Kaumātua Des Ratima has died aged 69.
Ratima received the Queen's honour of Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in 2018 for services to Māori and became a Justice of the Peace in 2016. Late in 2018 he received the honour of Hawke's Bay Business Leader of the Year.
Those who knew him say his tangi would likely have attracted hundreds if it were not for current Covid restrictions.
Hastings District Council mayor Sandra Hazlehurst said the community had lost an "outstanding leader and kaumātua".
"He was a hero of Whakatu, Hastings, Hawke's Bay and wider New Zealand – always doing everything in his power to draw people together for the greater good, and to bring about fairness and equity in the education, health and justice systems."
Flaxmere councillor and long-time friend of Ratima, Henare O'Keefe said Ratima, who died on Sunday morning, had been unwell for quite some time.
"I got a text from his wife Evelyn saying 'he's gone to heaven'," O'Keefe said.
"We had known each other for decades and he was incredibly loyal to me and my wife, and the work we did together, and at Te Aranga Marae.
"I trusted him with my life, he was very articulate and intelligent. Our word was our bond."
O'Keefe said if times were normal, Ratima would probably have had a full military service.
"But that's a no-go zone now. You can't hug people, cry with them, commiserate with them," he said.
"It's inhumane, and unfeeling especially for someone like Des. But these are unprecedented times and the Delta virus is ruthless, and literally a killer.
"And I know that Des would want us to do everything we can to keep each other safe."
Mike Paku, chairman of Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, said Ratima died on Sunday morning.
"He had some health issues, underlying conditions," Paku said.
"He was a staunch advocate for Māori and issues encapsulating the whole community.
"Right to the end he was staunch in regards to the Oranga Tamariki and their practices and lack of cultural sensitivity.
"He was a huge advocate for the Whakatu community."
He said like any whanau who found themselves in bereavement during lockdown, it was challenging.
"Within our grieving practices we practice Kanohi ki te Kanohi- face to face, and it's hard to do that in lockdown," he said.
"It's incredibly hard for those who want to pay their respects. Des's family will have to grieve from a distance, the family have no access to him.
"People have to understand that in level 4 the last time you see your loved one, whether at home, or at hospital, it is the last time."
Jean Te Huia, who worked extensively with Ratima, especially over Oranga Tamariki practices, said the region would be poorer for his loss.
"When people like Ratima fall, they are sorely missed."
Tributes for Ratima flowed online with Meka Whaitiri, Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, saying "glad to have spent time with you the other day as you waited for Aunty Evelyn to get your lunch," she said.
"I'll remember that conversation. How much work you felt needed to be done. With death being so imminent, how your thoughts had changed.
"Go to your eternal rest knowing you served this country and your community with humility, dignity and strength with a 19-year career in the NZ Army; to your Church Latter Day Saints; to the community of Whakatu as our unofficial mayor; the fierce advocacy, awhi and care to the many whānau struggling among us.
"Your love and compassion knew no bounds and you leave a big hole in a world needing that more than ever. So rest your weary head e te whanaunga. Your work complete.
"Sincere condolences to Aunty Evelyn and whanau at this very sad time. May God keep and comfort you all."
Maori Party candidate Ikaroa-Rāwhiti Heather Te Au-Skipworth said she was saddened to hear of his passing and thanked him for "the mahi and tautoko you gave to our country and to the many kaupapa that challenged our people".
Hawke's Bay DHB paid homage to Ratima as "a fierce advocate for small communities, hauora Māori and Kōhanga Reo".
The Royal New Zealand Army Logistic Regiment paid a tribute online.
"Des had planed his own funeral but due to the lockdown this has now been put on hold. Funeral details are to be advised when confirmed."
The post detailed his army career. "RATIMA, D.K. W760538. WO1. 1977-1996. Born July 28, 1952. Enlisted Feb 27, 1977. Electrician. T/Cpl Feb 27, 1977. SEME Waiouru Apr 17, 1978. T/Sgt 1 Aug 1978. Ssgt 1983. NZ Wksp Singapore (1983). 1 Base Wksp Trentham 3 June 1986. T/WO2 June 3, 1986. Transferred to RNZ Army Log Regt Dec 8, 1996. Died August 22, 2021."
Ratima was a member of the HBDHB Māori Relationship Board and Ahuriri District Health Board.
With more tributes flowing in by the hour, those close to him were waiting for an update on levels before deciding tangi details.
But under level 4, gathering together for funerals and tangihanga is not permitted.
This includes gatherings at burials, urupa, cremations, memorial services, open or closed casket or viewing, funeral wakes, processions or receptions, or social gatherings indoors or outdoors.