Melton Prosser, who died on 12 May 2018 aged 86, was one of those lawyers who just seemed to keep on going. In his early eighties he was still serving the clients who had followed him for decades. Four years ago, in a typically self-deprecating remark, Melton told Council Brief: “There’s nothing remarkable in it. I have been a lawyer for over 60 years and I’ve made all the mistakes – but fortunately I’ve only made them once!”
That comment exemplified Melton – he liked to laugh and did not take life too seriously. But about his work he was decidedly serious, hard-working and conscientious – deeply concerned with the welfare of his clients.
Melton was born in Wellington on 8 July 1931, the only child of Leonard and May Prosser. For most of his childhood he was brought up solely by May, who worked as a machinist into her mid-seventies.
He grew up in Wadestown and at school he was known for his prowess in tennis and swimming. After secondary education at Wellington College he made an early start to his work in the legal profession, joining the firm of EAR Jones and Vickerman straight out of school. He spent the next nine years learning the basics of conveyancing, company law, taxation and estate planning under the watchful eye of partner Brian Vickerman who Melton recalled as “wonderfully helpful and friendly”.
Melton met his future wife Jeannette while they were both still at school. They played tennis together in the same Wadestown tennis club and belonged to the same circle of friends. They married in their early twenties while Melton was still studying law part-time at Victoria University. He finished his degree at the end of 1957 and was admitted to the bar in February 1958, the same year in which he was made a partner at Jones and Vickerman.
In the early 1950s the firm had opened a branch office in Wainuiomata, over the hill from the Hutt Valley. The suburb was then beginning a period of rapid development as an area of affordable housing. It is an indication of the esteem in which he was held by the firm’s partners that he was given the responsibility for opening and maintaining this branch office while still a young and unqualified lawyer.
Speaking four years ago, Melton said that he drove over the hill to the new suburb once a week and brought back dozens of files, a practice he was to continue for over 30 years. “Wainuiomata was a huge development at the time. Most of the properties were bought through cheap State Advances Corporation loans, the government’s capitalised family benefit scheme and deferred payment licences for sections. I probably did 90% of the subdivision work over there.
“Of course, everything was different – the property contract was just one page, we had no building reports, no council consents. But you know, there were no leaky buildings.
“I had a great time over there. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Melton left Jones and Vickerman in 1982 and joined Castle Pope, which became Castle Pope Prosser and Lynn, and he continued his commercial and general practice. The partnership ended in 1990 and Melton joined the then firm of Morrison Morpeth as a consultant. He went out on his own as a sole practitioner in 1992, working from his Wilton home until retiring in his 84th year in 2014.
Frank Brugger enters
Amidst this relatively conventional career Melton did something rather unusual. While he was in Wainuiomata he met a German engineer named Frank Brugger, a clever and enterprising man who had emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1950s and started his own business. The decades of the 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of manufacturing in New Zealand including the car assembly industry with companies such as General Motors in Petone, Ford at Seaview and Todd Motors in Porirua producing many models of popular cars. Brugger took advantage of this and manufactured a range of automobile components such as car seats, door panels and reclining mechanisms. The company was also the first manufacturer of the Pyroclastic wood stove.
Melton and Frank Brugger hit it off and they became close associates, to the extent that Melton became part-owner of the Brugger Industries factory in Wainuiomata, and the firm’s export manager. He remained a part-owner for 36 years until the company was sold in 1986. During that time he visited many parts of the world on behalf of the firm, including Japan, Australia, Singapore, United Kingdom, Samoa and Switzerland. “I must have gone to every motor company in Japan, New Zealand and Australia,” he said in 2014, “including General Motors, Ford and Toyota, I learned some Japanese and can still speak a bit and we still have Japanese friends. It was great fun.”
He was still practising as a lawyer during this time and he worked most nights and weekends to keep up. “My partner Brian Vickerman was a lovely man, very helpful, and he carried the can when I was away. It was usually only for a day or two, though once we were stranded in Osaka for three weeks when the crash firemen there went on strike.”
Brugger Industries was part-owned by an Australian company based in Melbourne and Melton, as liaison director, visited the city many times. “Apart from the work, my wife and I had the good fortune to see Kiwi’s devastating run up the home stretch to win the Melbourne Cup in 1983 and I went to one or two champagne breakfasts at the Grand Final of Australian Rules football at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – the first time I went there were 103,000 people there.”
Brugger Industries had established a small factory in Western Samoa in the 1980s making car mufflers and Melton travelled there several times a year. As a result of friendships made and the respect in which he was held he was made a honorary matai with the name Lauli. At Melton’s funeral his son David related a story concerning the ‘fue’, a ceremonial fly whisk carried by tulafale – high chiefs. “He told me a story once that on one of his trips when he arrived off the plane in Samoa they asked him to open his bags. As soon as they saw this [the fly whisk] in his luggage they closed his bag immediately and apologised and let him continue. No one holds up a chief!”
He loved working with Brugger industries. “It was such an exciting time,” he said. “I think the Brugger Industries experience helped me as a lawyer to better understand people and commercial situations, and to develop a broader view of the world outside the ‘legal bubble’.”
Melton was a man who lived life to the full. In the early 1950s he and Jeannette built their own house in Cecil Road in Wadestown. The family shared pictures of Melton behind a shovel or a wheelbarrow, knee deep in dirt, with various toddlers perched in the wheelbarrow or on a dirt pile. He loved music, often singing at the top of his voice around the house, in the shower and in the car. “He would tell us with great passion how brilliant ABBA was or Boney M or Phantom of the Opera or, probably his favourite, the Chess soundtrack … he probably should have been on the stage.”
He loved cars as well. “He was probably the original boy racer of Warwick Street. Every car had to be a big grumbly, noisy V8 that also had to be big enough to fit us all in.”
He gave a lot of his time and money to charities of various kinds. “He’d give money away left right and centre – sometimes to a fault. He worked on produce stalls, at school fairs, on committees and boards, and officiated at sports days. He painted blackboards at Sacred Heart School and even cleaned the toilets when necessary.”
Melton Prosser was an endearing and ebullient man, deeply involved in all aspects of his life. He loved his family which was the centre of his existence, and his connection to his clients was sincere and personal.
He is survived by Jeannette, his wife of 62 years, five children and four grandchildren.
This obituary was first published on page 4 of the July issue of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society.