Nominees for 2009 New Zealander of the Year

By Vaimoana Tapaleao, Catherine Masters, Phil Taylor

Abby Wutzler & Maxwell Wilson warned other tourists in Samoa about the tsunami that was about to hit. Photos / Mark Mitchell, Supplied
Abby Wutzler & Maxwell Wilson warned other tourists in Samoa about the tsunami that was about to hit. Photos / Mark Mitchell, Supplied

The following people were nominees for the 2009 New Zealander of the Year:

* Abby Wutzler & Maxwell Wilson
* Dame Anne Salmond
* Paul Holmes
* Al Rowland
* Deb Leask
* Mike & Conor O'Leary
* Peter Yealands
* Roger Levie
* Toesulu Maea Brown

Abby Wutzler & Maxwell Wilson

CLEVER CHILDREN WHO WARNED TOURISTS THAT A TSUNAMI WAS ABOUT TO HIT

Two Kiwi kids who had to run for their lives, when the tsunami struck Samoa in September, were also credited with saving lives.

Abby Wutzler, 10, from Wellington and Maxwell Wilson, 12, from Albany were both presented with awards for calling the alarm and warning other tourists.

The children had been holidaying with their families at the Litia Sini Beach Resort at Lalomanu, the worst affected area in Samoa, when the earthquake struck.

Abby and Maxwell were each presented with a certificate from the New Zealand Civil Defence.

Civil Defence head John Hamilton presented Abby's certificate, saying "the way you recognised the signs of the tsunami, and acted as quickly as you did, helped save your family and others on the beach that morning."

Abby told the Herald it was "pretty cool" to be called a hero, but she thought everyone was a hero that day. She had seen the sea receding and knew what was happening because she had studied tsunamis at school.

She ran up and down the beach screaming at tourists that a tsunami was coming then ran for her life.

"I remember running and looking behind and seeing trees falling and then I looked in front of me again because I didn't want to get off track."

She had been frightened her family might be dead, but in the end her family were safe.

Maxwell's story is similar. He saw the water going dead calm then start draining back out.

Max gave a speech at Albany Junior High School which is now on YouTube.

He realised there was an earthquake as he was walking to his fale. He ran to the beach, thinking in the back of his mind "tsunami."

When he realised the water was receding, he shouted for everyone to run, determined to get people out of their fales, then headed for the cliff.

His dad and sister were following and he heard his dad yelling "go, go, go". About halfway there he looked back and saw a wall of water coming and climbed faster.

"People were screaming in terror, I saw a lot of people getting sucked out."

Later, he and his family saw many badly wounded people. "Lots of people died in front of us," he told his school.

- Catherine Masters

Dame Anne Salmond

GLOBAL RECOGNITION FOR HER BRILLIANT RESEARCH

Dame Anne Salmond was modest as ever this year when she was honoured by one of the world's most respected scientific bodies.

Dame Anne, a distinguished professor of anthropology with Auckland University and author of historical blockbusters, was elected a foreign associate in the American National Academy of Sciences for excellence in scientific research.

This followed an honour the year before when she was elected a corresponding fellow of the British Academy for humanities and social sciences.

She is the only New Zealander known to have achieved both caps.

Dame Anne spent a fair part of a Weekend Herald's interview explaining that, if not for the good fortune to meet key mentors in her first year of university, she might never have succeeded in her career, which has now spanned more than four decades and has focused on Maori and the Pacific.

The man who nominated her for the American honour, retired anthropology professor Roger Green and one of her mentors, attempted to explain the significance of the honour - it is so hard to get, it is almost impossible for a New Zealander, he said.

But an email from American NAS members to Dame Anne perhaps said it all: "Let us congratulate you on being a foreign associate in the National Academy of Sciences - the highest honour you can earn in the USA.

"Your brilliant work on the Maori did it. We are thrilled Dr Salmond, for you and for us."

Her fascination with anthropology began when she won an AFS scholarship at 16 and went to America, where she "sort of" met JFK (he addressed the students) and spent a month travelling by bus meeting other students from around the world..

She found she liked people from different places and wanted to learn more.

