Page 1: Biography
Cusack, Francis Peter
This biography, written by Ian Dougherty, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
There was nothing in the early life of Francis Peter Cusack to suggest he would become one of Southland’s most eccentric sons. Sam Cusack, as he was nicknamed, was born at Winton in central Southland on 4 February 1919. He was the only child of Peter Augustin Cusack, an Australian of Irish descent who farmed sheep at nearby South Hillend, and his wife, Sarah Jane Belotti, whose Italian father and Irish mother farmed at Wairio.
Sam was educated at Catholic schools in Winton and Invercargill. His mother wanted him to enter the priesthood, but he ended up working as a grocer’s assistant with the Self Help Co-operative at Kennington, near Invercargill.
On 18 September 1940 Cusack married Patricia Florence Day in the Holy Trinity Church at Gore. They would have two children: a daughter, then a son. After working in cheese factories in the North Island, Sam did a variety of labouring jobs around Southland over the next two decades, including stints at the Clifden Lime Company’s works, the Alliance Freezing Company’s works at Lorneville, and the Bluff Island Harbour project, where a wayward piece of steel took the sight from one eye.
From the early 1950s people started taking notice of Sam Cusack as he progressively turned his back on a conventional life. Over the next 40 years he would take to living rough in caravans, abandoned houses and shops, a vacant hospital, and in a cave made out of hides in an old tannery. A natural showman, he was particularly distinguished by his dress, or, rather, by his dresses. He took to wearing opportunity-shop women’s frocks, lime-green trouser suits, leopard-skin hats, fur stoles and brightly painted shoes. He explained that the frocks were cool in summer, and the fur warm in winter. The effect was sometimes complemented by a face blackened by smoke from candles, or strips of tyres that fuelled a pot-belly stove.
Cusack had various ways of getting about, and could be seen with cars and trucks he had modified in some way, a bicycle, a moped, and a horse that he would tie up to city council parking-meters and shop veranda poles. On the end of a piece of string he tugged along a small dog he described as an ‘Afghan rabbit’.
Sam Cusack was a man of letters, particularly to newspaper editors. These were dashed off on a score of old typewriters stashed at various haunts. The letters reflected the writer. Some were concise, lucid, informed, highly opinionated and often witty expressions on any topic, from love to the Middle East; others were rambling nonsense.
Cusack’s behaviour caught the attention of the country’s mental health and criminal justice systems. He was periodically carted off to Invercargill’s Southland Hospital, Dunedin’s Ashburn Hall and Wakari Hospital, and Seacliff and Cherry Farm Mental hospitals in Otago, usually for short spells. Between 1980 and 1985 Cusack also regularly appeared in the Invercargill District Court, often after alcohol had got the better of him. He was convicted of a variety of offences, from obscene language to disorderly behaviour and wilful trespass, and was either given suspended sentences, put on probation, or fined.
One court appearance resulted from taking his horse into Invercargill’s Appleby Tavern for a drink. The sign said ‘no dogs’, but nothing about horses. At another appearance, after he had been found living at the Ōtautau rubbish dump in 1981 with only 31 cents in his pocket, the police wanted him committed to Cherry Farm. His lawyer, however, successfully objected, telling the court that Cusack was an articulate and intelligent eccentric who had satisfactorily managed his own affairs since he was last admitted to that institution 12 years before. Cusack also sat in the court’s public gallery from time to time, calling out advice to the judges on how to deal with other cases before them.
Sam’s behaviour had put a strain on his marriage. He divorced Pat in 1979, although the couple had gone their separate ways in the 1960s. Predeceased by Pat in 1986, Sam Cusack died in Wakari Hospital in Dunedin on 14 December 1990, aged 71, and was buried in Invercargill’s Eastern cemetery. His headstone was specially crafted by Invercargill glass artist P. J. Newbury, who had befriended Cusack in his latter years. The toughened, green-glass headstone – reputedly the first glass headstone in New Zealand – and its epitaph, ‘More colourful than a bag of jellybeans’, stood out from the surrounding grey granite faces, as Sam Cusack did in life.