A Family Tribute from the Heard and du Plessis families to the late-Lt.Col.(Rtd) James Heard, RNZA
Determined. That’s a word you could use to describe James Heard. You hear hints of his determination in the stories told by his peers in the military. They’ll tell you that in his thirties, James’ fitness testing results were better than men half his age. You hear it in the stories told by his family. They’ll tell you he was so good at rugby that he made the Mt Roskill first fifteen squad and tested for the Auckland regional squad.
And you understand how much determination that took, when you know there was a time James lost his ability to walk.
James wasn’t yet at school when polio struck. It put him in hospital. Rather than leave him in an iron lung, his parents took him home in the hope he would recover. Slowly he did. He remained an unwell boy and missed months of school, but by the time he went to his first class he could walk. Yet, he couldn’t run. His odd way of hopping and running at the same time earned him the nickname ‘hop-along-Jim’.
But, James was determined. In the afternoons after school, he tried to run properly. A friend volunteered to teach him. The pair of them would practice together, and before long, James had it sussed. Then came the rugby and the fitness regime, and later as a soldier, he would run more than 20 km at a time, with a weight pack strapped to his back. He broke the SAS time record for the elite squad’s obstacle course.
Maybe that same determination is the reason James went on to career success. First, as a soldier, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Then, as a student, earning an MBA. And finally, as a real estate agent for Barfoot & Thompson, Pukekohe.
Of his military career, James was especially proud. He followed in the footsteps of a long line of men who gave military service, including his father Ted Heard who became a WWII prisoner of war. James enlisted in January 1969 and served for over 20 years as an officer in the Royal New Zealand Artillery, including a tour in Vietnam with 161 Battery
In the military, they called him ’Jimmy the One’. Some say it’s because he was known as the one to get things done, others say it’s because he was the best - number one. Either way, it was a compliment. He understood his job. Artillery can be highly technical and mathematically complex, but James got it. And he expected others to get it too. His peers and subordinates describe him as a ‘hard task master’ who expected high standards, and they say, it drove them to rise those standards. James got the best out of them.
There are other words those who knew and loved James use to describe him. One of them is ‘teacher’. It has been said many times over, that when asked what he thought, he gave it directly. But, rarely briefly. James was notorious for long, drawn-out analogies that would finally culminate in the advice he planned to offer. But, however drawn-out it was, that advice was wise and it was valued.
Another word is ‘generous’. Over decades, James spent countless, quiet hours in charitable work. He took in troubled youth. He dedicated time to the RSA. He went to prisons to preach to inmates. He tried to treat people with respect. James took a great deal of pleasure in treating even prisoners as equals, and firmly believed they appreciated that. James accepted others without judgement, and always encouraged them to do their best, instead of dwelling on their mistakes.
It wasn’t just strangers and acquaintances who benefited from James’ big heart. His wider family did too. He quietly supported them: supporting a family member through a medical appointment or sitting with another as they dealt with one of life’s big challenges. James’ family recall a man who could be counted on to be there.
James tragically died on holiday in Mossel Bay, South Africa on December 15. He was out for a morning walk with his wife, Elizabeth. It’s has been said that he died with the person he loved, in a place he loved, doing a thing he loved. He was farewelled with full military honours Saturday January 18 2020, in a service attended by hundreds.
James had a way of saying good bye. He would put a hand on your shoulder, look you in the eyes and say, ‘go well’.
So, to you James, from all who knew and loved you, we say ‘go well’.
James was loved by his wife Elizabeth du Plessis, his children Titania, James, Michael and Peter, his siblings Ethel, Margaret, Ted, Thomas, Frank, Susan, Teresa and the late Kenneth, Elizabeth’s children Heather, Ian and John, and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.