Young Fred Hollows
Fred Hollows was born on April 9, 1929 in Dunedin, New Zealand, the second of Joseph and Clarice Hollows’ four boys.
According to Fred, his mother and father were “very strong in the church”. The family atmosphere was respectable, teetotal and non-smoking, but not pious and not judgmental.
Fred was most influenced by his father, who was a kind of Christian Marxist, a pacifist with firm views about the basic wage. Joseph Hollows was a railwayman, the son and grandson of coalminers. He was also a keen chrysanthemum grower – a hobby he turned into a successful business when he retired and the family shifted to a small plot of land out of town.
As a teenager Fred enjoyed the Protestant Boys' Brigade, camping and tramping about the country. He attended church enthusiastically, played trumpet in the Brigade band, and the bugle at school. He did well academically when he was interested, and played First XV rugby where his smaller stature meant he spent “a good few Saturday nights” getting stitched up at the hospital.
Towards the end of high school Fred sat some Bible study exams, came first in New Zealand and set off for Divinity and Arts at Otago University in Dunedin, imagining he’d become a minister. “You go with your strengths, don’t you,” said Fred.
A very changed character indeed
A year later a summer holiday job in a mental hospital at Porirua changed Fred’s outlook completely.
His fellow workers were knockabout blokes, ex-seamen, some who’d been in the war, and in these tough, kind, gentle men Fred “discovered what secular goodness was”. In the challenging atmosphere of the wards they stood their ground with barely a raised voice. Outside work they liked a bit of a drink and a good time.
According to Fred, he arrived in Porirua “a teetotal, non-smoking virgin” and came back “a very changed character indeed”.
Fred returned to Dunedin an agnostic interested in psychology. He dropped Divinity and took subjects that helped him understand how the brain works, like chemistry and physiology. He got into rock climbing, worked in the bush during the holidays and in his third year continued what was now an Arts degree with science and education subjects at Victoria University in Wellington.
A mail plane brings an offer
Fred was working deep in the South Island bush at the end of that year when a rare mail plane delivered two letters. One from Victoria University saying he’d failed an education subject, and the other from the University of Otago in Dunedin saying that, since he’d come in the top 100 in New Zealand in his science subjects, they’d like to offer him a place in medicine.
No time to think too hard about it as the plane was leaving that same day, but a medical student in the camp said medicine was “bloody good” and that it’d always give him a well-paid job, so Fred scribbled off 'yes' to Otago, and started medical school at the end of the summer.
Work hard and play hard
For the next few years he “studied hard in bursts, played up a bit” and, on the weekends, headed for the hills.
“Mountain climbing got into my blood then and it was important to me for the next thirty years. It puts things into perspective – risks and skills, life and death, gives you the measure of problems and people,” said Fred.
Fred met his first wife Mary Skiller, who had two children from her first marriage, while working as a mountain guide on the Fox Peak one summer. They parted nearly twenty years later, and Mary died in 1975.