The totara tree has fallen in the forest of Tane, is an appropriate proverb to describe the life and death of Dr Joe Williams, MBChB, MPH, QSO, QSM according to Minister Hon Aupito William Sio.
Speaking at Dr Williams memorial service last Thursday at Auckland’s Vodafone Events Centre, Minister Sio says the death of the former Prime Minister for the Cook Islands, medical leader and patron of the Pasifika Medical Association (PMA) is a huge loss for the Pacific community.
“A totara tree is a special tree and belongs to the group of chiefly trees - Dr Joe Williams is a man who has left a legacy of service to his people.”
Dr Williams died aged 85 on September 4 after contracting COVID-19. He was buried at a small, private service under alert level two restrictions, and in Rarotonga, he was hailed as a national hero during a state memorial service.
With restrictions now eased in Auckland, a public memorial service and community celebration of Dr Williams' life was organised and attended by Dr Williams’ family and a wide cross section of the community.
This included Minister Sio, along with Hon Jenny Salesa and Hon Poto Williams, Alfred Ngaro, Dr Robert Woonton, church ministers, councillors, former All Blacks legend and Pasifika Futures Director Sir La’auli Michael Jones and Cook Islands High Commissioner HE Elizabeth Wright-Koteka.
Musical tributes were performed by the staff of the PMA Group (Etu Pasifika and Pasifika Futures) and the Pacific Congregation Choir from Auckland’s Apostolic Church.
The patron of the Cook Islands Development Agency New Zealand former MP Alfred Ngaro says the circumstances of Williams' passing illustrated his courage in the healthcare sector.
"Part of his story for why he went back to the Cook Islands in 1964 as a young general surgeon was to take on the role as superintendent of health.
“What he faced was a significant end of time where the end of colonial rule under New Zealand of 64 years and then to take over, what he said was the run down was challenging and often the health conditions of his people, it had a dramatic effect, so part of what he was left to be able to work through is to build the health system that would then meet some of the critical needs the patients had as well.
"Dr Joe Williams could have withdrawn himself from the frontline, he was in his 80s and was part of the vulnerable group for the virus, but he led from the front and showed that we need not be afraid.”
The official memorial service was followed by a meal and a community celebration tribute of music and dance.