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Current as of 22/12/14 02:20PM NZST

Proud day brings laughter and tears for Sir Paul

By Michael Dickison

Sir Jerry Mateparae invests Sir Paul Holmes as a Knight Companion of the NZ Order of Merit at a special ceremony. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sir Jerry Mateparae invests Sir Paul Holmes as a Knight Companion of the NZ Order of Merit at a special ceremony. Photo / Richard Robinson

The day was a celebration, but tears were welling up in the eyes of Sir Paul Holmes' family.

His wife, Lady Deborah Holmes, and his brother, Ken Holmes, said they had swelled with pride at the recognition of his achievements. They didn't mention his deteriorating health.

Sir Paul was frank: "I think, in the end, it's a matter of living by the day."

An early investiture ceremony for his knighthood was arranged because of his ailing heart and prostate cancer.

Yesterday he was honoured for his long contributions to broadcasting and charitable causes in front of dignitaries and 100 guests at his Hawkes Bay lodge. In a 35-year career Sir Paul broke new ground as a current affairs host in television and radio, was acclaimed as he expanded his journalism into newspapers and books, and championed several important social causes. He became one of New Zealand's most prominent personalities, widely recognised for his humour and humanity.

On the big day, Sir Paul woke up thinking of his late mother.

"My mother missed this by a year," he said, and cried.

"My father by 15 years or so ... I know they would be over the moon and proud at the honour, and I wish so much that they could both be here."

Guests started arriving near lunchtime, gathering on the wide back lawn of Sir Paul's estate.

With his daughter Millie at his side, he greeted family, friends and the country's most powerful people. The Prime Minister, Opposition leader, former party presidents and mayors were all there to congratulate him.

Sir Paul has said he is proud that despite years of putting hard questions to interviewees, he has made few enemies. He had given everyone a fair go, even as he stood up to bullies and injustice, he said.

Amid the mingling guests, Sir Paul was moving slowly.

Millie took his hand and walked him back towards the house, and the frail outline of his shoulders seemed to shrink away from the corners of his black suit.

Under a white marquee set up on the lawn, the official secretary of Government House, Niels Holm, explained how rare it was to hold a special ceremony away from Wellington or Auckland.

And unlike most investitures, Sir Paul would be allowed to remain seated during the reading of his citation, Mr Holm said.

The guests waited under the tent. In the front row were family members to one side, and Prime Minister John Key to the other.

They all stood and applauded as Sir Paul appeared with Lady Deborah on his arm.

He gripped a tent pole as he walked in, but as he made his way down the aisle he shook hands and exchanged warm words.

Lady Deborah took her seat to the left, then Sir Paul sat down - across the aisle, next to Mr Key. The Prime Minister welcomed the surprise as Lady Deborah whispered: "Darling, you're here."

Sir Paul moved over and said aloud: "They've forced me to the Left!"

Mr Holm read out a selection of Sir Paul's achievements: building his breakfast radio show up to No1, creating a new style of current affairs television programme in Holmes, investigating the country's biggest issues - notably his best-selling book on the 1979 Air New Zealand crash in Antarctica, Daughters of Erebus, and winning awards for his writing.

As Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae began his speech, Ken Holmes pulled out a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped his brow - and then, quietly, his wet eyes.

The Governor-General called Sir Paul to the stage, and Lady Deborah and Ken Holmes helped him step up.

Sir Paul knelt with a small smile on his face. The Governor-General whispered many words in Sir Paul's ear as he laid a sword on the new knight's shoulder.

By the time Lady Deborah reached her chair again, her eyes too were red.

"I'm incredibly proud of him. Just very emotional. Very proud," she said.

And in a quarter of an hour the ceremony was over.

Sir Paul pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his nose.

He had got hay fever for the first time in his life, he said.

"The old cancer found me out and has started to do some funny things.

"We still have a lot of fun, a lot of good times, but soon realities have to be faced ... We haven't had a chance to meet with the doctor to discuss what's going on, but I don't think it's flash.

"I don't think Houdini will do it this time."

Sir Paul has survived a car crash, fatal helicopter accident, light aircraft crash and previous illnesses. But last year he had surgery for cancer and then for his heart. After the open-heart surgery his cancer returned.

He said he wanted future generations to remember him as a decent bloke.

"I made mistakes. There were times I went too far. But for a fellow who lived on his wit and live [on-air], I think I did fairly well."

Guests drank champagne and he posed for pictures with Lady Deborah. He carried his new medal proudly.

"It's nice to be Sir and Lady. I want everyone to call me Sir, I'm unashamed - as you would expect."

For a while, after a cloudy morning, the sun was burning down on the Hawkes Bay farm. Towards the late afternoon the clouds returned over Mana Lodge, bringing cooler air over the gathering.

Sir Paul had already retreated inside.

"The plan was I would build this farm and retire here, and live a long and wonderful life basking in my former great career," he said. "But along comes the bloody [illness]."

Still, he is living every day full of laughter, with his wife and family alongside him.

"I wake up every morning and prepare for another day of life, like you do," Sir Paul said.

- NZ Herald

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