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The life and times of local figure Frank

Flagstaff Team

Last look… Frank Blennerhassett liked this recent picture of himself

North Shore’s inveterate wander collected hearts on his rambles

Frank Blennerhassett was a man thousands of North Shore people recognised, many cared about, but few really knew. 

For more than five decades he was a familiar sight, walking the eastern coastal suburbs. Some remember him even earlier, from school days at Campbells Bay Primary.

His family history was clouded, his upbringing disrupted and his health a challenge to himself and those who cared for him. 

His daily walks – stopping to pat dogs and collecting variously shells, golf balls and bits of wire in a sack he carried on his stooped back – made Blennerhassett something of a public figure. So too, the epileptic seizures that could bring him to the pavement in fits, leading to ambulance trips to North Shore Hospital, where he was well-known.

When Blennerhassett had not been spotted for awhile, the community online grapevine would start up, with questions about his wellbeing and whereabouts. Usually, they were answered with others reporting recent sightings. . 

That came to an end on 6 December 2023 when Blennerhassett was found dead at his home in Byron Ave, Takapuna. The Kainga Ora property was visited each morning by carers. Neighbours also kept an eye on him.

“Frank will be really missed by our community… he touched a lot of people,” says Devonport-Takapuna Local Board deputy chair Terence Harpur, who for a time lived on the same street.

Blennerhassett’s age was put at 66, but since his death a distant cousin who had traced the family tree and sighted birth records from 1955 has clarified he was actually 68.

Frank William Blennerhassett was born in Waihi. He was the youngest of five children to George, an ageing Irish immigrant, and Louisa, a much younger New Zealander. They divorced after about 20 years of marriage, when Frank was aged around six and his siblings were in or near their teens.  

Some of the offspring, including Frank, ended up in foster care and contact between them was lost, after their mother left and their father struggled to cope.

Sadly, one full sister, and two half-sisters had only come to learn of Frank’s whereabouts shortly before his death. 

Shells were among items he collected on his walks, turning them into trinkets such as mice and vases fashioned from old jars. He was also chuffed to find this discarded Halloween wig on an outing. 

Friend and lawyer Alex Witten-Hannah said Frank had been very excited at the thought of meeting them. But it was not to be, although he spoke to one half-sister by phone.

In his youth, Blennerhassett spent several years at a state boys’ home, Campbell Park School, inland from Oamaru. The institution later became notorious for historic cases of abuse. 

His epilepsy was apparently triggered in his late teens after he was hit by a truck. The accident caused a brain injury that later left him unable to work.

His North Shore foster mother took him to his father’s funeral in Waihi in 1973. His mother, with whom he had no ongoing contact, died around 10 years ago, having remarried and had other children.

After his North Shore foster parents died, Blennerhasset’s time of stability went with it. He had some church connections and did a little gardening work. He got by on a benefit as an adult, being able to live alone, with support. 

Witten-Hannah – whom Blennerhasset put down as his “next of kin” with health and welfare authorities – recalls he was around 20 and living in Castor Bay when they first met. Frank was maybe 14 and liked to stop and pat his dog and chat. Witten-Hannah thought little of the interactions until years later, when they crossed paths again. 

This was after the lawyer purchased the old Takapuna post office in 1990. The building, on the Hurstmere Rd and Earnoch Ave corner, serves as his office and home. Blennerhassett took to dropping by regularly, chatting to the lawyer and his staff.  

“For about 30 years, he was almost a constant in my life,” says Witten-Hannah. 

It wasn’t always easy, with Blennerhassett in denial about his epilepsy and needing prompts to take medication. But he had a devoted weekday carer, Fiva. He also had support from his doctor in Milford, Peter Cunningham, who patched him up after falls. The neighbouring chemist sent medications in manageable batches.

New World Milford quietly assisted with food donations, including favourite chocolate and biscuits, in support of their volunteer trolley collector. Police officers would spot Frank on the beach and drop him a pie, sandwich or drink.