She came home, decided to learn Maori and her career took off. She hung out with activists and met Maori elders, the late Eruera and Amiria Stirling, who would immerse her in their world. Her The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, about Captain Cook in the South Seas, won a Montana Medal for non-fiction. This year she released Aphrodite's Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti.

A book on Bounty commander William Bligh is next.

- Catherine Masters

Paul Holmes

FOR HELPING SMASH DOWN BARRIERS IN THE WAR ON P

For years we knew Paul Holmes from the television, or the radio over breakfast. This year we have heard a different Holmes - a frontline advocate in the battle against P.

He made a documentary, Chasing the Ghost, about the destructive impact of methamphetamine, spoke and wrote passionately as an ambassador for the Stellar Trust, an anti-P charity and, closer to home, endured discomfort as his daughter Millie Elder's public battles with the drug went through the courts again. "When our family's difficulties became public I heard from so many other people. I got harrowing email after email. They were saying this drug is everywhere. It doesn't discriminate on age, social standing, where you come from."

After Millie's arrest, Holmes felt that he could use his profile to speak out and possibly make a difference "but certainly create more awareness of the ravages of P."

Holmes says he took up the fight "because of the size of the enemy and the power of the drug. It destroys talent, conscience, human feelings and relationships".

He also got involved "because I came to realise how widespread it is and how evil the people are behind it making money from others' lives".

"In our house we call it the invisible drug or the terrorist drug. Families are at its mercy. You simply don't know it's taken up quarters in your house until it's too late. That's the awful thing about it."

The broadcaster says he is in the fight against P for the long haul and was heartened when the Government took steps against the drug.

"For 10 years we really did nothing. Now if we can stop the precursors at the border we have a chance."

So far as users go, Holmes says no one can do anything until the person using the P wants to do something themselves.

"In the meantime you just have to watch and endure."

He is hopeful: "What is really going to threaten the P trade is if we keep pointing out to kids how uncool the drug is. If we can go into the schools and raise awareness then we might have an impact on those who haven't tried it. It's not too late."

- Andrew Stone

Al Rowland

SCIENTIST PROVED DAMAGE TO NUCLEAR WAR VETS

Al Rowland, a retired scientist from Palmerston North, has a lot to feel good about.

His work on chromosome damage has given the hope of compensation to thousands of men, from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, who were used as guinea pigs in British nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific in the 1950s.

These troops, some as young as 15, witnessed the explosions and sailed through the aftermath.

They believe the early death, illness and psychological trauma which has trailed them since was a result of the tests.

In 2000, Rowland was asked by the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans' Association to conduct a study to see if there had been genetic damage in veterans.

He agreed. He would take advantage of new tests which were available, especially one which looked at translocations between different chromosomes - essentially, the swapping of genetic material. Translocations show evidence of genetic damage and there is a strong link between finding them and cancer.

Rowland found them in startling numbers, and his work went on to be described as "pivotal" by a British High Court judge.

The judge said it was Rowland's work which tipped his decision to finally give former servicemen the go-ahead to seek compensation.

While Rowland's colleague, neuropsychologist John Podd, studied psychological impact, Rowland did the science.

The results were stunning, Rowland said, but he was a bit nervous because he knew the study was going to be politically "very hot".

When we spoke to him, he wouldn't be drawn into politics - but he did say it was time for the politicians to put politics aside and acknowledge something dreadful had happened to the men.

- Catherine Masters

Deb Leask

WOMAN WHOSE CAMPAIGN CHANGED REAL ESTATE

For too long the real estate industry put its own people ahead of its clients and consequently failed to stamp on dubious practice and weed out rogues.

A new law, which came into force last month, is a significant step towards remedying that and restoring public confidence.

The impetus for change was provided by Deb Leask, a victim of shoddy practice.

An agent tried to knock down the price of two Hawkes Bay townhouses Leask was selling to almost half their asking price to buy the properties himself.

The industry cleared the agent of any illegality while the firm he worked for pleaded guilty and paid the maximum penalty available under the self-regulation mechanism - a mere $750.

It was a serious ethical breach, punished with a sanction so light as to be scarcely noticeable for the offender and his company.

Leask, a straight-talking grandmother of three who lives in Queensland, told the Herald last year that the industry had thought they could fob her off. "They thought I'd go away," she said. "The institute is not competent to investigate its own members."

