Jan Spary - From globe-trotting supermum to goat farmer
From Ranfurly to Norway and back to Arrowtown, raising five kids and prize angora goats along the way, dabbling in retail, real estate and journalism, Jan Spary took it all in her stride.
Married to one of New Zealand’s most highly decorated rescue pilots for 64 years, Don Spary was often away flying, or completing daring rescues at all hours.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she says, a week from her 86th birthday.
Jan’s first blissful 11 years were spent in Ranfurly where her dad was the rural GP. “We were as free as a breeze. We’d ride our horses down to the Taieri River for a swim and nobody said, ‘What time will you be home?’”
In 1949 they moved to Wellington, but Jan chose to continue boarding at Waitaki Girls in Oamaru, travelling alone by overnight ferry and rail to and from school.
Sadly, her father died when she was 16 and her mother moved to Christchurch where Jan did her final year’s schooling at St Margaret’s. Otago and Canterbury unis produced a BA, despite the wild parties.
She and friends sailed to London on The Fairsea – an Italian ship, for £111, for six weeks of free meals and parties via Tahiti, Panama Canal, and Lisbon.
Jan landed relief teaching work with no teacher training in lower socio-economic London, an inexperienced barmaid at night at the Royal Court Theatre Club. Her boss was British broadcaster, later MP, Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund. “I was so unused to tips that when someone left 11 shillings on the bar I ran after him to say he’d left it behind,” she laughs.
One day a dapper Don – British Army captain at just 26, came into the bar, a day before he was to be posted to Malta. One quick dinner date and he’d won her over with a request to drive his waitlisted new car through Europe for three months to Malta. An inexperienced driver, she headed off from London with two friends, driving on the right-hand side of the road through Europe, spending only £25 on the entire trip.
“The first night in France we got out of our wee tent to discover little flags all around the trees we’d camped under. I’d never seen a golf course before.”
She arrived in Malta on 1 July, Don proposed soon after on the way to the insurance office after Jan had a mishap with the car in roadworks. They married in a registry office on 10 September, 1959, in Tunis, Tunisia. “It was just Don and I and we paid the cleaner and typist five shillings to be witnesses.” They celebrated with a Roman toga party in Malta.
Don’s postings followed in England, Germany, Norway, and America, by then parents to four kids under six, before they settled back on 19 acres outside Arrowtown in 1969, producing a fifth child. Don flew helicopters in Manapouri, eventually working for, and teaming up with, Sir Tim Wallis at Luggate Gamepackers, later Alpine Helicopters and THL.
Jan got busy designing their new home with award-winning architect Peter Beaven in record time, the first of three on their land, two scooping him national architecture awards.
She discovered spinning and wanted to try mohair, so Alf Bell sold her 15 goats, on the condition that she import a purebred Aussie buck. Jan was a ground breaker in the industry, convincing PGG in Christchurch to hold its first goat auction in 1979. Her first goat fetched $8000 more than she’d thought, with her top price reaching $25,000 in Auckland among the ‘Queen Street farmers’. Sitting on the NZ Goat Council, she travelled with other breeders to South Africa.
She also started Queenstown’s Spider Web in the 1970s, later also opening Arrowtown antique store Buckingham Palace. Jan was Mountain Scene’s Arrowtown reporter from 1972 until mailing the results of her third Lake Hayes Show to the Mataura Ensign for printing became rather a chore.
Race for the Yankee Zephyr English director David Hemmings, whom Don flew during the movie’s local filming, became a great family friend, enjoying many dinners with cast at the Spary home. To Jan’s great embarrassment, he later dubbed her ‘the Brigitte Bardot of the Southern Hemisphere’ in his memoirs.
Jan also joined Arrowtown realtor John Newman selling real estate for eight years. “My first sale was a Southland couple who seemed so disinterested but bought the house next day for $49,000.”
She despised golf until Don created a five-hole golf course in their hay paddock for their son-in-law. Jan went on from her first round of 180 to a 19 handicap, club championship wins and a NZ club competition title, also club captain.
Still riding her golf buggy over to Millbrook, it’s the highlight of her week.