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Bruce Bornholdt, 1933 - 2001

By Craig Stevens

Anyone who doesn't think that, at the very least, Bruce Bornholdt was a real character, must be at the wrong funeral! I always think of Bruce with great affection, but also as a likeable rogue.

Bruce was forthright to the point of, at times, being offensive. Many people here would however know and value what he called a "Bornholdt Lecture": he was single-minded – some would say obsessive, dogmatic – others have said of Bruce that he always said what others thought but weren't prepared to say. He was wily, for instance he received, read and catalogued every Environmental Court decision, but would say things like "I haven't really kept up with this RMA" and then floor you with a recent unreported decision which was on point. He always played his cards close to his chest – even when you were on the same side you couldn't predict what he might do or, even more scary, what he might have already done!

He was equally: enthusiastic, entertaining, fun, loyal, hard working, generous to a fault, a unique operator, and a most proud father and grandfather. He was also an extremely private person. His pro bono work was considerable but was never broadcast, to the extent that Margaret Feather going into the inner sanctum was heard to say "Are you running a charity or a business Mr Bornholdt?"

In modern parlance, he had "attitude".

I first met Bruce on the Waitara Marae 20 years ago during the Waitara Embankment hearing before the Waitangi Tribunal. I was a fish out of water – I suspect Bruce was too but he made out he wasn't. On our first meeting I heard that gruff, subsequently familiar, voice say "Come and sit down here, young Craig and get yourself an education".

I certainly did that although it wasn't a conventional one.

The things I learnt included that in that forum where cross-examination was not permitted or encouraged, Bruce frequently sought "clarification" from the witnesses. People came and went throughout this lengthy hearing. Bruce's questions often had an uncanny coincidence with his client arriving to sit in on part of the hearing.

He organised a meeting of the relevant hapu at the Council chambers one evening. It was by invitation only and resulted in a unanimous resolution supporting the position of our respective clients. Coincidentally the local press just happened to be there and it was their front page story next morning, for the Tribunal to read over their breakfast.

The Tribunal members were furious.

His formal submissions were not made before the Tribunal. He told them that while he would have loved to provide great detail in support of his client's position, he couldn't because his client was being sued and the subject matter was therefore sub judice. Its recommendation was nevertheless consistent with Bruce's de facto submission – the unanimous resolution published in the newspaper.

The client loyalty that Bruce engendered in that hearing was typical and deserved.

It was just as much fun to have Bruce opposing you. I particularly remember the head-on stoushes when acting against Bruce's clients. During often-terse exchanges in Court, but always when a judge or arbitrator wasn't looking, he would give you a wink and simply carry on, "daggers drawn" without drawing a breath.

Yesterday a friend described Bruce to me as a "Renaissance Man". He was also an entrepreneur – he left the law for a couple of years to be general manager of Frosty Jack Ice Cream, and subsequently his business appointments included being Chairman of Sovereign Assurance during a very successful period under his stewardship. Both personally and when chairman of Sovereign he advanced the arts. He encouraged his daughters in these pursuits and it is not surprising that Bruce's daughter between them reflect his strength as an entrepreneur and his passion for the arts.

He was a proud and loyal father, the inventor of virtual meetings – I "met" Jane, Wendy and Jenny on every plane ride and at every meeting in his chambers. He always took time to speak with pride about his girls' achievements. Of latter years, his grandchildren Jack, Felix and Carlo, just proved what a big softie he was.

I'm going to miss your winks during court Bruce and the "Bornholdt Lectures" – they, like you, were very special.

The most important influence in Bruce's life however was his wife Jeanette. What follows is her apt tribute to him written seven years ago for his 60th birthday. It shows both the humour and honesty of their relationship:

Jeanette's Tribute

I have long been an admirer of Bruce – not only for his good looks and charm, but also for his honesty and integrity, his energy and strength, his genuine kindness and willingness to help if he thinks he can make a difference.

I marvel at his singlemindedness in pursuing his career in the law. The excellence of service he expects to provide for anyone who seeks his counsel. His love of a challenge and being where the action is.

My admiration has at times turned to desperation and exasperation when demands of his work have seemed an impossible burden.

It is still a mystery to me where he finds his renewal and replenishment.

He is passionate about his work, the wellbeing of his family, his home, good food and wine and Sky TV. He is generous to a fault.

He cannot tolerate hypocrisy, second best, negative thinking, losing an argument, fish that get away, long holidays and Italian and Chilean kiwifruit growers.

He has a great sense of the dramatic and doesn't want to be part of the crowd – he wants to be be seen in the crowd.

He rarely suffers fools gladly, rarely sits down with a good book, never forgets birthdays and never shaves without cutting himself.

He is constant in his refusal to accept that there are only 24 hours in a day. He is a person of rare good nature and optimism who, in placing great demands on himself, has great expectations of others.

Life around Bruce is never dull, never predictable. He is genuinely interested in people, their life experiences, and what makes them the way they are.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his essay El Dorado: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive and the true success is to labour."

It seems to me that it is a fitting statement to apply to Bruce's life and I applaud the commitment, diligence and enthusiasm with which he approaches each day and everything he does.

This was first published on page 4 of the April 2001 issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington District Law Society.

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Last updated on the 26th August 2016