Kelly Makiha is a senior reporter at the Rotorua Daily Post

Young Maori leader was 'old soul in young person's body'

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Wiremu Keepa Jnr died suddenly yesterday.
Wiremu Keepa Jnr died suddenly yesterday.

A former Western Heights High School head boy who collapsed and died suddenly was being touted as a future leader of his Ngati Whakaue people.

But Wiremu Keepa Jnr, 23, had already achieved more in his short life than many adults.

The death of the youngster has shocked his family and friends, who are struggling to come to terms with losing him so young.

Described as "an old soul living in a young person's body", Mr Keepa collapsed at his Perth home yesterday morning. He died a short time later.

He was head boy at Western Heights High School in 2012 and, as a teenager living in Rotorua, had a string of achievements and responsibilities to his name.

Those roles led him to receiving a Rotorua Community Award from the Rotorua District Council in 2012.

At the awards he was described as someone who "keeps strong to his values of honest, equality and understanding. His pride and passion for Western Heights High School inspires him to be a leader as well as a really good friend".

Having worked at tourist attraction Mitai in Rotorua after school, he was handy in the kitchen and organised many hangi and concert fundraising events for causes such as the Chilian earthquake, Master Chef, Te Roopu Manaaki and the school's trip to Japan.

A talented musician and singer, he was also involved in school pohiri, kapa haka, talent quests and stage challenges.

Wiremu Keepa Jnr was considered a young leader for Ngati Whakaue. Photo/supplied
Wiremu Keepa Jnr was considered a young leader for Ngati Whakaue. Photo/supplied

His Rotorua uncle, Wiremu Keepa, speaking on behalf of the family, told the Rotorua Daily Post it was hard to comprehend.

"The family are in total shock because of his young age. He had an amazing future ahead of him and was groomed as a future leader for Ngati Whakaue.

"It's like anyone who goes overseas and goes around the world before possibly coming home."

Mr Keepa said it was not yet known when his nephew's body would return to Rotorua as, given the sudden medical issue, there might be delays.

Mr Keepa Jnr went to university for two years after leaving high school before a move to Perth beckoned.

Mr Keepa said he and his nephew carried the same name as his late father.

Mr Keepa Jnr had been living in Perth for about three years and was doing well, putting his skills to good use, his uncle said.

"In fact that morning (yesterday) he resigned from a job because he had a better opportunity and prospects at a new job. Although he never had an accountancy degree he was very good at bookwork and figures."

Roana Bennett, whose children were friends with Mr Keepa Jnr throughout school, described him as "an outstanding young man".

"They say he had the potential to be a leader but he actually had made a great contribution already, more so than many older adults," Ms Bennett said.

"He was an old soul in a young person's body. He had a quiet wisdom about him combined with his youthful exuberance.

"In the short time that he did have with us, he was an inspiration and he taught us a lot. I think his legacy will survive for a long time."

Rotorua district councillor Tania Tapsell said she had worked alongside him on many youth projects and he was the head boy alongside her sister, Kahu Bennett, when she was head girl.

Western Heights High School head boy and girl Wiremu Keepa, 17, and Kahu Bennett, 16 in 2012. Photo/file
Western Heights High School head boy and girl Wiremu Keepa, 17, and Kahu Bennett, 16 in 2012. Photo/file

"Wiremu has made such a significant impact in his community during his life. He was a natural leader and passionate about making positive changes.

"He often discussed how important it was for today's leaders to carve the way for the next generation. He influenced not only youth but also our elders, Wiremu was a true leader."

Relative and Ngati Whakaue kaumatua Monty Morrison said he had more to do with Mr Keepa Jnr after he won a Christmas talent quest he had been involved in.

"At a very young age he was a huge talent. His family were hugely proud of his achievements especially when he became head prefect. Really, he was just starting out in his life and being able to make a contribution."

Rotorua District Community Awards in 2012. Wiremu Keepa Jnr is fourth from the left in the back row. Photo/file
Rotorua District Community Awards in 2012. Wiremu Keepa Jnr is fourth from the left in the back row. Photo/file

Tributes flowed on Facebook for the young man.

They included "we are lost for words". "Gifted in academia, musically talented, and a leadership role awaiting . . . Whakaue have indeed lost a young talent. You carried your grandfather's name with pride and dignity."

Wiremu Keepa Jnr
- Western Heights High School head boy, 2012
- Rotorua Community Award, 2012
- Represented his school at Hamurodai High School, Beppu, Japan jubilee
- Student representative on Board of Trustees, 2010, 2011 and 2012
- District Council Youth Council, 2012.
- Te Pumautanga o Te Arawa Rangatahi member
- School deputy house captain
- Ministry of Education Youth Advisory member, 2011 and 2012
- Hosted school multi-sport tournament, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

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