In memory of Owen Wilkes     |     Tributes to Owen Wilkes

Life and death of an activist

4 June 2005

May Bass spreads out the photos on the floor of her Hamilton sitting room. Dozens of photos of her partner, Owen Wilkes.

There's Wilkes in the garden of his bach at Kawhia, working among his hollyhocks and vegetables. In one photo he proudly holds a huge, misshapen kumara, in another he has a brussels sprout of record-breaking proportions. Someone's also cheekily snapped him stripped to his undies, working among his vegetables on a hot summer day.

"That's us naming our boat," says Bass, pointing out one where the pair are raising their wine glasses out on the harbour.

There are many images of the lean, fit Wilkes on tramps with Bass, his partner of 12 years. He moved to Hamilton to live with her in about 1993. In one photo the pair are in a tramping hut, snuggled up in sleeping bags, beaming at the camera.

It's the engaging smile that marks most of the collection, Wilkes with an ever-ready grin, whether he's playing dress-ups as a small boy, or as an older man enjoying a fine mountain view, harvesting his veges, indulging in his famous fire-eating party trick, or playing the fool with friends at his 60th birthday celebration.

This is a man who has friends aplenty, his own patch of paradise on the Kawhia Harbour, a loving partner to grow old with. Plus a reputation in the peace movement and archaeology circles as someone who made a difference.

No man, you'd think, could ask for much more than this at 65 years of age. But this man did.

Owen Wilkes, highly regarded peace researcher and campaigner, tireless worker for global friendship and understanding, wanted to be in charge of his own exit from the world he embraced.

Not for him the vicissitudes of old age, the slow descent, perhaps, into health difficulties and disability. This was a man who would live and die by his own convictions.

"I've always been theoretically opposed to the artificial extension of human life beyond its natural span," he wrote in his final letter. "The natural span of my body and brain is about 60 years so I'm already five years past expiry date, and the time has come to put theory into practice.

"Better to go now than after years of increasing misery, infirmity, muddle-headedness, absentmindedness, etc, etc."

As Bass tells the story, she apologises that given the upheaval in her life she's a bit hazy on the timing of some of Wilkes' recent medical checks. But he was booked for a second hip replacement operation at Waikato Hospital, and in a routine pre-admission check some weeks ago, a heart murmur was discovered.

Wilkes told Bass he'd need more tests on this. "He seemed to play it down," she says, and she had no idea he was concerned. She noted that he began to sort the papers in his office, but he explained it was a cleanout before the hip operation.

On Wednesday, May 11, Wilkes got his test results. He didn't tell Bass, and she didn't even know when he was due to get them. She has subsequently discovered he had a faulty heart valve, which would have had to be attended to before the hip replacement. Some might see this as routine maintenance, but with Wilkes' feelings about his expiry date, Bass says the treatment would have been a "fairly huge thing" for him to consider.

Wilkes headed out to the bach at Kawhia later that Wednesday. This was a departure from routine; Bass and Wilkes lived part of the week in Hamilton, and spent an extended weekend in Kawhia. Wednesday was unusually early for him to go to the coast, too early for Bass who planned to follow later.

"I didn't twig," she says, describing how she's replayed these events constantly in her head.

"It was like, if he's going into hospital (for the hip op) it's another opportunity for him to do some sorting and gardening at Kawhia."

The next day, Thursday, May 12, Owen Ronald Wilkes was found dead in a forest at Kawhia. He had taken his own life, and left May Bass utterly bewildered that she'd never seen it coming.

"I had no hint he was going do to that," she says, in tears on the floor beside the lovely photographs. "He wasn't going to say too much to me because I might twig."

Searching for clues, she instead can only recall recent happy occasions: his 65th birthday celebration on April 19, just three weeks before he died, then her own birthday on May 6, less than a week before he drove to Kawhia. Both times they were out for dinner with friends, and had two great evenings.

"We were very, very, happy."

It was well-known among family and friends that Wilkes suffered from bouts of depression. In the early 1990s, his only child, Koa, had committed suicide at age 21, leaving Wilkes bereft.

But Bass, a textile artist, counsellor, and long-time peace movement worker herself, is convinced her partner's death was not because he was depressed.

"I'm not saying it (depression) didn't play a part. It could have done. But this was more about a conviction." She looks at the photo-spread again: "This is not a depressed man."

His stubborn nature, she says with a half smile, meant their relationship was "not without its ups and downs".

"If he thought something, he was going to see it through. In that respect he wasn't the easiest man to live with. He was a very stubborn man, and really fixed on what he thought was right. This was ultimately borne out by him taking his own life."

