Athol and Joan Brown : Bowls fans forever

September 17, 2021

Note: Joan Brown passed away on the 20th of June 2021, and Athol Brown on the 9th of September 2021.

When it comes to being fans of lawn bowls and the Blackjacks, they don’t come much more devoted than Athol Brown and his wife Joan.

That seems a big call, because up and down the country there are people who seem to live, eat and sleep bowls …. popping down to their clubs every day … always being there as a spectator at club tournaments … turning up to club working bees … barracking for their club team at centre events … making the nationals their annual holiday … and more recently, never failing to miss the Bowls3Five action on TV.

Athol and Joan have been there, done that.  And much, much more.  While others may boast the t-shirt as a memento of their support of the lawn bowls at the Comm Game or World Champs, Athol and Joan both sport Blackjack shirts : a few years back, Bowls New Zealand made the couple ‘Honorary Blackjacks’ in recognition of their unparalleled devotion and support for our elite lawn bowlers.

Athol and Joan were understandably chuffed.

But for others in the bowling world, the award was not surprising.  “Up until recently, they’d been following the Blackjacks around for 30 years,” says ‘the Voice of Bowls’, Kevin Hickland, “Travelling to wherever the team was playing around the world.  It didn’t matter where … the Blackjacks always knew they had at least two avid fans in the crowd.”

Their two-person support team started back in the 1980s, when Athol retired from the solid plastering company he had founded.  “We bought an apartment at Burleigh Heads,” he says, “So Joan and I could spend the winter months on the Gold Coast like many other Kiwis, and like many up-and-coming Blackjacks.”

“Prospective Blackjacks started coming over to the Gold Coast to get the competition and all-year-round play they couldn’t get at home,” says Athol, “So Joan and I made our apartment available for any of them who wanted to stay.”

“When Shannon (McIlroy) was a cheeky young bugger, he came to stay with us for 4 or 5 weeks.  Marina Khan was staying with us when she won the big winter tournament over here … her mum Millie immediately rang and booked the other bed!”

“We had Jo Edwards staying with us a while too.”

Behind the scenes, Athol was also becoming ‘well known’ at the newly-formed Air New Zealand budget airline, Freedom Air, negotiating sponsorship and sharp prices for lawn bowlers to fly between New Zealand and the Gold Coast.  “The winter tournament over here was attracting more than 2,000 bowlers.  There were a lot of bums on seats for Freedom to pick up.”

In Athol Brown, Freedom Air had a champion to cajole and twist the arms of bowlers to come to ‘the GC’ on Freedom Air.

Kevin Hickland and Athol Brown at his 100th Birthday Celebrations

At the same time, Athol was an early champion of the Kittyhawks … helping run an annual tournament fundraising for the Halberg Trust as well as the Easter Under 20 Tournament.  “He was always proud to wear, and resplendent in, his mustard-colour Kittyhawks blazer,” says Kevin.

But despite wintering in Queensland, Athol and Joan were, and still are, fans of their local bowling club, Onehunga Districts (formerly Onehunga RSA).  They are joint Patrons and Life Members.

Athol ‘was talked into’ taking up bowls and joining the club sometime in the 60’s (Joan started her bowling life at Okahu Bay and Rawhiti).

But it wasn’t until after he retired from managing his solid plastering company of 30 staff 7 days a week, that Athol found time to get serious about his bowls … winning the Club Singles in 1987 and 1991, the Club Pairs in 1995 and the Club Triples in 1990, 1993, 1995 and 1996.

Although a good bowler, it was the work that Athol and Joan did behind rather than ahead of the bowling scenes that distinguished Athol and Joan.  “Having said that, you’ll rarely hear them talk about what they’ve done,” says Kevin, “But they’ve been committed to the cause for decades.  Really committed.”

A few weeks ago, Athol celebrated his 100th birthday (Joan is a 96 year-old youngster!) at their home at the Edmund Hillary Retirement Village in Abbot’s Way in Ellerslie

It’s a long way from being brought up in Tara in the backblocks of the Brynderwyns between Kaiwaka and Mangawhai … a long way from his posting in the war as a radio operator in Fiji … and a long way from plastering iconic Auckland buildings of the likes of the Parnell Baths, the BNZ in Jean Baton Place, Mansion House on Kawau Island and the Intercontinental (now Pullman) Hotel.

Congratulations on reaching your centennial Athol.  And thanks to both you and Joan for everything you have done in bowls.

We look forward to celebrating Joan’s big one-oh-oh in 4 year’s time.