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Celebrating a Pacific mentor's life

Robert Oliver
Sunday, April 16, 2017

This tribute, on the pioneering New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) leader, Dennis Oliver, was delivered by his eldest son, Robert — the chef, author and TV presenter — at the Wesley Samoan Methodist Church in Hastings.

Mr Oliver Sr is remembered for his inspirational and innovative approach to community development in Fiji in the 1970s. Later, for his service to Samoa, again through the YMCA there, he was accorded a "matai" title for work, including the prevention of youth suicide. Just before his death in New Zealand, last March 22, his family sang to him Fiji's farewell song, "Isa Lei".

IN 2012, dad wrote the last of his four published books, it was the story of his life and was called "Making A Difference".

Tagaloa fa'atautele Dennis Oliver made a huge difference to so many people's lives on the grand adventure that was his life and as his eldest son it is a great honour to pay tribute to him. To sum up a life as remarkable as his in the short time we have here is impossible …. and I'm sure more stories will be shared over a cup of tea later.

Many of you have come a long way, indeed from all over Aotearoa, and we thank you for this. You can be assured, given that this is a Samoan funeral, you won't leave hungry.

Tagaloa fa'atautele Dennis John Oliver was born in Whanganui on the 13th of August 1932, the only son of William and Joyce Oliver and the younger brother of his wonderful sister Laureen.

When dad was five, the family moved to Hawera and this was where he spent his boyhood years. Dad attended Hawera Primary and Hawera High schools and had quite a bit to say about the quality of teachers and the relevance of the education at the time. Even at this age, the young Tagaloa was not short of opinion.

It took him three attempts to get his School Certificate examination and on leaving school he worked in his father's grocery store.

He was a long time member of the Boy Scouts and he described this as "nothing short of monumental". His book is full of great outdoor adventures, including an 800-mile bike journey with two mates around Taranaki, described as wet, cold, exhausting and thoroughly character-building, and this seems to be his first dabble in the leadership that was yet to come. When reflecting on his time with the Scouts he said: "I don't know what I learnt but I use it all the time."

But it was really his mother that had the biggest influence on shaping the young Dennis. She was the original humanitarian and was in the business of building leaders. She instilled the notion of doing good for others into dad. In fact, dad joked that she was always doing good unto others: you could tell the "others" by their hunted look.

Nonetheless, she instilled the "making a difference" mantra into him and this was the theme that most defined his life. Community always came first.

Dad's father was a lay preacher for the Methodist Church and his mother, Joyce, sang in the choir, so it is not surprising that music and the church played a large part in dad's life. He learned the clarinet and regularly entered local competitions along with playing in the Hawera Orchestra.

Dad loved gymnastics and got third place in the national competition. He was chief judge for the NZ Gym Association, and president of the Taranaki Association.

Which didn't leave dad with much time for a private life, but in early 1953 he was set up on a blind date of sorts with a beautiful young girl whom he used to see walking past the store every day on her way to buy lunch for her boss. In his words, he was smitten, and thus began a romance with my mum, Jean, that has lasted nearly 64 years, 61 of them as husband and wife, a truly inspiring relationship.

Most of you know that dad's YMCA life was the foundation of all of his amazing work in the Pacific and here in New Zealand but it started in a very inauspicious way. He describes his first interview with the YMCA, which went like this: "I gave some answers to some fairly stupid questions: How do you make cocoa for 60 boys at a camp, questions about leading groups, and questions to test my Christian convictions. They asked me after the interview to wait outside.

"Even before the door was closed, I heard one of them say in a very loud voice, 'I don't know what we have to talk about, he's the only one who applied'." He got the job.

Dad's first job was as general secretary of the New Plymouth YMCA and he also taught physical education at New Plymouth Boys High where they called him "Skip", so for seven years he worked two full-time jobs. He introduced camps, gymnastics and, all in all, built a vibrant organisation in New Plymouth which culminated in the fundraising and building of the New Plymouth YMCA Stadium which opened in 1967 and is still thriving to this day.

