Everyone used to say Helen Kelly met you with a grin and she expected the best of you, and it was true. Even when the cancer had really sunk its claws in.
Right to the end, as Rebecca Macfie tells us in her wonderful new book "Helen Kelly: Her life", she was still taking meetings, telling people off, reminding them to vote for unionists in the local body elections.
The story goes that she was so overwhelmed by the kindness of green fairies she didn't know what to do with all the cannabis they gave her, sent her, left on her doorstep in the dead of night. All that "chocolate, oil, tea and balm", as Macfie puts it.
She was who she had always been, "vibrant, fun and interesting, so people were attracted to her", as a friend from her early life at teachers college remembers. She had the gift of warmth and people loved her for it.
It wasn't because she was a nice person or a happy one. She could be nice and, as the book reveals, she was often happy. But Kelly was a warrior.
She knew there was right and wrong in the world and she knew how to work out which was which. She bothered to take sides and she bothered to fight for her side.
It was her core duty as a human being. She expected the rest of us to see it that way too.
Helen Kelly was born to militant parents in Wellington in 1964 and raised in one of those households where a constant parade of visitors and guests fill the rooms with arguments and activism. The Vietnam War, abortion, apartheid in South Africa, the bitter strife visited on the Labour Party by Rogernomics and, above all, the unfolding struggle for workers' rights.
Macfie's book is far more than biography: it's also an immensely readable social history, the best we've had yet of the political struggles and realignments of the last 50 years.
Kelly's father, Pat, was president of the Wellington Trades Council (WTC); her mother, Cath, the more radical of the two, and that's saying something, was prominent in the Vietnam protests and later led the Campaign Against Rising Prices.
Kelly rose far and fast. Along the way, as a 19-year-old student delegate to the WTC, she made a point of standing up to her chain-smoking father. Where everyone else had failed, she got a motion passed to ban smoking. By the time she was 43, she was the top unionist in the country: the first woman to become president of the NZ Council of Trade Unions (CTU).
When the Government changed the following year she worked hard to find a way to work with the new Prime Minister, John Key. That's how she worked: find the people blocking progress and see if you can win them over. She'd talk for hours - and listen, if they were prepared to do the same.
She didn't win Key over. In 2010, she led a massive Fairness at Work campaign.
She faced astonishing vitriol for helping unions on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trying to cling to the right to collective bargaining. But she won wide public support for her workplace safety campaigns, most notably after the tragedy at Pike River and in the forestry industry.
Her magic power was fearlessness. She just stood up, wherever and whenever she needed to and told everyone what was right and what was wrong. She did it without political jargon, without alienating the people she wanted to win over. She knew how to build a campaign so people from all over would support it. She knew how to make people who had been marginalised and neglected and trodden all over feel important, because they were.
She knew how to do all that without compromising her beliefs. When you look at most politicians and quite a few pressure groups, you have to think that's also a magic power. And she never gave up.
Kelly took that CTU job instead of chasing the Labour nomination for the Wellington Central seat in the 2008 general election, a decision Macfie tells us was greeted with enormous relief by the youngster who also coveted the spot: Grant Robertson.
In 2014 her name was again in the ring, but she wanted the Rongotai seat and Annette King had decided to stay on for another term. Kelly put a ring around 2017: that would be her year.
Then came the cancer. She had never smoked but it was lung cancer. She had not felt sick, until the pain that sent her one night to the emergency department, but it had spread so far they couldn't cure it. Diagnosed in February 2015, she died in October 2016.
Was Helen Kelly the great Prime Minister we never had?
She was the natural leader in every group she was part of. She had the skill of friendship. Closely related, she also had the true core skill of a politician: the skill of being liked and admired. The thing they can't do anything without, the thing they can do so much with.
If she'd become an MP in 2014 and not become sick, would Labour have turned to her in 2017, instead of Jacinda Ardern? There's a counterfactual to play with.
Ardern told Macfie that if Kelly had not become sick and had entered Parliament in 2017, she would likely have been fast-tracked into Cabinet. There's another counterfactual.
It's impossible to imagine a cabinet with Kelly in it imposing a three-year wage freeze on the public sector. Impossible also to imagine she would have accepted the current pace of growth in new social housing, the runaway inflation in property values, the transport plan for Auckland that will increase carbon emissions.
It's especially impossible to imagine Kelly would have tolerated the Government's failure to implement the advice of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group.
On the other hand, she would have welcomed the new proposals for Fair Pay Agreements. They're built very largely on the work she led over 10 years ago at the CTU.
As Macfie makes clear, Kelly didn't talk much about class struggle. Unlike her parents, she didn't use that language. But she was grounded in the concept and she always tried to help people understand what will happen if you want to redistribute power.
It will be a struggle. You will have to choose sides. You will have to stand firm. And you will have to win people to your side.
In Parliament, she would have been an articulate voice for all those Labour MPs and centre-left voters who thought they had elected a Government of much larger change.
Shortly after her death, Kelly was remembered at a memorial service in Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre. At the end, they gave her the last word, which was only her due, by playing a clip from a television interview.
It was a full year before Ardern became Prime Minister, and she said: "We're a values-based movement which will never change those values. Better wages, safer conditions, respect and dignity at work.
"I want people just to be kind. It would make a hell of a difference."
Helen Kelly: Rebecca Macfie at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 15: writersfestival.co.nz
Helen Kelly: Her Life, by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press, $50)