A middle-aged woman sits alone outside the whare kai at Orakei marae, puffing on the last remnants of a cigarette as she stares thoughtfully over the Waitemata Harbour.

The news of Sir Hugh Kawharu's passing has come back to the people at the marae who have begun preparations for a big gathering over the next few days to honour and celebrate his life and achievements.

But the woman takes a pause from her mahi (work) as she grieves for the man she affectionately knew as "Uncs".

"He was our totara and he was our pillar but I will always remember him as 'Uncs'."

Sir Hugh died yesterday morning, surrounded by whanau members, after a brief illness. He was 79.

The woman, a niece to Sir Hugh who did not want to be named, said her people were extremely proud of his achievements in the academic world and in what he had achieved for Ngati Whatua.

"He was sent out by the old people to be educated and he went out there and he did it all right. But he came back here and mentored a lot of our young people, although some people were scared to approach him because he was paramount and had a certain air.

"It was probably his status but he was always 'Uncs' to us."

Ngati Whatua o Orakei Trust Board member Cyril Talbot remembered Sir Hugh's contributions during the Bastion Point standoff in 1978.

"At the time he was a young scholar who took into account the korero of the kaumatua of the day but he was always there behind the scenes," said Mr Talbot.

"He was definitely a calming influence in those difficult times."

Mr Talbot said many people leaned on Sir Hugh for support and his expertise was sought by Maori and Pakeha. "People saw him for what he was - a man of knowledge in both the Maori and Pakeha worlds.

"He was a very open-hearted man who would sit and listen to your concerns whether they were tribal issues or individual matters and people often approached him for advice.

"When he looked at something which could not be dealt with straight away, he would always say 'Kua oho te wa' or 'let it happen'."

The Minister of Maori Affairs, Parekura Horomia, offered his condolences to the people of Ngati Whatua, saying Sir Hugh was "an outstanding servant of the Maori people".

He said Sir Hugh would be missed by all New Zealanders "who recognised his outstanding ability to contribute to important debates in a rigorous and constructive manner".

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said "it was a humbling experience to sit with him, and to benefit from the wisdom and knowledge of someone as accomplished as he was in all worlds".

"We have lost so many great leaders of late, leaders who are indeed irreplaceable. Sir Hugh was part of an era of special leadership that has not only advanced Ngati Whatuatanga considerably - but has also contributed much to Maoridom."

National Party Maori affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said Sir Hugh was a "man of great mana who conducted himself with immense dignity".

"Sir Hugh has done so much to enhance the understanding of Maori issues in this country and he has played a key role in the advancement of significant Treaty settlements," he said.

Sir Hugh's tangi is expected to begin today. His body will lie in state in the whare nui, Tumutumuwhenua.


TRIBUTES

It is hard to imagine life in Auckland without Sir Hugh Kawharu ... His contribution to numerous New Zealand and international agencies and committees has been extraordinary. He will be sorely missed.
- Helen Clark, Prime Minister

Above all I will remember him for his grace, warmth, affection and great dignity which only increased as you came to know him.
- Dame Silvia Cartwright, former Governor-General

Whether it was the Queen or a first year student of Maori studies, Sir Hugh engendered respect because he himself was a beacon of respect for the dignity of others, no matter their circumstances.
- Dick Hubbard, Mayor of Auckland

Sir Hugh's contribution to the cultural wellbeing of Auckland and its museum has been immeasurable ... He will be deeply missed by all those who hold cultural matters important and who prefer the art of reason and good manners over the tactics of bluster and belligerence.
- David Hill, chairman, Auckland War Memorial Museum Trust Board

Sir Hugh has made a long and valuable contribution to Tamaki Paenga Hira (Auckland Museum). He is a great chief of Ngati Whatua and the world is better for his contribution.
Papa te whaititiri
Uira kapakapa
Tu ka riri
Rongomai ka hake

- Bernard Makoare, Ngati Whatua; Taumata-a-Iwi Tamaki Paenga Hira (Auckland Museum)


SIR HUGH KAWHARU

* Born: February 18, 1927, in Ashburton

* Died: September 19, 2006 in Auckland

* Paramount chief of Ngati Whatua

* Chair of the Ngati Whatua o Orakei Trust Board

* Foundation Professor (personal chair) in Social Anthropology and Maori Studies at Massey University, 1970-84

* Professor of Maori Studies and Head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Auckland, 1985-93

* MA (Cambridge), DPhil (Oxford)

* New Zealand delegate to Unesco and FAO

* Knighted for services to Maori 1989

* Named an additional member of the Order of New Zealand 2002