That's the message she took to Clayton Cosgrove, the associate Justice Minister of the day. Cosgrove agreed with Leask and the wheels were set in motion that resulted in the Real Estate Agents Act 2008.

Cosgrove put the industry on notice to come up with more realistic suggestions for self-regulation or face the consequences.

When the industry responded with suggestions for minimal changes, the Labour Government introduced tougher measures.

The Real Estate Agents Act now incorporates a clear code of conduct and establishes a truly independent authority, headed by a Queen's Counsel, to deal fairly and firmly with complaints.

It also increases the compensation limit to a respectable $100,000 and, importantly, creates a public register of agents where buyers and sellers can check who has had disciplinary findings against them in the previous three years.

Leask says during her four-year battle she was "victimised, bullied and vilified by the real estate agent involved".

Her story shows that one determined person can instigate change.

- Phil Taylor

Mike & Conor O'Leary

FATHER AND SON SAVED BOYS FROM BURNING CAR

Hawkes Bay police inspector Mike O'Leary and his family were on their way home from a funeral when a scene of absolute horror unfolded on the road ahead.

In the minutes to follow, O'Leary would risk his own life to save children from a burning vehicle - and emerge a reluctant hero.

O'Leary, the operations manager for the Eastern Police District, is one of those hands-on cops, even when off-duty.

In April, that meant badly burning his hand in first pulling out a small boy stuck halfway out a window, then trying to extract a second boy from a van engulfed by blistering heat and toxic smoke.

Afterwards, his main regret was that he could not save others - four people died in that van, and another person from another vehicle, in what was a weekend of carnage on the roads.

Soon after the car crash, sometimes in tears and with his burnt hand heavily bandaged, O'Leary told the Hawke's Bay Today how his family saw the van they were following collide head-on with a sedan which had hit another car and crossed the centre line.

The van flipped into the air and crashed down a bank.

O'Leary was out of his car in seconds, asking teenage son Conor to stop traffic, wife Debbie to call 111, assessing the injured passengers in the sedan, then quickly realising the van had caught fire.

Two screaming children were stuck halfway out a window, so O'Leary, Conor and a stranger who had stopped pulled the smaller of the boys clear.

But they still needed to free the other boy. O'Leary pushed his son and the stranger away and called for a knife to cut the boy's seatbelt, pulling the boy to safety.

"The boy was talking to me and he was burning," he would tell the Hawke's Bay Today.

Thirteen days later, he was back at work during the Napier siege where friend and colleague Len Snee was shot and killed and two other colleagues injured.

In a letter thanking people for their support, printed on the front page of the Hawke's Bay Today, O'Leary wrote: "It has been a very difficult time and we have all been sadly reminded of the fragility of life.

"So please take care, keep your loved ones close and cherish every day."

- Catherine Masters

Peter Yealands

WINEMAKER, CONSERVATIONIST

You could say that Peter Yealands makes the list for being the quintessential good Kiwi joker.

To call him a winemaker and conservationist doesn't nearly embrace who he is and what he has done. Yealands, who left school at 14, is the bloke who tinkers in his shed and produces gold, the entrepreneur who sees opportunity everywhere and who does not rest.

Yealands - owner of New Zealand's biggest privately owned vineyard, which he aims to make the most sustainable in the world - seems indefatigable.

Says his brother, Kevin: "He's the kind of guy who if you visit on a Sunday, he's out on his earthmover while the operator's on holiday."

And friend Bruce Hearn: "He's just an extraordinary innovator, with such tenacity, and the balls to get up and have a go."

As a mussel farmer, Yealands bought a sock-making machine and made a stocking that better enabled spat to attach to mussel lines, fashioned a mussel cleaner from an agitator washer, and a machine that made plastic floats for holding and floating mussel lines.

As a deer farmer, he and a partner produced Marlborough's first deer embryo implants.

While clearing deer-farming land on his bulldozer, he created a 215-section subdivision with an 18-hole golf course, a marina, lake and a couple of vineyards - one sold to Fosters for $13 million.

Yealands astounded many last month announcing that Yealands Estate was replacing glass with plastic wine bottles, which he said used 19 per cent less energy to produce.

