This was one of many anecdotes shared with me recently in Berlin by New Zealand's Ambassador Alan Cook. An experienced man with a stellar diplomatic portfolio -- Cook, and his two predecessors Winston Cochrane and Peter Hamilton, embody Kiwi characteristics -- smart, reserved, worldly and uncomplicated.
New Zealanders -- "Kiwis" in common parlance -- are also informal, generous and pioneering.
The recently deceased Sir Edmund Hillary embodied this spirit with supreme grace. Hillary was the only still-living person honored on New Zealand currency. He was -- and this is very unusual -- given a state funeral by Prime Minister Helen Clark, a no-nonsense leader who I met in Berlin a few years ago.
Hillary was the first man to climb Mount Everest. He did this at a time when it was man against nature. None of today's modern equipment existed when he and Tensing Norgay of Nepal conquered the 29,028 feet -- the highest peak in the world -- on May 29, 1953 -- just four days before Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. To this day the feat remains one of the greatest achievements of mankind. It is one of the few things New Zealanders allow themselves to glow about.
Hillary became interested in mountain climbing at a young age. Although he made his living as a beekeeper, he climbed mountains in New Zealand, then in the Alps, and finally in the Himalayas, where he climbed 11 different peaks of over 20,000 feet. Born in 1919, he grew up in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city. Hillary's life was darkened by the loss of his wife and daughter in a plane crash in 1975. Painful as this was, it only seemed to add to his legend.
"We are immensely proud of him and part of that pride derives from our knowledge of the esteem in which he was held outside New Zealand," John McKinnon, New Zealand's secretary of defense, wrote to me shortly after the state funeral. "I am confident, Sir Edmund himself would have had none of this, and that is what made him so special."
I never had the opportunity to meet Hillary. But I did engage in a lengthy conversation with his adult son Peter (who conquered Everest in his own right) last year on a 16-hour flight from Los Angeles to New Zealand. I was already impressed with the gentleman next to me, when a steward stopped over and stated, "May I get you something Mr. Hillary." My eyes lit up, and Mr. Hillary the younger responded, "I guess the cat is out of the bag." We both laughed heartily.
One of the first New Zealanders I came to know was at a summer camp in Mukwonago, Wis., during two summers when I was a college student. Fiona Webster was from Christchurch. She too embodied the politeness and informality I have come to respect in Kiwis.
The Prague Society and Global Panel have been privileged to host New Zealanders from Prague to Berlin to London to Wellington. One of our founders, Vera Egermayer, is a Kiwi. And no matter what level -- from Gov.-Gen. Dame Silvia Cartwright to Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon; from Foreign Minister Phil Goff to Education Minister Trevor Mallard and Trade Minister Jim Sutton; from New Zealand Symphony Orchestra CEO Peter Walls to the noted academic Margaret Clark of Victoria University -- New Zealanders are among the most down-to-earth on this planet -- and modest, too.
It is a characteristic from which others could learn, especially in foreign policy.
During both world wars New Zealanders -- including Edmund Hillary -- served gallantly, as did Australians -- with whom New Zealand has traditionally had a close relationship. Aussies and Kiwis sacrificed great numbers of their sons in the war effort. Among non-Europeans, as a percentage of population, they gave among the highest numbers. New Zealand still produces fine soldiers and military officers.
New Zealand -- roughly the size of Colorado and some 1,250 miles from Australia across the Tasman Sea -- maintains a strong profile on environmental protection, human rights and free trade. The population is mostly of European descent, with the indigenous Maori being the largest minority. In cities, Asians and non-Maori Polynesians are also significant minorities. New Zealand is known for -- and sometimes the butt of jokes -- for being home to some 40 million sheep, while having a population of only 4 million people.
During the summers as a child I would work on the family farm in Germany; I would regularly mix up the names of the farm animals -- my German aunt would become incensed. One day after school this great dame had more than enough when I confused the kiwis of New Zealand with the kangaroos of Australia.
"Ach Gott … my child," she huffed, "there is a difference between kiwis, cows and kangaroos."
(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and vice-chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)