From the mayor's chair you can see the essence of Len Brown. His passion, his loving family, his need to serve his beloved Manukau city, are all represented.

One wall of his office bears a solitary piece of art made up of the word "DREAM". Brown's ethos.

Swivel a few degrees and he meets the gaze of his daughters, Samantha, 20, Olivia, 12 and Victoria, 9, whose portraits look sweetly over him. On his desk, stands a celebratory snap - wife Shan Inglis and the girls the morning after his election to the office of Mayor of Manukau City.

When Brown looks about him, when he considers recent events, why wouldn't he feel blessed?

Last May 31 - seven months after winning the mayoral chains - Brown collapsed while giving the welcoming speech at the Pacific Music Awards. "The Singing Mayor" didn't get to deliver the waiata with which he customarily ends such speeches.

When the son of a musical family should have been in full voice, he lay dying before a packed Telstra-Clear stadium.

When you understand the details, it is all the more remarkable that Brown is back and again working a full schedule of mayoral duties, days that routinely run 12 hours.

Brown is easy to like. In person, he is welcoming, warm of manner and he likes to quip. "It was a very dramatic gesture to go out while on stage", he says of his public succumbing.

"There were no warnings, no nothing," he says, almost surprised. A non-smoker and a minimal drinker, Brown, 52, has been active all his life. He visits the gym three times a week, mows the lawns and is no stranger to the garden on the family's two-acre property, a five minute drive from the civic building.

Brown never did do stillness. "Mum used to say that the only thing she saw of me was my bum - walking out the door."

His blood pressure (140/85) and cholesterol of 5.9 were slightly raised but no cause for alarm.

"It was a hell of a shock. Perhaps it shouldn't have been because I lost Mum at 47."

His mother's death from a burst heart artery was unexpected but from what Brown now understands, he (checks have cleared his four sisters) inherited a susceptibility to heart disease, a condition in which plaque builds up inside coronary arteries. "My number was up," he says, "and it was nearly up twice."

Surgeons replaced six heart valves (a double triple by-pass). Three were 90 per cent blocked, the others 70 per cent. Having survived his very public heart attack, one of the grafted valves perforated in the operating theatre. "I was not looking good."

He was given the last rites. His two youngest, who had been kept away, were brought to their father's hospital bed by Brown's wife, Shan Inglis.


"That's how it seemed," says Inglis. "I took them in individually. He won't remember of course, but that's the day we will remember forever."

"I didn't give up but we did have a priest come in, we did do that. When you look at something like that and where we are now, we are blessed."

"I remember saying to my sisters, 'I don't know how I can raise these children without him, don't know how they will get on without him in their lives and it's because they are so connected to their dad. Though he is not always there, there is something about him that is with them.'"

"When I talk about faith, there is an issue there for me and the girls understanding we need to share him with the things he needs to do and we accept that, I guess."

That day was so confronting because a mother's instinct to protect her children was not the only reason she had assured them that their dad would be OK. "I don't think I could allow myself to think that it couldn't work out," says Inglis, "because I so desperately wanted it to work out. I held on to that and so did my elder daughter."

"I guess it was a journey of faith. Faith, love and courage. Those are the things that, when you reflect, help sum up how it was for us."

Brown had seemed in robust health. He didn't do illness. And then Inglis saw her husband fold to the stage floor. "My first thought was 'what is he doing?"'

It was Queen's Birthday weekend Monday, Victoria's birthday, and Brown had accompanied his daughter to have her hair cut - a birthday request - before attending the music awards.

"We'd had a lovely day. He was absolutely fine. That's one thing that haunts me because there was no warning. He was loving it and delivering this hugely passionate speech and then the world kind of changed in an instant for us ... it was surreal. How do you go from seeming perfect health to that?"

Neither was the family prepared for the community's response. "What was terribly humbling, clearly for Len, but also for the girls and I living it, was the outpouring of love. When he was very sick, I thought 'I just wish you knew'. Because he is a good man. That's the way I would describe him. That probably sounds trite because I'm his wife but he has good values, he believes in possibilities, believes in the good in others. "

Len Brown was named for his paternal grandfather, the owner of a Pukekohe butcher shop who served 40 years as the town's fire chief. Driving into Pukekohe from Bombay you pass Len Brown Place. "That's Grandad," says Brown, "the real legend out there."

His mother's family, the Fergusons (Olympic champion kayaker Ian Ferguson is Brown's cousin), hail from Taumaranui where Brown was born before the family moved to Otara for his father's first posting as a school principal - to Mayfield Primary.

Brown's maternal grandfather, Charles Ferguson, was a pharmacist, his life blighted by the Great Depression. Grandad Ferguson lived in a tented camp breaking river rocks to make scoria for King Country roads. The depression broke his back and, his grandson suspects, his spirit.

Brown is a product of those depression years as he was raised with the values of that period. His mother ensured the family's door was open to all; his father taught him fairness and respect. "It was about your backyard, about your street, about your neighbourhood, about your mates,"

He nearly stood for Parliament and enjoys debating "grunty issues" - housing, health, justice, education, tax and the economy. But the man who for seven years chaired the Otara Flea Market committee found his true passion was in his backyard, "how people's lives were being led".

"I ended up going into law for that reason, another way of helping people." He was in Wynyard Wood's city offices in Shortland St until he persuaded the partners in 1991 that the firm needed an office in East Tamaki, a suburb that then faced the issues Otara does today. He was a "GP lawyer", some commercial work, conveyancing, court - civil and criminal - he knows the inside of south Auckland's courtrooms.