He's made hefty investments in wind and solar power generation, water recycling, and energy management, and is even training sheep to eat only the grass in the vineyard to cut back on weedspraying and lawnmowing.

- Staff reporter

Roger Levie

LEAKY HOMES CAMPAIGNER

Misfortune brought Roger Levie to the work for which he is recognised here.

Levie toils long and passionately to help owners of leaky buildings find a solution to a problem that everybody refuses to own.

His working day typically begins at 7am and finishes late at night. Work encroaches on weekends and has stopped him competing in endurance triathlons, simply because there is no time.

For Levie, it is a calling rather than a business. The former marketing and IT executive draws expenses but not a wage. He funded the fit-out of offices occupied by Lighthouse NZ Ltd, which offers low-cost advice to leaky building owners, and Hobanz, the not-for-profit Home Buyers and Owners Association, incorporated in 2007.

Levie and John Gray, an advocate for leaky home owners, set up Lighthouse to provide hands-on, low-cost help to owners. They aim to develop Hobanz to fill the role for home owners that the Automobile Association does for motorists.

A colleague of Levie's told the Herald that Lighthouse was owed a large sum in outstanding fees because he does not press for payment. "He's trying to get them over the line where they can get their homes fixed."

Levie's introduction to the disaster began as the owner of a leaky apartment in Parnell. As body corporate chairman he was central to the battle to repair the building and gain compensation.

Gray, Hobanz's president, had been through a similar experience in Ponsonby.

Once through their own battles, Levie and Gray decided to use their experience to provide the independent and impartial advice they felt was missing. It is time consuming and exhausting. "It involves three of the major things in life - financial security, shelter and health," Levie said.

Ask why he does it and Levie says, "because someone has to".

- Phil Taylor

Toesulu Maea Brown

PACIFIC EDUCATOR

Striving to boost Pasifika student achievement levels and raising the Pacific Island community's profile for years has made Toesulu Maea Brown a New Zealander of the year.

Brown, mother of former All Black prop Olo Brown, has been in Pasifika groups and activities for over 40 years. This year she became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Born in Samoa 69 years ago this month, she came to New Zealand to attend Wairarapa College in 1956 and trained at the old Ardmore Teachers' College.

After several years teaching in Samoa, she returned to New Zealand in 1968 and taught for 15 years at Ponsonby Primary School.

Since 1985 she has been at Auckland Girls' Grammar, where she leads one of the country's strongest Samoan language departments for about 300 Samoan pupils.

In 1976 she was one of the founders of the national Pacific women's organisation, Pacifica.

"The Pacific Island women came here and worked as cleaners," she explained yesterday. "Some of us were fortunate to go to school and got qualifications for higher education, so the idea was to promote our strengths to other Pacific Island women so that they had a role, not only in the home and in menial jobs, but that they could be part of New Zealand society."

She has been involved in the annual Auckland secondary schools Maori and Pacific Islands PolyFest for 24 years and is still one of the two co-ordinators of the Samoan stage.

She helped start a Samoan Language Week at her school, which has since become a national event.

Auckland Girls principal Liz Thomson said Brown was a mentor for other staff .

"Auckland Girls has got a high profile in the Samoan community and the Pasifika community generally, and a lot of that is due to the work that Toesulu has done."

- Vaimoana Tapaleao

HOW WE MADE OUR CHOICE

Throughout today's Weekend Herald we pay tribute to our New Zealanders of the Year - in business, sport and in the community. From a lengthy list of nominations submitted by Herald staff, a panel of senior journalists whittled down the numbers. These are our final selections.

WINNERS THIS DECADE

2008: Austin Hemmings, slain as he helped a woman being attacked

Tony McClean, drowned trying to save students trapped by floodwaters

2007: Louise Nicholas, campaigner

2006: Kevin Brady, Auditor-General, Paula Rebstock, chairwoman of the Commerce Commission

2005: Jock Hobbs, key Rugby World Cup figure

2004: Dr Peter Gluckman, scientist

2003: Michael King, author

2002: Cliff Jones, police officer

2001: Peter Jackson, film-maker

2000: Rob Waddell, Olympic gold medallist, Lucy Lawless, actor

- NZ Herald

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