“Not so long ago Frank came to see me supporting a huge bandage on his head, patched up by Peter or one of his staff. I asked him what had happened,” Witten-Hannah recalls to the Observer. “He told me that 74 supermarket trolleys had crashed into him. He would never concede that he had had a fit!” 

Around 50 years after they first met, Witten-Hannah says he was amazed that Blennerhassett when quizzed could provide a detailed description of his dog from Castor Bay days. He made a fuss of countless more dogs of all kinds over the years. 

This was disconcerting for some owners, but endearing for most, creating a connection with a man who otherwise eschewed much small talk, but knew their dogs by name.

“Everyone felt he belonged to us all. He will be missed because people were used to seeing him around.”

“Many people in the North Shore community were kindly and caring towards Frank,” says Witten-Hannah. In turn, this meant so much to him. 

Blennerhassett combined an impish humour with an eagerness to please.

When queueing along the Hurstmere Rd bar strip was at its heights – with waiting punters pre-loading on drinks they were forced to discard upon drawing near venue doors – the teetotaller would retrieve unopened bottles from the bushes and proudly bring them to the law office, where young staff were willing beneficiaries.

He struggled with change, wanting new banknote designs to be swapped for more familiar old notes. But he had his own coping mechanisms – coming up with descriptive words for such irritations, including saying when the colour of his pills changed they were “desnipting” his medication. 

A noisy toilet cistern was dubbed an eruption.

Neighbour of 10 years Dawn Wardle said Blennerhassett had a daily routine of rising early and filling his day walking and collecting. He ventured out in all weathers, wearing shorts and sandals.

“Practically everyone on the North Shore knew him, especially in the last few years when he helped with the trolleys in Milford,” she says. 

Sometimes he would venture as far as Browns Bay, but over the last five years he had slowed down and limited himself to Takapuna and Milford. Most days he would return home around 5pm, but often head out again in the evenings to visit Witten-Hannah.

“Everyone felt he belonged to us all. He will be missed because people were used to seeing him around.” 

During Covid, Dawn and husband Jim worried about him. “He wasn’t going to stay at home!” But they figured he was out in the fresh air and she says he avoided coming down with the virus.

The couple held a spare set of keys for when he locked himself out and spare medication in case his weekend carers failed to turn up.  

Often he would knock on their door to find out the time. Or he would call for help with appliances, having pulled them apart and become frustrated at not being able to reassemble them or deciding there was a problem no one could determine.

The Wardles, or Witten-Hannah, would then come to the rescue, twiddling a knob, or switching on the microwave.

Blennerhassett particularly disliked being bundled into ambulances, which at times made him cranky, especially if he had a seizure in public and considered he had recovered enough not to need to be checked out at hospital. 

If he needed to be admitted, he would rather be driven by those who knew him well. But hospital staff soon learned it was fine to put him into a taxi to get home once cleared, rather than calling for late-night pick-ups.

Before living in Takapuna, Blennerhassett was housed for a while in Belmont. During this time he became a regular walker to Devonport, where he retrieved balls from the Waitemata Golf Course. These were stowed in his trusty sack. 

But he mostly liked heading in the other direction, back to his boyhood haunts, especially along the Takapuna and Milford coasts, where he collected shells. These he fashioned into trinkets he liked to show or give to select people.

Sandra Allen who lived down the road, treasures Frank’s gift of shell mice. She says he was thrilled late last year with the building of a front deck on his modest home.

Witten-Hannah says Frank was also tickled pink to be given a nice photograph of himself carrying an umbrella. This was posted on community pages last November, with Frank’s permission, to reassure people asking if he was doing okay. When it received more than 600 responses, he commented: “Boy, a lot of jokers know me!”

Blennerhassett took the photograph of himself carrying an umbrella off to be framed. But before it could be collected, he had passed away in his sleep in bed. More than 2300 responses were recorded to a public notification about this.

A coroner will determine the cause of death, but those closest to him are pleased a private life, albeit lived publicly, ended not on the street but in his haven.

The photograph will take pride of place at his memorial gathering on Takapuna Beach next week.

Read more: The life and times of local figure Frank

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