Having the last word

By Julia Proverbs

It is a well-known fact that Peter Wyatt doesn't take no for an answer. His persistence and tenacity have seen him tap the wallets of some of New Zealand's richest to help some of society's most disadvantaged.

And now, with the same dogged determination, he faces his biggest challenge yet - dying.

Four weeks ago Peter, 75, who has battled cancer for 16 years, was told by his oncologist that he did not have much time left.

As if drawing up a mental business plan, he asked: "How long?"

He was given, at best, 10 weeks to live. At worst, four.

It is four weeks to the day post-prognosis, and Peter looks well.

"I feel like a bit of a fraud at the moment," he says, propped up in an armchair at his Gate Pa home.

Tucked into the side of the chair is an iPad and on the table next to him a phone.

"He's attached," jokes Anne, his wife of 18 years.

"I've had things to do and I've still got a few," says Peter. "I'm still going into the office most days for a couple of hours a day. I'm in the process of tidying up and making sure things are done."

Making sure things get done is what Peter does. "I'm known for the fact I don't take no for an answer, because that's how you get things done," he says. "You do have to be persistent."

"Persistent and bloody-minded," Anne chips in from across the room.

"Shut up," he laughs, warmly. Then, on a more serious note, he adds: "The person who's made a lot of what I've done possible is sitting over there ... I know I wouldn't have done it without her."

Peter is dressed comfortably in a beige top and trousers, a deviation from the formal attire in which he is commonly seen.

The sun is streaming into the room and there are pink roses everywhere - paintings of pink roses on the walls, pink roses in the garden outside and even woven into the lounge suite upholstery.

"I love pink roses," says Anne.

"She has over 100 different varieties growing in the garden," adds Peter.

They each have two children from previous marriages - Hilary, David, Carl and Simonne - who have given them 10 biological grandchildren, but the neighbourhood kids account for another dozen or so "surrogates".

"Children are always coming to the door to tell us about the day. When they graze their knees they come to Nana Anne," says Peter.

They live in a slice of suburban paradise. In this setting it's hard to imagine this unassuming man of modest means rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.

But his passion for people has enabled him to cross the divide of wealth.

Sir Michael Fay, one of New Zealand's wealthiest men, will be speaking at Peter's funeral at his request.

"I asked Michael if he would be one of the speakers when it got to that stage and he said yes, he'll come from anywhere in the world to do that."

Sir Michael also hosted a "This is Your Life" event for Peter last weekend at Trinity Wharf, which was attended by about 50 people.

"He said, 'Something I really don't like about funerals is people get up and say things they should have said when you were there.' He offered to host people who had been significant in my life. It was supposed to be two hours. It turned out to be just under four," says Peter.

Peter's association with Sir Michael began, characteristically, with a good deed.

Sir Michael's business partner, David Richwhite, was sitting opposite Peter at Auckland Airport and when he got up to leave he unwittingly left a stopwatch on his seat. Peter picked it up and ran after him.

"I guess right at the heart of what I've been able to do is recognise that relationships is what it's all about," says Peter.

He later used that association to ask for a meeting with Sir Michael to discuss funding for the New Zeal programme, to help at-risk youth. Sir Michael's first answer was no.

"After a little persuasion he said I could have half an hour. It ended up 4 hours. It was the beginning of an incredible association. He provides significant sums of money towards New Zeal and lets us take groups to Mercury Island. I've seen a different side to Michael to the general media persona," says Peter.

Sir Michael is one of three main benefactors with whom Peter has forged alliances in his quest to help others. The other two are Tauranga property investor Des Ferrow and The Warehouse founder Sir Stephen Tindall.

"They have given enormous amounts of money, but there has also been an awful lot of firms around town who have given money, resources and made professional skills available," says Peter.

"My role has been joining the dots and helping the community realise there are needs they can help meet. It's giving me, at the moment, a great deal of joy."

It's difficult to succinctly sum up Peter's many achievements, but helping people at a grassroots level goes some way to describing his significant contribution.

London-born and public-school educated, with post-graduate qualifications from Stamford and Harvard universities, he began his working life with one of the first commercial computer companies in Britain.

After 20 years he left behind a successful career in IT to work with people.

It began when he was asked to take up the role of director of the Public Service Commission in Fiji.

"That got me into people. That job was all about people," he says.

"When I came back I decided that I wanted to do things with people and I have had the great privilege of doing that for 21 years. It's not often you get that opportunity."

At a glimpse, in those 21 years he established the Compass Foundation, Tauranga Employment Trust, Tauranga Arts Festival, Acorn Foundation and the New Zeal Foundation.

He also re-established the Bethlehem Foundation, serving as its chief executive for six years.

Some of his fundraising ideas have been so inspired they have gained national acclaim, such as the Watties Cans Film Festival which started 19 years ago with one cinema on the North Shore and is now supported by cinemas throughout the country, having raised two million cans of food to date.

In 2004 he was awarded Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the community.

Sir Michael says just about everything Peter has been associated with has been community-orientated.

"That's where he's spent his time and energy, and that's been his passion," he says.

