Russell Glendinning was a giant of a man in Northern Southland. I think you’d be hard-put to find anyone as passionate and dedicated to trains and community as the man known to many as Mr Kingston Flyer.
A Crowd Gathers In Garston
On February 22nd a crowd gathered near the little railway shed on the Garston Green. They came from all over Southland and beyond. Railwaymen caught up with their mates. St John’s personnel leant against their ambulance chatting to friends.
Locals from Kingston, Garston and Athol came along. Family, friends, dignitaries…
We were all there to honour one extraordinary man.
The Russell Glendinning Memorial Seat
This rustic seat is a heartfelt tribute to a legendary Southlander. And, like Mr Glendinning, it’s down-to-earth yet complex. Aaron Abernethy built it carefully, from railway sleepers and cartwheels. Russell might have blushed to read the information board created by Donna Hawkins and Chris Chilton. But he’d have loved the attention to detail on Macaela Hawkins’ re-creation of the Kingston Flyer perched on top.
“I think it is a great tribute to Russell,” said Kingston Flyer Ltd Director Neville Simpson. “It’s a place to come and remember him, to sit and contemplate.
Russell used to do a lot of that. He’d go up the track, do a few sleepers then lie back in the grass and contemplate life.”
But, who was Russell Glendinning and why did 100 people gather to honour him on that rain-threatened afternoon?
Let’s find out.
That August day when ‘Boy’ Glendinning and his wife decided to ride down to Tautuku Beach to go fishing, did they have any inkling of the drama to come?
In a car, the trip takes a mere nine minutes. But in 1937, on horseback, when you’re nine months pregnant, it’s a whole different journey.
So, when Gladys went into labour, there on the beach, I’m guessing that Boy might have felt a touch of panic. Abandoning the horse, he flagged down a logging truck to get them closer to town. Then, the local grocery van dashed them to Balclutha hospital.
And there, Russell Glendinning finally burst into the world.
The Catlins Kid
He grew up in the Catlins, in the shadows of economic depression and world war two.
Folks on that wild, southern coast were used to hard work and making do. Kids had their chores, of course. Splitting wood, fetching water for the copper – these were everyday tasks. And before he was ten Russell was setting the fire and milking the house cow every morning.
He helped the neighbouring farmer milk his six cows too. That was fine in summer, but winters were something else.
Sometimes he’d warm his freezing feet in the bucket of fresh milk. The alternative was to bury them in a nice, fresh cowpat. I’m hoping he didn’t do both on the same day.
The Lure Of The Trains
Boy toiled at the sawmill in Maclennan, but Russell had no plans to follow in his footsteps. Early on, he gave his heart to the trains that chugged past his door.
The railway spoke of distant places and experiences beyond his imagination. The drivers were his heroes, and none more so than Jimmy Vaughan, from Tahakopa, five miles down the line.
The teacher at the tiny, six-pupil school in Maclennan taught him to read, write and calculate. But those things had no chance against the trains. When he saw the engine coming down the hill, he bolted. Russell would be into the cab and munching Jimmy’s sandwiches before the teacher had time to blink.
“He’d get up at 4 in the morning and help the Maclennan guard do the shunt before he went to school,” says Jimmy’s son, Mike. “The wagons would be there for the logs or timber, and Russell would have the yard all unlocked and ready before the guard came in.”
Young Glendinning Became A True-Blue Railway Man
At age 15 Russell went to Dunedin to clean the toilets and do odd jobs in the locomotive department. At last, he was surrounded by trains.
During the next 20 years, he moved around Southland doing every possible railway job. He excelled at them, but rail in the south was slowly dying. One by one the branch lines closed down. The steam trains and diesel engines of yester-year seemed destined for the scrap heap.
Then, in 1971 the Kingston Flyer came to Lumsden as a tourist train. And Russell was asked to drive it.
Mister Kingston Flyer
Oh, how he loved that train. Thousands flocked to ride it. They came for the Flyer experience, including a cheery word with Russell Glendinning. Mr Kingston Flyer, they called him. Even today it’s impossible to think of the Flyer without remembering its first driver.
Wherever Russell settled, he opened his home and his heart. It’s incredible how many railwaymen say that Russell gave them their first start. Neville Simpson’s story is typical.