During the Taranaki years, dad ran camps on Mt Taranaki which meant for us kids that we spent three months a year living on the mountain. It was an amazing experience, and dad took both Richard and me to the summit at the ages of 8 and 9. Dad's sister Laureen's son, Jeff, was always with us and really we all grew up as one family. Jeff is another brother to us and Mum often describes him as her other son.

With the big challenges in New Plymouth dealt with, dad's interest turned to personal growth. He spent four months learning about camping programs in Los Angeles and studying at Springfield College, Massachusetts not to mention participating in the largest peace march in the world then, gathering in Washington DC along with half a million anti-Vietnam protestors.

The US experience was life-changing for dad. He was exposed to the idealism and bright new thinking of America in the late 1960s and he came home a different man. When he spoke of these experiences back in New Plymouth he was branded a communist and with this he knew he had outgrown the conservative sentiment in New Zealand at the time.

Mum and her mother joined him in the US and as well as taking his mother-in-law to a strip club in Tijuana, they had a day at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Hawaii. Dad realised that he did not know a single Maori, Pacific Islander or anyone not white, bland and slightly overweight. He jumped at the challenge when the YMCA took over the Suva Youth Club at Marks Park in Fiji.

The family moved to Fiji in 1971 and this was really the beginning of all of our relationship with the Pacific. Dad was charged with designing a program in Fiji based on what the community needed, very different from the gym and camp programs of the YMCA here. Fijians clearly did not need gyms or camps.

This approach was perfect for dad after his time in the US; a process of community consultation began.

For us as kids, going to Fiji was a thrilling adventure. In his book he notes: "Robert found that at Suva Grammar School if you corrected your teachers, you were asked to wait outside to reconsider your future, and Shelley spent most of her time with the Rahim girls in Lami. Richard really became a Fijian boy. One day a YM guy came down from the interior of Viti Levu and said, 'I saw Richard this morning, he was swimming across the river with a cane knife to tend to his garden'."

There was a lot of adapting to life here and we, of course, missed some of the efficiencies of New Zealand.

Dad's letter home on August 15th, 1971 read: "Suva Electric have had our pop-up toaster for repair for five weeks now and we have been in to pick it 12 times. Their repertoire of excuses is so impressive that I am tempted to go in and applaud."

I only learned years later of the financial struggles mum and dad had in the early days in Fiji. Social workers were not well paid and it is a great testament to my mother that we kids, unaware of this, look back on our Fiji days as some of the best in our lives.

The YMCA of Fiji went on to become one of the most forward-thinking and dynamic community organisations the Pacific had ever seen. At its peak, it had 30 staff members working in over 100 villages as well as in Suva, serving over 10,000 members in all sorts of community-led programs that included carpentry schools to serve Suva's building boom, outboard motor schools to keep folks in the interior connected to commercial opportunity, an awesome program taking care of Suva's shoeshine boys, the development of village-based agriculture to supply local markets and hotels and more and more.

Dad's work was always about what the community needed. It was very different from the typical palagi approach that basically said "if you're more like us, you'll be better off". This was development on Fijian terms for Fijian people, and was revolutionary at the time.

Fiji formed the basis for a similar plan in Samoa, so after a brief stint in Wellington, the Pacific called again and this time mum, dad and Shelley moved to the treasured islands of Samoa.

They settled in Puipa'a in a house that dad said "was so close to the lagoon, that if you lay in bed with a fishing line you could probably catch your own lunch".

Shelley enrolled in Samoa College and even though school hours were 7.30am until 1.30pm, she was rarely home on time as she was often held back on detention.

On her first day in class for the fifth form, the teacher went around whacking each student on their head with a cane. When he got to Shelley, she told him if he did that to her, she'd take him to court. You can see why I am so proud of my sister!

The approach to YMCA work in Samoa was fundamentally the same as Fiji but naturally with a new and unique set of local challenges.

Along with village agriculture programs, a carpentry school, a youth enterprise program, and some work dedicated to empowering women matai, what came to dad's attention very quickly was that Samoa, at the time, had a very high rate of youth suicide. The problem lingered sadly in the shadows of Samoan society and in a way it needed the tenacity of an outsider to create ways to address the situation.

