Haere e te Ao Hou!
In Memoriam: Hoani Waititi
The telephone rang. My three-year-old son listened to it and said: ‘I suppose that's John Waititi. Is he coming to see us?’
No, son, not today and not tomorrow or any day, ever again.
John Waititi is dead and the sorrow of it twists the hearts of all who knew and loved him. And those who knew and loved him must literally number thousands of people, of all ages, in every walk of life.
How many homes are there like mine where a little child would run laughing to the door as the red Valiant pulled into the drive? How many homes are there where men and women, young and old alike, would throw open their doors for him with welcome on their faces and in their hearts?
Perhaps there is some consolation in the knowledge that the loss is deeply and so widely felt, that in mourning and in remembering we draw closer one to another.
On the morning of September 30 I sat at my desk and typed the saddest sentence I can remember writing in close on 20 years of work as a newspaperman. It read: ‘Mr Hoani Retimana Waititi, well known Maori education officer, died in Auckland this morning, aged 39.’
Then suddenly the keys blurred and the mind numbed and no more words came.
But there is really no need to seek fine phrases to describe John Waititi's life of service. Merely to list the simple facts is enough.
John was born at Cape Runaway in 1926, the youngest child of a well known family of that district. His father was Te Kuaha (“Dick”) Waititi and his mother Kirimatao Heremia Waititi. Her family name was Kerei.
John's grandfather on his father's side was Te Manihera, a leader of his people in his day and an authority on the learning of other days. He was often consulted by Elsdon Best.
John went to school at Cape Runaway and then was a pupil at St. Stephen's School and Te Aute College. Later he studied at Auckland University where he gained a B.A. degree.
He was little more than a boy when he joined the Air Force in 1943. He served in New Zealand and then obtained a transfer to the Army, joining the Maori Battalion in Italy. It was there that I first met him. He went on to Japan from Italy with the New Zealand Army unit and I came home and it was some years before we met again.
When John was discharged in 1946 he attended the Auckland Teachers' College for two years. He spent 1949 as a teacher at Te Kaha Maori District High School and at Nuhaka Maori School. From 1949 to 1957 he taught at St. Stephen's School, leaving there to become a specialist teacher in Maori studies, particularly of the Maori language.
This was a period of rewarding activity. He visited many schools and lectured for the Auckland University's adult education centre. In this time he worked on methods of teaching Maori which culminated in the publication of his textbooks, called appropriately ‘Te Rangatahi’.
His association with the schools was very close and extended into spheres other than language teaching. It would seem, indeed, that to many of his pupils—and other staff members too—his relationship was more like that of a brother than simply a teacher. Queen Victoria School and St Stephen's were very close to his heart—as were all the Maori schools—and to them, his loss was as that of a greatly loved brother.
His post with the Education Department after leaving St Stephens was that of Maori language officer. Later he was appointed assistant officer for Maori education. Both these posts carried New Zealand-wide responsibilities and so John became very widely known. His immediate superiors, Mr R. Bradly, now Auckland regional superintendent of education, and Mr D. Jillett, former officer for Maori education, found in him a competent, cheerful and dedicated assistant, immensely hard-working and enthusiastic.
The tragedy of his early death is all the more poignant because it came only several months after that of Mr Jillett, a man of deep understanding of Maori life and educational problems and a person whom John—and all who knew him—held in respect and affection.
John was an enthusiastic sportsman, playing rugby, tennis, table tennis, golf, softball and bowls. He represented Auckland at softball and table tennis. He was a New Zealand tennis umpire and was associated with the administration of Maori rugby in Auckland.
He had a deep interest and considerable knowledge of historical matters, which was reflected in his membership of the Auckland regional committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. His knowledge of the background of Maori life was shown in his membership of the Polynesian Society, the Education Department's Committee on the Maori Language, and the Anthropology and Maori race section of the Auckland Institute and Museum, of which body he served a term as chairman.
He was deeply interested in welfare matters. He was a vice-president of the Auckland Boystown Police and Citizens' Committee and for the past seven years conducted a club for Maori inmates of Auckland prison. Of all his work, the section I admired most was this utterly selfless devotion to these men in prison. There were almost tears of joy in his voice when he rang me one morning not long after the trouble at Auckland prison to say he had received word from “his boys” that none of them had been involved.
Their moving tribute to him was published in the October issue of the New Zealand Maori Council's newsletter.
John was patron of the New Zealand Federation of Maori Students, co-chairman of the Maori Education Foundation's Auckland committee, president of the Mangere Marae Society and an executive member of the Akarana Marae Society.
All worthy Maori causes could claim his support. He was a member of the Anglican committee which organised the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Samuel Marsden's first sermon, and also assisted the Auckland Maori Catholic Society in its move to establish a centre in Auckland.
He was associated with and often initiated campaigns to raise funds to assist Maori sportsmen and students. Among those he helped were the tennis champion Ruia Morrison, the golfers Sherill Chapman and Walter Godfrey, the table tennis player Neti Davis, the artist Ralph Hotere and a Rotary scholar Bill Tawhai.
John gave radio broadcasts from time to time and featured in two notable television interviews.
This is a very impressive list of achievements for a man who had not reached the age of 40. But revealing as it is, it gives no more a picture of the John Waititi whom we
knew and loved than the length, breadth and weight of a rose give of its beauty, colour and fragrance.
He was a man who gave himself entirely to the service of others. In him there was not a touch of self-pride, vanity, selfishness or ambition for position, power or wealth. Every man was his brother and in every place that he went he was at home.
When he died after so short a life, this boy from a small, comparatively remote Maori community had accomplished more than thousands do in their lifetimes.
In trying to analyse his life's work, I found that it might be grouped in this way, not necessarily in order of importance:
The education of Maori children and adults.
The preservation of Maoritanga, in particular the language.
The welfare of his people, particularly those in trouble and need.
The interpretation of the Maori to the Pakeha.
The encouragement of healthy sporting activity.
The application of Christian principles to the work of life.
In the 20 years I have known John, I have been privileged to work with him in some of these activities. I have been with him in many parts of the North Island, as well as in other countries of the world. I have sat on committees with him, spoken at public meetings with him, argued with him at conferences and on panels, driven him hundreds of miles, have been inspired by his dedication, his tolerance, his happiness which welled from a warm heart full of love for his fellows.
I have recently heard him spoken of as a brilliant man. I do not think this is true. Rather he was highly intelligent, well educated and extremely hard working. His greatest gift was not the brilliance of his mind. It was his abilitity to be a friend of high and low, rich and poor, Maori and Pakeha because of his utter sincerity.
He valued the friendship accorded him by great and important people but valued equally the confidence of men serving prison sentences. I have seen him in Government House, I have been with him when he visited Auckland prison. His manner was no different in either
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place. He was in the flesh the Biblical character who was without guile.
At some stage or other after his death, thousands came to pay their respects. The greatest in the land and the most humble mourned for him for all knew that Death had struck the Maori people one of his cruellest blows.
Perhaps it is true that no man is indispensable but it is equally true that no man is ever really replaced. Others rise to do the work but they do it in different ways. We will not see another John Waititi but it is inconceivable that there will not be many, many more men and women fitted to carry on where he laid down his burden.
The lesson of John Waititi's life is simple. It is this. Work for your fellow men. Work for love of them. And work until you die.