As a ‘leapling’ baby, born on February 29, Eileen Todd has had to wait longer than any other Queenstowner to officially celebrate her 21st birthday - despite being born in 1932. She discusses her life and times with Philip Chandler
Queenstown hospitality legend Eileen Todd has a special excuse not to raise a yard glass to celebrate her actual 21st birthday this coming Monday - she’s really turning 84.
Because February 29 only occurs during a leap year, once every four years, she’s only officially enjoyed 20 birthdays.
Todd jokes that her late husband Jock always said he only married her “because I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink and I had a birthday every four years”.
“He was a good old Scotsman and the old beggar never gave me a present unless it was my proper birthday.”
Welsh-born Eileen, however, has much to thank Jock for, not least suggesting they shift to New Zealand almost 50 years ago.
About 10 years her senior, Jock flew with the Royal NZ Air Force No.75 Squadron during World War II.
He stayed in the Royal Air Force after the war - where he met Eileen, who was working as a clerk - till retiring in 1960.
The couple then ran a couple of country hotels in Scotland.
Eileen: “The last place we bought, we were in it for two years, and my husband woke up one morning and said, ‘you know, I think we’ll go to NZ’. He never planned things.”
One of Jock’s best Kiwi air crew mates was the late Roy (later Sir Roy) McKenzie, a prominent businessman, philanthropist and former ski racer, who suggested they come to Queenstown.
They bought the historic Arthurs Point Pub in 1968, the year of the ‘big snow’.
As the nearest pub to Coronet Peak skifield, they’d be inundated with 1000 skiers after 4pm clamouring for her famous ‘hot toddy’.
“The best year we ever had, we sold 84 gallons of rum in 12 weeks and I made 450 gallons of punch to put in it.”
Sometime during their nine years, she says Jock put a Drambuie bottle with the names of all the pub’s past publicans in it and buried it in a wall as a time capsule - discovered when the pub was pulled down a few years ago.
After Arthurs Point, the industrious Eileen had stints working at Queenstown’s former manual telephone exchange and H&J Smith department store, and also leased Hotel Wakatipu, now a backpackers, for several years.
She also owned a store in Shotover Street, manned by her ailing husband, selling goods she bought at discount at Invercargill’s McKenzies store.
Eileen also co-opened Queenstown’s first Japanese restaurant, Minami Jujisei.
Most famously, she built then operated Glen-Roydon Lodge, now the Glenorchy Lodge, with McKenzie backing her to the hilt – ‘Roydon’ linking to a McKenzie family trading name.
“All my business friends in Queenstown said to me, ‘what the hell are you going to Glenorchy for?’, ‘cos the road wasn’t sealed for quite a number of years.
“I worked for 13 years in Glenorchy without any pay but it was made up when we sold it.”
Eileen, who says “I worked very hard in my life but I loved every minute of it”, initially retired in Glenorchy but after a heart attack in 2014 was advised to move nearer Queenstown.
She found a unit at Frankton’s Abbeyfield retirement home - “one of the best moves of my life”.
This weekend she’ll celebrate her ’21st’ with her five children, Ian, Jimmy, Johnny and Alan, who were all born in Scotland, and Ngaire, who was born in NZ - she also has nine grandchildren and a great-granddaughter coming up 11 months.
“I’m lucky I’m alive - I had a heart attack, I’ve had a triple bypass, a gallbladder removed.
“But this year, I never thought I’d be back feeling as well as I do.”
Perhaps well enough to blow out 21 candles.