Honouring a lifetime of military preservation

Phyllis Sturmfels.

Rotorua community stalwart Phyllis Sturmfels, who wrote fetchingly about the world war service of her father and husband, recently died just several weeks after the publication launch of those war experiences.

Ninety-two-year-old Phyllis – known as Phyl – wrote concisely about both men who had polar opposite memories of both wars.

Her influence was wider, if understated. For Phyl, like spilt petrol, was everywhere – disporting her time with the local hospital auxiliary where she knitted layettes for newborns or around Rotorua every Anzac Day selling poppies, along with services at the local Friends of the Library, of which she was made a life member. She was also involved with Red Cross.

Phyl’s recent chapter in a well-received local book ‘Touched by War’, launched on November 10 – one day before the 100th year anniversary of the signing of the Armistice – was taut and concise.

Phyllis’ great-grandfather Jim Huston was a military man at Windsor Castle, with the Royal Horse Guards, serving in the Boer War and in India and Malta, winning brevet promotions.

Her father, St/Sgt Jim Huston served in both world wars, first as a 16-year-old WW1 Naval cadet and later with the RAF.

In 1942, he lunched at the Waverley Hotel in Auckland, now recognised as one of the celebrated ‘Old Contemptibles’, an epithet grudgingly termed by German Kaiser.

Her father’s war record unconscionably committed the new Mrs Sturmfels to a lifetime of military preservation through her own diaries of conversations, and to deflect sneers she had married into a family of Germanic origin.

While noting ‘shocking losses’, particularly of horses used as trains and vehicles of war, grandfather Jim Huston deferred mainly to the esprit de corps of the men alongside whom he served.

Her father St/Sgt J W Huston was rather less sanguine. He kept diaries of combat horrors, which Phyl retyped and sent to Waiouru Museum for preservation.

Injured in 1941, the Hustons received notices J W Huston had been killed; though he sent a letter and cable confirming his existence, neither reached the NZ address.

Phyl’s husband Jack Sturmfels, a shearer since he was a lad in rural NZ, was reticent about his war experience. A pilot, Jack Sturmfels gained his wings in Canada, and in 1944 served in England.

Through a rehab loan, Jack and Phyl bought a farm in Rerewhakaaitu, where they became respected pillars of the community. While Jack plied the land, Phyl ensured posterity in preserving his and her family’s military histories.

Until recently, Phyl was active with Friends of the Library, which has raised thousands of dollars in sales for discretionary use by the library.

Two years ago, after being the first customer to walk through the Rotorua Library on Haupapa St 25 years earlier, she was accorded a guided tour of a temporary library by director Jane Gilbert.


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