New Zealand Law Society - Peter Gonville Benseman, 1942 – 2011

Peter Gonville Benseman, 1942 – 2011

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As Peter approached the ninth hole at Waitikiri on 10 April 2011, he would have been mightily troubled to feel the onset of the heart attack which felled him, there and then.

He was playing with Mark Callaghan for his club, Russley, and needed to win that match to claim the President’s Cup. He was three holes up when he died. For a golfer as keen as Peter, and a man as competitive as he, it would have been very disappointing. At least he was spared the shock of seeing Mark Callaghan descend on him to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Schooled at St Andrew’s College and graduating through Canterbury University, Peter was first a junior partner at Cassidy, Amodeo Hunt & Benseman.

In 1972 he joined Peter Tempero in partnership. That was a busy firm, operating from the Sydenham Money Club Building in Manchester Street, and the firm acted for the SMC until it was swallowed up in a corporate merger. Both partners’ wives worked in the practice, Val Tempero as office manageress. When Peter Tempero died in 1978, Peter Benseman continued in sole practice for the next 4 years. I met him during those times, when CDLS cocktail parties seemed to be more frequent and spread out long into the evenings.

Peter and his wife, Sue, were enthusiastic members of Mount Hutt Ski Club. They and their children, Elsa and Kurt, took to the slopes at every chance, skiing up to 50 days per year. They invited me on a number of those occasions, and I still recall my sinking heart as Peter pressed on toward the Rakaia Bridge even in the face of howling nor’west gales. It took a lot to stop them.

Peter became chairman of the Mount Hutt Ski Club and eventually took a leading role in managing the project of building the club hut at the skifield, that is still a benefit to the many hundreds of families who have enjoyed membership there.

In 1982 I joined Peter in partnership as Benseman, Murfitt and Co. Initially we practised from Armagh Street and then, in later years, from Riverlands Houase. Brian Pelham had been a staff solicitor with Peter before our merger, and then joined us in partnership until he struck out on his own in the early nineties.

It was a privilege for me to work with Peter from 1982 until 1996. The firm grew, particularly in the area of family law litigation. Tania Cook and Ingrid Taylor joined as staff solicitors, as did David Amodeo, whose great great uncle’s name was in Peter’s first firm. It was a good time. We got on well. Peter, with his mane of white hair and mine of (then) black, referring to us as salt and pepper, complementing each other’s different approaches to life and the law.

Peter had long been a member of Kiwanis, eventually becoming Lieutenant Governor. He recruited me – it took three years to get out! Among his other interests were the electronic organ which he played so well – and the Canterbury Club.

Peter took up sailing during those years, graduating from a Sunburst to a Nolex 25. He took his wife and children offshore, sailing off the Canterbury coast and in the Nelson/Marlborough area. He himself could not swim, and his daughter, Elsa, recalls with some horror that she was unaware her skipper and trusted father would have been so helpless in rescuing them had disaster happened. Nonetheless, Peter was determined to sail to the best of his ability and added a Boat Master’s Certificate to his law degree.

The prevailing mood at Benseman Murfitt was one of friendship, teamwork and enjoyment of life. As leader of the team, Peter was always approachable, ready and able to help. Throughout his career he kept up his interest in all areas of legal practice – commercial, conveyancing and litigation. He was regarded as a very sound general practitioner, a rare breed.

At the office he took an interest in all the staff, testing them with quizzes at morning tea. Questions such as “Where is Hog Swamp?” or “Siberia Stream” might have challenged all of those who are not familiar with State Highway 1 between Christchurch and Blenheim.

In 1996 I went to the independent Bar and Riverlands Chambers emerged from that. Peter and the firm merged with Clark Boyce, and he stayed there until he half-retired in 2008. His trusty lieutenant Val (now Lee) still carries the flag there.

During those years Peter developed a passion for golf. As with his other sporting interests, it grew like a wildfire. As one who had barely held a golf club in his younger life, he practised and practised with utter determination until he became a competent golfer on a 16 handicap. He became chairman of the Board of Management of Russley Golf Club, and had been club captain in his time. He was active on the Committee of Canterbury Golf and was a course rater even in the year he died. Whatever he did, he did 110%.

It is one of my regrets, having been away from Christchurch for 7 years, that Peter is not around to be a golfing buddy.

Since 2008 Peter had himself practised as a barrister sole, keeping his hand in with assignments as a child advocate. If a case called for commonsense, avuncular advice and directness of message, Peter was the man for the job. He had little patience for parents who were dancing to disaster with the lives of their children in hand.

Peter always was one who worked to live, rather than vice versa. His law practice was incidental to his family activities and the sporting interests which occupied him later in his life. What a shame that he died so soon after finding that delightful equilibrium between work and other enjoyments of life.

He did know and enjoy the pleasure of his grandchildren, whose arrival and achievements made him irrationally proud. Always a tease, he enjoyed the challenge of perfecting the English language skills of his Japanese-born daughter-in-law, Reij, who spoke so movingly about this at his funeral.

In the meantime, Peter’s very patient wife, Sue, has continued with her own interests in skiing and horse riding, and will continue to be there for their treasured children and grandchildren. She and Peter were childhood sweethearts and they lived the promise “til death do us part”.

Peter descended from a settlement of Germans arriving in 1842 in the Moutere. He had a powerful interest in history and his origins. He and Sue travelled overseas a number of times, in particular exploring where those family roots began. In order to fly, Peter had to overcome another challenge.

A man who could tolerate being separated from the depths of the ocean by only a few millimetres of fibreglass was driven into frantic anxiety when he boarded a plane. Bit by bit he took control of himself and conquered that fear so that he could travel within New Zealand and overseas to make the most of life.

It seems fitting to farewell you Peter in the German language of the Benseman thread of your history, a language which you studied during your adult life and became passably fluent in.

Auf wiedersehn, mein freund. Schlaft gut. Ruh in Freiden.

By Robert Murfitt. 

This obituary was published in Canterbury Tales, June 2011.

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