleasant Point. He went to primary school at Pleasant Point and Timaru Boys High School.
"We used to chase Dick Tayler around the block every morning - he was about four years older than us. Then later on his dad (Rex) was one of the chief shearing judges around the South Canterbury. Every morning at school we had to get up at 7.00am and run this block and our aim always was to get as close to Dick as we could. He was good even then, as a 16-year-old he was very strong and had run a 4.16 mile.
"Jack Lovelock also an old boy of the school - we were always aware of that heritage with the Lovelock oak in the school grounds. I was a relatively good sprinter myself, being school age group champion over 100 yards to 440. I did 100 yards in 10.1 when I was 15, and ran 52.7 for 440, which were not bad times in those days. I broke three inter-school records in one day, in the 100, 220 and 440 yards.
"Then I got interested in riding horses and ponies. I was a little bit of a lazy trainer as an athlete and, as it got a bit more difficult to keep up the training once I left school, the horses sort of took over and my athletics fell by the way."
By the late 1960s Peter had had enough of schooling and went home to work on the farm. Bill and Peter had been crutching the lambs at home since they were about 12, and attending a provincial Wool Board shearing course (with an instructor named Robin Kidd) seemed a natural progression.
"Wool was about 30 cents a pound, so shearing seemed like a good option to get a few extra bob together, but Dad wouldn't let me start shearing until I was 19. There were some good guys in the area, including Adrian Cox, Kevin and Johnny Walsh and John McGillan, who won the senior at Golden Shears.
"Kevin Walsh's record speaks for itself - he never won the Golden Shears but made two finals and won the Caltex (now DB)) - so we were all there, all shearing together and all very competition orientated. We were encouraged by each other's performances and at the time were quite a strong part of the South Island.
"Even then we all shore clean, being pretty conscious of our clients because we were shearing on the open run system. A lot of the competitions then were at the A&P shows and they were just good family days out. Only the bigger shows back then were held as separate events.
"I understand it all much more now when I look back - we used to stay in the South Island and shear full wool sheep and then do one or two days on second shear and try and be competitive at Golden Shears. Shearing second shear sheep is very demanding physically, with a definite technique and that's why a lot of South Island shearers over the years haven't done as well. Our styles were more relaxed. People like Edsel Forde and Colin King made it because they went to the King Country and made themselves into second shear specialists."
Joining the 500 Club
Peter still reckons one of the proudest days of his career was back in 1982, when he shore 582 full wool sheep in a Dave Jackson four-stand gang. "I'm still helluva proud of that day but when I look back, it was so amateurish. I wore one pair of pants, one singlet; we ground our own gear and that sort of thing. The quartet did 2111 - Dave Jackson did about 550, Charlie Haley did 503 and Ken Jackson did the rest (476?).
"But we were just four shed shearers that worked for Dave Jackson, so it was a gang record. There was no training or anything, apart from a medical the night before, we just went out one day and did it, just like another day at work. That tally was done at a shed at Mararoa, in Northern Southland, near Te Anau. It was a terrific experience just to put ourselves through that. What they do for records now is another level up from that, but it helps to appreciate what they go through now with world record attempts."
Mates for life
"You look back and think about the opportunities - when I won the senior title at Golden Shears (1975) I went to Australia for a week with Godfrey Bowen, Kerry Johnstone, Norm Blackwell and Roger Cox. That was to the Australian Golden Shears at Euroa, and I returned later (1979 and 1983) as a member of the New Zealand team, the last year as captain. They were good trips and it was great to spend time away with those people and the likes of Ray Alabaster and Martin Ngataki.
"There's something about shearing when you lose a bit of sweat beside each other and you become mates for life. There's a lot of ethics about shearing, like not going in after time, like cutting out a mob of rams, you do your part and if you don't, it becomes a lonely life. Like Adrian, Kevin and I, all from the same little area, but we all held our own against the rest of them, and if you stuck the three of us together on all breeds of sheep we would be fairly competitive. So we were always proud of that.
"I never shore against Larry Lewis in the shed and he might have blown me away a bit, but in those years from say 1980 to 1985 I was prepared to front up to anybody. There were a lot of guys around who thought they could shear a bit, and they were pretty exciting years of my life, when I was shearing for contractors.
"Shearers in our era were probably labelled a bit boring after following the era of Joe Ferguson, Colin Bosher and the like - we just got on with the business of shearing. We were classed as being "Wool Board" products, whereas people like Larry had the Gisborne flair - sometimes he'd clean everyone up and other times he'd blow himself away."
Into the contracting business
Peter Lyon Shearing is now one of the biggest contracting businesses in the country, but Peter says it all started by accident. His first marriage had ended and he'd become friendly with Elsie Karekare, who was working for an Alexandra contractor named Fred Wybrow at the time.
"I was single again, and just going around working for contractors, and had my 240-acre farm leased out. So I was free to go wherever I liked with shearing, but I always ended up coming back here to Alexandra because that was Elsie's base. Then it became our base - she was originally from Hastings and I from Pleasant Point, but Alexandra became the base for both of us."