If Bass can rationalise, understand even, the events leading up to Wilkes' death, she is struggling with the gap it has left in her life, and what his view on that would have been.

"This is what I don't understand and friends (don't). There is going to be a lot of thinking around that."

Suicide can be selfish, she says. Then the counsellor kicks in: "You have to understand what the head is like when you are contemplating suicide. It's not about others, it's about yourself. You are not thinking about others."

And, she adds, "they don't realise how much they are loved".

Wilkes was like that. Speaking at his funeral in Hamilton on May 17, Bass said: "You were humble, oh so humble. I didn't know till yesterday when looking through your pieces that you had been awarded the Queen's commemoration medal. We have been together for 12 years and you never breathed a word about it. You were so humble that you could never realise just how much people admired you, appreciated you, how much they loved you."

This modest man lived simply, almost frugally, entirely self-sufficient from the Kawhia garden, happy with a $400 Honda City car, a simple bach with no flash trappings.

He would have been astonished, Bass says, by the tributes, sentiments and memorial services that have flowed since his death. She has just returned from a commemoration in Wellington, and another is planned in Christchurch.

Christchurch is Wilkes' hometown; he was born there, the son of a grocer, and developed an early love of the outdoors. "As soon as he could put a backpack on, he was out there," Bass says.

He spent a short time studying science at university, got disillusioned with it, worked on South Island ski-fields, became a beekeeper, an archaeologist at Canterbury Museum, and then peace movement researcher and organiser.

Conservation Department friend and colleague Neville Ritchie, who worked closely with Wilkes after he moved to Hamilton, says Wilkes simply loved his research. Ritchie, the Waikato Conservancy archaeologist, says, "if he didn't know something he went and studied it, and became an expert".

This meticulous research, and his ability to articulate it, made Wilkes a pivotal part of the New Zealand peace movement from the late 1960s through to the early '90s. The tall, bearded man became synonymous with the anti-nuclear ships campaign, and campaigns against the US' worldwide network of surveillance and communication bases.

Wilkes studied, wrote, conducted speaking tours, and earned an international reputation. He was invited to work at peace institutes in Norway, then Sweden, but both appointments led to espionage charges, and he was deported from Sweden.

Wilkes left the peace movement in about 1994, at the same time as Bass. The pair had worked together editing Peacelink magazine, and when that job finished, they cut their ties with the movement. Bass says they both felt the things they had worked for had been accomplished: "We were nuclear free, we were out of Anzus. There was a sense of our work being done."

Long-time friend David Robie, associate professor in the School of Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology, believes Wilkes was the architect of the now mainstream view New Zealanders have of their place in the world as a nuclear-free Pacific country.

"He contributed a lot to New Zealanders having a pride in being a small state that can stand up, say its piece and be independent."

Robie says he was an "amazing character" - warm, with a great sense of humour, a great raconteur, an inspiration to others who worked with him.

In a tribute at Wilkes' funeral, Robie referred to his prodigious memory, describing him as a "walking encyclopedia".

Neville Ritchie, at the Hamilton Doc office, also mentions this.

"Gone are the days when I can turn around and ask him things," he laments.

Wilkes worked with Ritchie as an assistant archaeologist from about 1995 to mid-2002, with much of his efforts centred on Maori sites in the western King Country. On another research tack, Ritchie says Wilkes made a major contribution to the way historic timber structures are treated and preserved in New Zealand.

When Wilkes retired from Doc, he continued his involvement with the department as Waikato filekeeper for the New Zealand Archaeological Association. He made it his mission to upgrade the size and quality of Waikato archaeological records, making a great many site visits.

His contribution was huge, Ritchie says. "He will be sorely missed here".

A seminal photograph among Bass' collection is one taken on a 10-day west coast walk from Awakino to Kawhia, which she and Wilkes did in the early 1990s with Hamilton friend Alan Leadley. Wilkes became enchanted with the area, later becoming a key figure in the Kawhia Harbour Protection Society.

It was probably the place he came to love the most. It was also the place in which he chose to die.

Bass isn't sure what she'll do now. But she knows she won't go back to the bach: "It is too sad. Our life together centred on Kawhia."

Bass did her textile art, Wilkes gardened, they were happy and content there. He had a wonderful ability to appreciate the beauty around him, she says, doing simple things like planting swan plants so they could watch monarch butterflies hatch.

She looks at a photo of them on a tramp around Aotea Harbour with friends, four weeks before Wilkes died, and asks: "When you see those photos, and the time in Kawhia, who would have had an inkling he was going to end his life?"

Denise Irvine

Peace Movement Aotearoa   |   No WARP! Network Opposed to Weapons and Related Production