Hundreds send off events maestro in colourful style

Graham Hannah wanted a “fun-eral” and that’s what he got.

Hundreds flocked to his Cliff Street home last Friday – abandoning funeral black in favour of colourful party garb – to give the events supremo the kind of send-off that would have made him proud.

A chalked blackboard notice on the front porch directed people to ‘The Grand Finale’ along a petal-strewn path, past a water feature and around to a back garden festooned with coloured flags and parasols. Three big screens and a stage completed the setting for a celebration of Graham’s life, which saw him create a series of big and successful events in the Waikato over 40 years.

Described at the send-off by his eldest daughter Rebecca as a “visionary”, Graham set up Hannah & Associates in 1975 and opened a large Hamilton-based building display centre – one of the first in New Zealand – which became the forerunner to the now hugely successful Waikato Home & Garden Show for which he’s best remembered.

Graham sold the show, and retired, only last November after running it at Claudelands for 31 years. In an ironic twist, the farewell heard on Friday, Graham had joked at the time that the many well-wishes he’d received read like something of an obituary.

Friends and business colleagues Larry and Kathy Park painted a picture Graham’s colourful early life. Born in Harrogate, England, he travelled the world – picking up tricks of the trade working bazaars in Istanbul and markets in India – before settling in Sydney in the 60s then moving to Hamilton in the 70s, where he married and had three children.

Back then there were few restaurants and most shops were closed at the weekends, the Parks recounted. For Graham, it was a “golden opportunity” to flex his marketing muscles.

After a stint on a lifestyle block in Whatawhata supplying wool from his black sheep to spinners and weavers selling their wares to craft markets, he moved on to transforming a 4000 sq m commercial space in Anglesea Street into a showroom for manufacturers of building products.

Graham was now “in his element” and in 1985, on the back of that success, he launched the Waikato Home Show at what was then the Claudelands Showgrounds, making it bigger and better every year. Sixteen years ago it became known as the Waikato Home & Garden Show, and last year Graham was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Events & Exhibition Association of Australasia.

He also masterminded at various stages over the years the likes of the NZ International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta – the forerunner to Balloons Over Waikato – The Great NZ Food & Wine Festival and the Autumn HomeXPO.

Friends and family who spoke at his Friday afternoon send-off attributed Graham’s success to the motto by which he lived: ‘What the mind can see and believe, it can achieve’.

Son Linden said it was the best advice any father could give, and it was backed up by “the sharpest business plans”. He remembered how his father’s ideas often came to fruition over a leisurely bottle or two of red wine with friends, but also mentioned a life lived in the fast lane driving helter-skelter through Hamilton in his Ford Capri.

Rebecca, who worked with her dad on the Waikato Home & Garden Show and has continued as event director with its new owners North Port Events, remembered Graham as a best friend and mentor who worked and partied hard. She also spoke of his hearty laugh and “infectious” sense of merriment.

“He was the creator of unique exhibitions and events,” she added, “and we’ve done this one last spectacular for you, Dad.”

Soulmate Melanie Carroll spoke of how she and Graham always believed they were “lucky” to find each other, and of their “instant attraction”. She told of coming to live in Graham’s harbourside cottage within a month of meeting him, and of their mutual love for Raglan. “We were continually on holiday here,” she said, “right here at this property.”

The property backs onto the town’s bowling green, which was conveniently opened up beyond the fenceline to allow for extra seating during Graham’s send-off.

Along with the many memories from his family and friends – and a photographic tribute –  Graham’s grand finale last Friday afternoon included a poem read by grand-daughter Paige and musical numbers from local singer-songwriter Kate Martin and an Italian friend of Graham’s, Massimo Giurioli.

Longtime local recording artist Dave Maybee and company also played into the evening, and the party spilled out onto Cliff Street during the weekend where picnic tables were set up across the road under the predominantly Pohutukawa trees.

Edith Symes

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