Dad developed an educational strategy and publicity campaign to empower local youth; they often simply needed their voices to be heard. The results were stunning, the suicide rates dropped by more than half and to this day this program lives on.

The highlight of dad's life in Samoa of course was the conferring of his matai title in honour of his service to Samoa. In many ways it was the highlight of his life.

Coming back to New Zealand in 1982, mum and dad came to Hawkes Bay for six months and have never left. Dad dove head first into reinventing the Hastings YMCA and, working his magic once again, developed programs that the community quite simply needed. He was to be the executive director of the Hastings YMCA for 15 years.

Soon after they arrived here, the Tomoana works closed and dad foresaw what a calamitous event for the region this was with thousands suddenly unemployed.

He quickly wrote the first prototype for a private training course focused on job-seeking skills, the first in New Zealand, basically transferring the models he created in the Pacific to work with tagata whenua here in Hawkes Bay … and I am sure other people will speak to this.

He was joined at the YMCA here by Shelley who still follows dad's example, working tirelessly for youth and Pasifika communities ensuring they have access to resource and opportunity.

At the age of 40 dad started studying and over the years, the boy who failed School Cert three times, completed two Master's Degrees, published five books, won numerous civic awards, was a Paul Harris fellow of the Rotary club and served as the president of the HB Massey Alumni, being honoured in 2012 by a distinguished alumni award from Massey University.

Dad's life was enriched through having all of his grandchildren grow up around him and he has been a very special part of their lives. For Willa especially, dad was both her poppa and her dad.

In retirement, along with the Rotary Club, he started Havelock Community Patrol, loved his time working with his mates at the Karituwhenua Reserve and, of course, worked with you, the Samoan Methodist Church.

Mum and dad's relationship with this church has meant the world to them. Mum said that when they found you, they felt they had come home, and I am sure Iakopo will speak to this part of Tagaloa's life. We as a family wish to express our deep gratitude to the Samoan Church for everything you have done for us as a family.

So how was it growing up the son of this man? Well, a bit daunting.

You see, dad was much more than a father to me; he was my mentor, my hero. He gave me the gift of the way that I think, and that defines my own work. It is something timeless, priceless, eternal.

As kids, we resented him being so devoted to his work and we sometimes felt we took second place. Looking back, I see we were being schooled too — schooled in making a difference. Dad was always proud of all of us and we are so proud to be his children.

In one of the last emails he wrote me, he told me to stay true to my course, as I was, in his words, on the right side of the future. Mum and dad always had our back, always believed in us. With that as your base, I believe you can fly

Of course, it is my mother to whom the biggest thanks must be given. She held the family together, she formed the foundation of love and kindness that made it all work for dad and for us as a family. On his last morning, when he opened his eyes and saw my mother standing there, he smiled and said: "Here's my sweetheart."

We were all with him when he passed, music once again back in dad's life as Shelley led us in singing to him as he died.

We are very grateful to the staff at Hastings Memorial Hospital who tended to dad, especially his nurse Matimati, and to Natasha and the team at PD dialysis.

Legacy is defined in many ways, often in buildings built, wars won, institutions founded, policies enacted.

But for me, the truly great leaders, the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, legacy is something that is left in the people whom they affect, the social movements they inspire, the communities they enrich, the mind-sets they ignite. This speaks to me of my father.

I circle back to dad's last book "Making a Difference". In the preface, he writes: It has been my privilege to have touched on the lives of thousands of people in New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa through the absolutely wonderful staff of the YMCAs there."

Dad's life is summed up well for so many by this message I received from Fa'amatuainu Tino Pereira who worked for dad in Samoa and is now the head of the Pacific Business Trust here in Aoteraoa: "Talofa Robert. My heartfelt condolences to you, Jean and the family for such a monumental loss. As you know, Dennis was my first palagi mentor, and the person who paved the way for so much of my early leadership development in Samoa.

"He towered above all in his commitment and tenacity to forge a better and more enlightened pathway for Pacific communities in his many roles as development guru, leadership mentor, humanitarian and visionary. He has fought a great fight, he has run a great race, he has kept the faith."

Rest in peace, Tagaloa.

* Robert Oliver is an international chef, author and TV presenter. Views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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