Wearing his favourite red t-shirt that says “96 and counting”, Russell Parrish appears from his bedroom ready for our Weekly photoshoot and jokes he is like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.
Funny, fit and humble, the spry nonagenarian then ushers us on to his apartment balcony in the Logan Campbell Retirement Village, pointing out the nearby obelisk on the summit of One Tree Hill.
The landmark now serves as a reminder to Russell of his recent remarkable feat – walking up to the top of the mountain every day for a month, in rain, hail or shine, motivated to honour his late wife Mary.
After nearly 70 years of marriage, Mary died in the village’s dementia unit last year, aged 91.
Russell says the lifetime of memories the couple shared together in Cornwall Park were with him every day of his pilgrimage, which also raised $2000 for the Move for Dementia charity.
“I initially only signed up to please the recreational staff here,” he chuckles. “Rashly, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try and walk to the top of One Tree Hill every day in September.’
“Prior to that, I had been walking up to the summit once every few weeks and thinking ‘Will this be my last time?’ because I knew I was pushing my limit.
“Then that first day in September, I went up and I thought, ‘What have I done saying I’ll do this every day?’ But my pig-headedness kept me going. If I decide I’m going to do something, I don’t like to give up.”
Finding that his eyesight was rapidly deteriorating, however, Russell enlisted help being escorted up Maungakiekie by his son Murray, daughter Carol and son-in-law John, who he nicknamed “Sherpa one, two and three”.
It’s an achievement he’s “moderately proud” of.
“I’m a slow learner – I took three attempts to get school certificate at Mount Albert Grammar – and have never been used to any notoriety. So I hope at 96, talking about my walking isn’t too brash.
“I’m well past the age of wishing to appear as a sort of stud!”
He reckons Mary would have joined him on the challenge if she had been here today and able to.
The pair trekked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in their eighties and completed numerous Round the Bays fun runs together.
“Oh, she was lovely,” he says, showing us a photo of her in her nurse’s uniform. “We met at a New Lynn Scottish Society dance.
“My mates and I used to go to these dances and one night, two very attractive redheads turned up that we hadn’t seen before. They were student nurses who had come up from the country to do their training at Greenlane Hospital. We danced with them and when I walked Mary to her bus, I asked, ‘May I see you again?'”
She replied yes, but only on a friendship basis, before explaining that after she finished her training, she planned to head back to Thames to marry her boyfriend Don.
“I agreed that was fine,” says Russell. “With no romantic baggage in the background, it was much more relaxed and we had a great time developing a friendship for 12 months.”
But it eventually turned into a deep affection.
“Being Scottish, Mary was very outgoing, forthright and unseemly, I suppose. One night while we were out, she’d said something which had made others glare at her and she told me, ‘Poor Don, all his life he’s going to be embarrassed by my behaviour.’ I said, ‘No, he’s a lucky man. I’d change places with him!’
“When I met her the next week, she said she’d written to her fiancé and told him their engagement was off because she wanted to marry me instead. I was so lucky. If I hadn’t said that flippant remark, I don’t know where I’d be.”
For 73 years, Cornwall Park became central to the Epsom couple’s life through courtship, maternity hospital ordeals, raising five children and retirement.
They often walked hand in hand through the urban oasis “as a way to get away from five teenagers” and when the jogging craze began in 1973, they started running together.
In recent years, when it became evident that Mary was facing cognitive issues, Russell was able to care for her until advancing Alzheimer’s necessitated her transfer to secure care.
“She was mainly the one who made our marriage a success because she was so reasonable and tolerant,” he reflects with a smile.
“I loved everything about her. To me, our marriage hasn’t finished just because she’s no longer present. I still sign cards ‘From Russell and Mary’ because love continues forever.”
To donate visit, Russell’s Move for Dementia page