“I was still in secondary school when the Kingston Flyer started up again,” he says.
“Friends and I often went to Lumsden to visit Russell. He was very kind-hearted and didn’t think much of young folks sleeping in a cold, leaky railwayman’s hut. He always invited us to his place for a meal — and usually ended up giving us a warm bed as well.”
Care And Compassion In St John’s
Russell’s service extended way beyond tourists and trains. In Lumsden, he joined St John Ambulance so he could help out on the sideline of the local rugby games. He thought it’d be a great way to watch rugby and be useful at the same time.
But his passion for helping grew and, just like the trains, he began working in every possible St John field. He drove the ambulance and taught first aid. You’d see him at pony clubs, school sports and weekend events, at work but always ready to chat.
“I miss my big cuddles from him, I really do. Any time you saw him, there was a great big smile, happy face and a really good cuddle. He had to bend down of course.” says Jan Douglas.
Russell was someone you’d always want in your corner if you were in a tight fix. It’s no wonder that he was made an Officer of St John in 2005.
In 1982, when the Flyer shifted to Kingston, Russell and his big heart moved right along with it. His house near the lake had the usual open-door policy.
I wonder if it ever occurred to him that anything could go wrong?
Back then he kept all the Kingston Flyer cash in the hot water cupboard and banked it once a week in Queenstown.
“I don’t think many people knew,” says Nola Vaughan, “that his banking bag was an old chocolate box.”
Time and again friends would pop in to visit Russell, but he was a hard man to pin down.
“If he wasn’t home we’d go in, make some tea and read the newspaper. Sometimes he turned up and sometimes he didn’t.”Mike and Nola Vaughan
Often Russell was off helping a Kingston resident. He was part of the first response unit, but people tended to call him personally rather than dialling 111.
Russell’s Unsung Deeds
Without fanfare or fuss, Russell looked after the elderly of Kingston.
He helped with groceries and chores. Medication and care were not a bother. Tom and Netty Ek particularly relied on Russell as home help, transporter and friend.
Two or three times a day he’d be up there caring for their needs. When they had hospital appointments in Dunedin — Russell took them through.
It was because of Russell that Mr and Mrs Ek were able to stay in Kingston for so long.
A Passion For Mentoring And Adventure
“Whenever I could, I travelled in the cab of the Kingston Flyer. It was an adventure and I loved it.”Neville Simpson , Current Director of Kingston Flyer Ltd
These days you’d call Russell a great mentor. He believed that everyone needed a passion — especially for steam trains.
So he fostered that love and excitement. And backed it up by employing as many as possible on the train. Later engineers kept the tradition too, by letting Kingston kids help out in the engine yard.
Russell didn’t have kids of his own, but he had the Monaghan clan. After the Flyer finally closed up shop, they encouraged Russell’s adventurous streak.
So, Russell visited Australia, Alaska, Hawaii and more. But most of all, he loved to be part of his adopted grandkids’ lives. From helping out on Chas’s first XV1 trip to giving away the bride at Lisa’s wedding, Russell was there for them.
Chas worked on a cruise ship and took Russell around the Mediterranean. He had a fabulous time, especially when he got to ride a donkey.
He loved to laugh about that saying “It was supposed to be going up the hill, but it seemed to me it was going backwards.”
And That Was Russell As We Knew Him
Russell Glendinning lost his battle with cancer on February 20th, 2017.
Tributes poured in — he’d have been moved and perhaps embarrassed to hear them.
Because Russell was a humble man. He was straightforward and forthright. He loathed red tape and always looked for a simple, sensible solution.
Russell Glendinning lived life to the full.
“I have had a great life with no regrets. I’ve been in a coal mine, at the top of the Arctic circle, in a submarine, around Santorini on a bloody donkey and even had afternoon tea with the Governor-General. While chatting with her, my biscuit broke off as I dunked it in the gold-rimmed cup and I had to fish it out with my finger.”Russell Glendinning to Shirley-Anne Monaghan
And that was Russell to a T.
No-fuss, no-frills, no pretence. A man who loved trains, people and helping others whenever he could.
Do You Remember Russell?
Share your memories in the comments below.