Obituary: Joy in ordinary living

Bern Atkins was a man of great exuberance and warmth, who brought a rare vitality to the many spheres of his life. His sudden passing, aged 67, while on a cycling trip in Northland was a huge shock to his family and wide circle of friends.

‘The joy Bern found in ordinary life was contagious.’ Bernard (Bern) Thomas Atkins, 3 February 1956–14 November 2023. May he rest in peace. 

WelCom February 2024

Michael Fitzsimons

Bern Atkins was a man of great exuberance and warmth, who brought a rare vitality to the many spheres of his life. His sudden passing, aged 67, while on a cycling trip in Northland was a huge shock to his family and wide circle of friends.

The church of Our Lady of Kāpiti, Paraparaumu was packed for his funeral service at the end of November. Bern and his wife Jude were members of the parish and before that were longtime members of St Anthony’s parish in Seatoun, Wellington where Bern was a leading member of the music group.

Bern was born and raised in Waipukurau, the middle child of three. He grew up in the company of about 30 cousins and two of his uncles, his namesake Bernard Atkins and Noel Delaney, were Marist priests. Both uncles taught at Hato Pāora College where Bern’s family and cousins spent holidays, making the most of the swimming pool and tennis courts. Bern’s involvement with the college sparked a lifelong appreciation of Māori language, culture and music.

Bern attended St Joseph’s Primary School in Waipukurau and Central Hawke’s Bay College before going to St Patrick’s College Silverstream for his final college years. He had no sooner arrived at St Pat’s when he received the devastating news that his father had died suddenly, aged 51.

Bern was an outstanding sportsman as a young man, excelling in many sports at school. He was in the Central Hawke’s Bay College First XV and was a Hawke’s Bay Under-18 rugby rep. He was quickly earmarked for the Silverstream First XV and was senior tennis champion.

After school, Bern worked briefly in the Post Office at Waipukurau and then moved to Wellington to work in the Woods family grocery business. So began a working life in sales related to the grocery trade, at which he was very successful, bringing his characteristic humour and big-hearted extroversion to everything he did.

‘Bern was born to be a salesman,’ said his long-time friend Pete Woods in his eulogy. ‘Not because he had the gift of the gab or a silvery tongue but because of his personality. Everyone he met liked him and he liked them. And this is exemplified by the many long-lasting friendships he made in the trade.’ 

The joy Bern found in ordinary life was contagious and the family home he created with Jude was a place of great hospitality. He was also a talented guitarist with a lifelong infatuation with the Beatles. Singalongs in the great tradition were a feature of the Atkins household and wherever Bern was having a good time.

Bern and Jude have four children and six grandchildren, of whom Bern was immensely proud. In recent years nothing gave him more joy than time spent with the grandkids.

How good is this

For Bern Atkins

How good is this,
you always say,
your mighty embrace of the now.

We are singing and laughing
and playing the guitar 
and heaping more off-cuts onto the fire in the backyard,
flames leaping out of the chimney,
sparks flying into a sea of darkness.
How good is this.

Beatles songs, Uncle Noel’s songs, waiata, 
songs with no pause between them,
songs without end, 
we are riding a river of song,
the walls are shaking, the roof is lifting off.
How good is this.

You take me to the rooftop, 
a king and his kingdom,
look this way, a harbour glittering at night,
turn the other way, planes taking off and landing
and then a spa on the deck overlooking Kāpiti island.
Did you bring your togs? 
How good is this.

It could be a shoebox.
It could be a tiny cottage on a hill.
It could be a sausage on a barbecue. 
How good is this.

Before dinner you produce a Brown Brothers’ Patricia, 
top drawer Australian cabernet 
and it flows like happiness.
About 8 or 9 you say to Jude
Is it time to take the roast out of the freezer darling?
How good is this.

You have your own galaxy, 
your stars and moons, 
your compass of faith,
a family voyage through the heavens
with friends too many to count.
How good is this.

Every decision is a right decision.
Every path leads home.

In your company, 
no one knows when to go home.

This is not another poem about a person dying.
This is a poem about a roaring fire, Irresistible, 
sparks flying into the night,
all that heat, all that light.

How good was that.

 – Michael Fitzsimons 

Michael Fitzsimons wrote and read aloud his poem ‘How good is this’ in memory of his close friend Bern Atkins at the funeral service.