"The community benefits enormously from people like Peter Wyatt ... he's done an awful lot more than most people."

New Zeal general manager Nari Hann, who has worked with Peter for the past two years, says his persistence has allowed New Zeal to grow and develop to be the organisation that it is.

"He's resourced us well through that persistent nature of his. He is a fantastic mentor. His knowledge of the community sector and community organisations is outstanding," she says.

"I've worked in the community my whole working career and I've probably learnt the most about managing a community organisation in the last two years while working alongside Peter."

Bethlehem College principal Eoin Crosbie describes Peter as a modern-day Robin Hood.

Through the Bethlehem Foundation, Peter's work has enabled students to attend the college through scholarships, funded sport and other extracurricular activities.

"He's really been a person who is able to make connections in order to help and enable initiatives to take place. His networking capability is enormous. One of his greatest attributes is communicating opportunities," says Mr Crosbie.

Lawyer and Acorn Foundation chairman Bill Holland says Peter is a "wonderful social entrepreneur".

"I give full credit to him for bringing to Tauranga the idea which led to the Acorn Foundation being established. He always thinks outside the square and is a great man for getting the job done."

Peter believes his desire to help others comes from his parents - his father was a Salvation Army minister - and his Christian faith.

"My parents had a similar level of commitment to people. One of my early memories is the phone going at 2am. It was the managing director of one of the big manufacturing companies in Britain. His son had committed suicide and the person he rang was my Dad," he recalls fondly.

"Being a leader also means to serve. It's a lesson it would be good if an awful lot of people learnt, because service is rewarding."

Peter regards the last four weeks as "an enormous privilege".

"There has been more laughter in this house in the last few weeks than there has been for 18 months," says Peter.

People from many of the organisations he has been involved in have visited, phoned and written letters.

The most touching have been those from people whom he had no idea he had influenced. "It has enabled me to have a 'well done' while I'm still here," he says. "It's made me realise what I've tried to do was worth being done."

It is not the first time Peter has stared death in the face. Sixteen years ago, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, he was told he had five weeks to live.

"He had been very unwell and had a bad cough and he wouldn't go to the doctor, like most men," says Anne.

"I said, 'If you don't go to the doctor today, don't bother to come home'."

Peter says: "I went to the doctor who sent me to the radiologist and he called for an ambulance. I phoned Anne and said I'm not coming home tonight."

"He was lying in bed and he said, 'I can't die yet. I've still got too much to do.' He didn't, and he did," says Anne.

A few days later at Waikato Hospital he was told that although his prognosis was not good there was a treatment they could try, but they would need to begin immediately.

It worked, and it was nine years before he needed further treatment.

Since then he has had various chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other treatments, but has soldiered on regardless.

"I still got up at 6am and went to work at 6.30am every morning, even some days after chemotherapy. Looking back, I'm not quite sure how," he says.

"The pluses to having cancer are you don't have to shave and you don't have to get your hair cut," he adds with a smile.

In January this year, Peter had his fourth and final treatment.

"By May I was back in trouble. Inside me, I've known for the last 18 months. And, so, technically, I have six more weeks to go."

But, again, he is not taking no for an answer. "I saw my oncologist last week and he said, 'I'm not going to be 16 years out but you're looking better than I expected. I think you might push the outer limit out'.

"There's something I've been asked to do in March that matters a lot to me. Even if I'm in a wheelchair I'm doing it," he says.

However, Peter is not unrealistic. So he is making sure that when the time comes everything is as it should be.

One thing Peter hates is a badly organised funeral, so he has organised his own.

Bethlehem College's Animoso choir will be singing and, as well as Sir Michael, he has asked Mr Crosbie and Bill Holland to speak.

"Anne says she is speaking, too. I guess I don't have anything to say about that," he grins.

"And I'm writing some words. A friend of ours is going to read them. Those will be the last. I will have the last say," he says, looking pleased with himself.

Peter Wyatt

  • Established new community and family service centres for the Salvation Army in North Shore and Tauranga.

  • Assisted in the work of Tauranga Charitable Trust.

  • Established the Compass Foundation, which later included the Historic Village.

  • Re-established Turning Point Trust and served as its secretary.

  • Established the Tauranga Employment Trust.

  • Established the Acorn Foundation.

  • Established and chaired the Tauranga Arts Festival for nine years.

  • Established the Kidney Kids (BOP) Parental Support Group.

  • Mentored the now thriving school, Waipa Christian Trust.

  • Served as the community representative of the benefit review committee of the Ministry of Social Development.

  • Re-established and served for more than six years as CEO of Bethlehem Foundation.

  • Through the joint Bethlehem Foundation and Bay of Plenty Times, Photo Auction raised funds for Merivale Kindergarten, Homes of Hope, IDEA, Kidney Kids and Growing Through Grief.

  • Established Parenting Matters.

  • Assisted Waipuna Hospice.

  • Helped re-establish Community Services Trusts throughout New Zealand.

  • Founded The Rotary Club of Tauranga Sunrise.

  • Established and chaired the New Zeal Foundation.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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