New Zealander of the Year 2010: Readers' choice

By Phoebe Falconer

Warner Wilder, chaplain of King's College in Otahuhu. Photo / Natalie Slade
Warner Wilder, chaplain of King's College in Otahuhu. Photo / Natalie Slade

Nominations from Herald readers for New Zealander of the Year have flooded in this week.

Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn and Christchurch mother Emma Woods drew the most votes, while opinions on the inclusion of actor Robyn Malcolm varied wildly.

Pike River CEO Peter Whittall also won votes, but was not considered for this year's award because of ongoing concerns about the future of the Pike River mine and the findings of the Royal Commission.

And though politicians are usually excluded from consideration, we made an exception this year for Kokshoorn and readers were keen to add Christchurch mayor Bob Parker.

Emily Sanson-Rejouis

To lose almost everyone dear to you is beyond imagination. To return to the scene of the devastation to help those similarly afflicted takes a special sort of person.

Emily Sanson-Rejouis' husband Emmanuel and two of their three daughters, Kofie-Jade, 5, and Zenzie, 3, died when their hotel in Port-au-Prince collapsed in the Haiti earthquake in January. Emmanuel was killed as he shielded the couple's youngest child, two-year-old Alyanna, saving her life.

Mrs Sanson-Rejouis and two helpers dug through the rubble of the hotel with their bare hands, and found three survivors, including Alyanna.

More than 230,000 people died in the earthquake.

Mrs Sanson-Rejouis returned to her family in Nelson. In July, she set up the Kenbe La Foundation, a charitable trust, in order to organise supplies for a school in Haiti. In October, as word of a cholera epidemic in Haiti spread, Mrs Sanson-Rejouis set about organising people to send to the island to support its health needs. A team of 10, including health professionals, plans to travel to Haiti next year. Mrs Sanson-Rejouis will be one of them.

At a funeral service for her husband and daughters in Nelson in March, Emily Sanson-Rejouis made a promise. "I pledge to you ... that I will find the strength to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. I will not give up."

She has kept her word.

Bob Parker

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker's calm demeanour during the most devastating event to hit his beloved city gave comfort to the residents and provided a focus for hope. While frequently pictured looking tired and drawn amid the chaos following the 7.1 earthquake on September 4, he nevertheless stayed on course, listening to worries and fears, and dispensing reassurance where possible. His composure was tested during the aftershocks that just kept on coming, but he saw the city through its worst times.

Bob Parker's re-election to the role of mayor confirmed his popularity and, as he put it, gave him the chance "to turn adversity into prosperity". He sees the publicity the city received after the earthquakes as a positive thing and hopes that the recovery efforts will deliver employment and investment opportunities.

Warner Wilder

In a horrific year for King's College in Auckland, Reverend Warner Wilder has done all that could be expected of a college chaplain - and more.

While he too is in mourning for the three boys who died unexpectedly and sadly this year (of a viral infection of the heart, binge-drinking and an incident on an overbridge), he has made himself available to any students and their families who need him. His office door is always open, and he has set up a noticeboard where students can post letters and thoughts.

He has encouraged the students to think deeply about the consequences of binge-drinking, after James Webster's tragic death.

He recognises that students at King's often come from a privileged background, and so has set up an outreach programme so students can help others in the South Auckland community. Under Reverend Wilder's guidance, the students help with reading recovery programmes in primary schools, assist at the refuge centre and the local women's refuge, and at the Otara Spinal Unit.

He has encouraged the students to think of communities abroad, and has spearheaded the rebuilding of a destroyed school in Sri Lanka.

He is also working to improve facilities in the chaplaincy, which were particularly stretched in the aftermath of the deaths.

Reverend Wilder hasn't always been a Christian. He ran the family farm in Porangahau and was a shepherd, but after a young cousin died in a car crash, he decided to find another way to lead his life. Recently married and with his first child on the way, it seems he has found his calling.

Simon O'Neill

New Zealand opera singer Simon O'Neill is going through rather a good patch in his career right now. He's about to debut in the role of Siegmund in Die Walkure at La Scala in Milan, arguably the world's most famous opera house. And the conductor for this event? None other than top Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Not bad for the boy from Ashburton. But O'Neill has done the hard yards, and deserves his success. After initial training in New Zealand, he studied at the Juilliard Opera Center in New York. He is currently the principal tenor with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but his engagements take him all over the world, including to the major opera houses in Britain and Europe. This year he debuted at the Bayreuth Festival in the title role in Lohengrin, and after his appearance in Die Walkure, he's off to Carnegie Hall, to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

One of his major achievements last year was to sing the lead role in Otello, with the London Symphony Orchestra, at 24 hours notice.

O'Neill's professional card is full until 2015. But he's not forgotten in his homeland - his image appears on the 1997 New Zealand $1 performing arts postage stamps.

- NZ Herald

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