In memory of Owen Wilkes     |     Tributes to Owen Wilkes

A principled man of peace

21 May 2005

Peace activist Owen Wilkes was a man who lived - and died - according to his principles.

His views on the environment meant he lived in as self-sufficient a way as possible, including growing all his own vegetables.

His Green philosophy also meant he wanted to return to the earth without expending more of its resources than needed.

Hence, when the 65-year-old former Christchurch man learned he was suffering from serious heart trouble he decided his time on earth had come to a close.

"I've always been theoretically opposed to the extension of human life beyond its natural span," Wilkes wrote in an open letter found with him after his death on May 12. "The natural span of my body and brain was about 60 years, so I'm already five years past expiry date. The time has come to put theory into practice ..."

His partner, May Bass, told The Press of her huge respect for Wilkes. "Mainly it was his generosity to the world, because he never took anything more from the earth than he needed to live."

The couple met through politics, and had lived together in the Waikato for 12 years.

Despite his passion for archaeology, for most New Zealanders, the bearded visage of Owen Wilkes was emblematic of the peace movement. From the 1960s to the 1980s he was New Zealand's best-known activist, battling against nuclear ship visits, American bases, and for many other causes.

Christchurch man Murray Horton worked alongside Wilkes in organisations such as Cafca (Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa) and the Anti Bases Campaign, both of which Wilkes helped found.

"He was an absolutely unique asset to the peace movement, not only in this country but regionally and globally," Horton said. "I fired out an all-points bulletin via email to people all around the world after his death and I've been getting stuff back as recently as five minutes ago from countries as diverse as Australia, Norway, Japan, Thailand, you name it."

Wilkes became politicised reading newspapers pulled out of the trash while working as a dustman.

"He got so engrossed in reading these papers that apparently during the Vietnam War he fell off the truck one time," Horton said.

He and Wilkes shared adventures in many countries as they campaigned worldwide for peace, including a 1978 trip to Norway looking for spy bases, an expedition which briefly saw Wilkes imprisoned. Wilkes remained in Scandinavia for five years, and upon his return acknowledged some of his allegations about the bases were wrong.

"He was a man of enormous personal integrity," Horton said. "He argued completely on the basis of fact; he wasn't interested in rhetoric."

Wilkes was also an emotional man. His daughter, Koa, died at the age of 21, a loss which left him completely devastated.

There was more to Wilkes than politics, Horton added. His friends included the late artist Tony Fomison - the pair had worked on archaeological digs together.

"He had all sorts of sides to him that were not at all apparent from the public side. He was a great lover of classical music, ballet and opera, and he had the most amazing party trick of fire breathing."

Department of Conservation Waikato conservancy archaeologist Neville Ritchie was one of the first people to learn Wilkes's role in the peace movement was over.

"He came into my office in 1995 and announced that all the major objectives of the peace movement had been achieved and he was bowing out of that area and wanted to get back into one of his old loves, archaeology," Ritchie said. "He was a great researcher who enjoyed fieldwork and the investigative side of archeology."

He spent five years working part-time for DOC, and later continued his relationship with the department through his role as Waikato file-keeper for the NZ Archaeological Association.

Wilkes' life will be remembered on July 4 at a memorial meeting organised by Murray Horton.

Mike Houlahan

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