Peter eventually took over Fred Wybrow's run and has built the business up over the past 15 years. At that time (1985) he recalls, both Elsie and Gina Nathan had done a lot of fine wool preparation, had become very specialised in their merino work and had a reputation for quality that he in the years since has tried to hold on to.
"It all virtually stems back from that. We had come from an open area where we tended to have cockies doing the shed work, and I couldn't believe how professional it was in Central Otago when I first came. As a shearer you don't take a lot of notice of woolhandling, but it really impressed me. After a while I hated shearing back home because of the lower standards in wool preparation."
"You have your busy parts of the season - I work for say 120 days from July into September and October non-stop. At times you just wonder if it's worth it, but you create enough income in that period to allow you to 'cruise' a bit for the rest of the year and live like 'nearly normal people'. Then you think it's worth it again.
"Perhaps the biggest problem we face is the challenge of continually having to attract staff, and training shedhands. Training is in-shed, on-job and never ending, so is a huge time commitment. We employ up to 200 people at the height of the season and have a return rate of about 70-75%, so we are always training up to 25% of the staff each season. But we're quite happy with the return rate because there are a lot of outside influences on why they do or don't come back."
Peter has always had a keen interest in horses, having learned to ride back on the family farm, and those youthful days as a champion schoolboy runner were often interspersed with participation in cross country riding events.
"I did a lot of riding as a kid and only knocked off when I became too busy with shearing, but horses have always been in my blood and I'll always remain keen. I like to follow the sporting side of it, even though it is also a business."
As an owner, Peter has won nearly 30 races in the past five years, with main performer Leonardo, winner of 10 races in six seasons. "I guess you could say I dabble in them but I'm conscious that it remains a recreational interest within my budget, and doesn't interfere with my main business. In the autumn and winter however, when the shearing is quiet, I like to get away to a few race meetings.
"I'm interested in most sports - my son was a promising cyclist when he was young so I still have a reasonable interest in that, and I like my rugby. I will perhaps get involved in training horses some time in the future, but I wouldn't like to put a time frame on when that might be - some years away yet, I would think."
Several years president of the Shearing Contractors' Association, Peter credits Bill Morrison as the man who has been his biggest influence in getting involved with the 'political side' of the industry.
"Bill was my 'chief advisor' when I first became a contractor - he told me it was a lonely old game on your own and suggested I become a member of the Association. So I became a member and since then have progressed through. I can't remember when I first got nominated as chairman and I just haven't been able to get rid of the job since. I think there are lots of reasons why they've got me there, but there are others out there that could do the job just as well.
"We've been through some tough old times with changes to ACC and of course we have a huge financial commitment to ACC and even a big burden if we do it wrong, so there's been a need to keep our finger on the pulse with a lot of things. But there's great comradeship to be had out of it.
"The contracting business is all just part of a big industry called the wool industry and we have had terrific growth in membership and seem to be well respected by other parts of the industry, so it's quite strong and worthwhile. Sometimes you have to put a lot of effort in, but for the rest of the year there's not too much involved."
Peter recalls that even in his younger days he was quite shy, but at the same time was always seen as something of a leader - being made captain of sports teams at school and that sort of thing. Now he's responsible for the incomes and livelihood of up to 200 people at certain times of the year, in what amounts to a multi-million dollar business.
"It's something I don't stop to think about but there must be something in me that likes being in charge! But one of my chief recreations is to get away to hell out of it when I can. Even though there are lots of times when I have to front up, in many ways I'd just prefer to be in the background, or even somewhere else.
"I get terrific support from Bill Morrison and Ronny Davis in the Contractors Association and we pretty much do it together. As you get older you realise when dealing with politicians that they are just people too and not way up there somewhere above you. The Association survives on the strength of its own members, really."
Peter says on a personal level, he and Elsie get respect from their workers because they know they have done it all before themselves, and could still go out and do a reasonable day's work out in the sheds if need be.
"We've also seen a lot of good people working for us who have gone on to better things in the dairy industry, for instance. The shearer who works hard, stays off the grog and dack can still build their way into another business, or sharemilking, if not farm ownership.
"But even shearing as a job is still okay - there are a few here that can clear a couple of grand a week and there are a lot of businesses where you would work hard to match that and still not have your 'feet up' by six o'clock at night."
Like the family farm
"This business has really got a bit like a family farm to us - we have built up a reasonable capital asset and virtually have to keep going in order to make a living. It's quite a family commitment - Elsie works within it, my brother helps me, my sister-in-law is secretary, my son is doing optic testing which is a branch of the industry, and Debra, my daughter, does some office work, so we're all pretty much involved in it somewhere."
It's mid-September as we sit and talk about Peter Lyon's life and times in shearing - and he still has three weeks left of that hectic 120-day period when the phone goes incessantly and thoughts of eight hours sleep per night don't even enter his head. But he'll remain "pretty much involved with that family farm" lifestyle for a few years yet - just so long as he can get away to the odd race meeting or rugby match during those quieter times.
Ends. 3350 words. © Des Williams 2001