A year after the East Tamaki office was established, Brown was a Manukau City Councillor. He has lived with the sweeping changes that shaped Manukau. He grew up with the first wave of Pacific immigration - Niueans and Cook Islanders, followed by Samoans and Tongans, lured along with Maori by jobs.

When Brown was a pupil, De La Salle College's roll was 90 per cent European; it's now 80 per cent Samoan. More than 100 ethnicities now call Manukau home.

That's one of the city's stories. This is another: the new arrivals of the 50s, 60s and 70s came to work at the freezing works, the wharves, the rail depots.

"Well, what happened in 1987? Rogernomics hit big time. We lived it," says Brown, "all those freezing works, the railways yards, the wharves, the abattoirs - all shut in the space of two or three years."

The Otara community from 1987 to 1992 lost 50 per cent of its employment base. "It killed those communities mate, it ripped the guts out of them. I came into council understanding exactly the impact those polices and that quantum shift in economics had on our community."

"That's why Roger's name around this town is always subject to a fair amount of debate because those changes coming from a Labour Government were massive."

Manukau has been re-gearing ever since; successfully, the figures show. Unemployment in Otara last year was the same as the national average - 6 per cent, down from 25 per cent 15 years ago.

Aspirations had to change. The old jobs were gone, the new jobs are around technology and adding value. Manukau changed from a straight-out manufacturing town to one based on IT, foods and transport.

Brown sees the future story of his patch as one of continued growth. It had the highest rise in GDP last year and Brown suggests that in a couple of generations Manukau could be the cultural and economic hub of the region.

No surprise that Brown couldn't wait to get back to work, or that the mayor renowned for insisting on doing the legwork to understand every issue was back to his full schedule after a few weeks.

Murray Burton, principal of Elim Christian College, wondered whether Brown was too nice for politics, whether his "servant-hearted approach to leadership," would survive the "dog eat dog" environment it can be.

They met after the canyoning tragedy which claimed the lives of an Elim teacher and six students last April. "He came without pomp," says Burton, "and he stayed, literally dishing out tissues. A lot of dignitaries came to pay their respects. He came to serve. If you didn't know what he looked like, you wouldn't have guessed he was the mayor."

Those sentiments are echoed by fellow Manukau son John Walker. The former Olympic 1500m champion and a fellow councillor describes Brown as "one helluva good guy" and says he's just what Manukau needs. "He's dynamic, enthusiastic, leads by example, attends all the meetings in fact, I think he works too hard."

There it is again.

Brown: "People say to me, 'you are working long hours'. Well, to me that's not work. There is no stress to me in this office. If you love it, it's not stress."

Brown's wife understands. His work has been part of his rehabilitation, such is his passion for it. "He grew stronger and better once he was able to be back with the people, doing what he loved," Inglis says.

For her the first day was hardest. Seeing him dressed again in a suit was for Inglis like a mother sending her five-year-old off to school. "I think I would have liked to have sat him in a chair with a book for the rest of his days. I was still grieving, I suppose, around what could have been, whereas Len is always positive."

Says Brown, who left hospital with his new heart valves but minus his gall bladder and seven kilograms of muscle: "I feel a bit like a cat with nine lives. I'm Christian and my faith is absolutely repaid."

Ask about the way the public responded to his illness and he shakes his head, bewildered; his voice shakes too. "I had no idea. Shan told me. I couldn't understand it. The community had my back in just an amazing way. The cards and the messages - there were thousands. I spent two days crying. That was a huge part of me getting out of bed."

It would be unusual if such an ordeal hadn't produced a resolution or two. "Not to waste time in the petty politics of the small-minded.".

And, he says, smiling, "I tell you what, I have a fear of nothing."

"This", he says, sweeping a hand about the Mayoral office, "is my calling".

That waiata the Singing Mayor was to perform the night he collapsed? It's called Te Aroha. "It talks of love, faith, trust and honour," says Brown. "For me, it's the mayor's waiata."

MARRIED TO: Shan Inglis, a partner in Muller Law, Pakuranga
FATHER OF: Samantha, 20, Olivia, 12, Victoria, 9
EDUCATED AT: Mayfield Primary (Otara), Papatoetoe Intermediate (Otara), De La Salle College (Mangere), Auckland University (BA, LLB)
BECAME: A lawyer, a Manukau City councillor (1992), Mayor of Manukau (2007)
NEARLY: Died after collapsing on stage at Pacific Music Awards
SAVED BY: double-triple bypass surgery delivered by public health system
FEELS LIKE: "A cat with nine lives"
PASSION: Infinite
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: Known as "The Singing Mayor", his repertoire, opera to waiata to rap: "My name is Brown You are in my town I fell down But I'm still around"

POLITICAL AMBITION: "I'm absolutely the black sheep of the family. I've always been interested in politics. I did a BA in political science and I used to hang quotes on my wall from Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Norman Kirk. Dad would despair, 'Leave politics to the politicians,' he'd say."

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: "If the mayor is not a cheerleader for his region, who is? Local government is basically a love of your backyard. If it's not coming from here [taps his heart] then what are you doing? People won't believe you and there will be no connection."

SUPERCITY: "Worst case scenario would be Manukau losing its identity. Manukau has never been part of Auckland City though it is part of the Auckland region.