Tales of oyster-eating competitions and being told off by "a grumpy old fart" were relayed at Te Arawa kaumatua Jim Gray's tangi today.

Mr Gray, 84, was taken off life support on Sunday afternoon and died surrounded by family in Rotorua Hospital at 9.30pm.

Men he served with in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, local kaumatua and businessmen were among those who spoke to the 150 mourners in a service full of laughter and tears at Old Taupo Rd's White Haven Funeral Home.

The service sheet for Mr Gray. Photo / Ben Fraser
The service sheet for Mr Gray. Photo / Ben Fraser

Mr Gray's eldest of two sons, Jim, handed over the eulogy to his daughter Te Kiri Tu Marshall, joking that his experience with public speaking didn't extend beyond "not guilty, your honour".


"My grandfather was a great man," Miss Marshall said.

She joked that her grandmother Kathleen Gray "fell in love with the thrill of the motorcycle and the smell of leather" in the 1950s.

Mrs Gray sat next to her husband's coffin, accompanied by a friend of the family, Kahu Tapiata, whose late husband John was also a good friend of Mr Gray's.

Mr Gray during his years with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Photo / Ben Fraser
Mr Gray during his years with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Photo / Ben Fraser

Mrs Tapiata told the congregation of herself and her friend: "We never had boyfriends other than our husbands.

"I said to Kath 'I'm going to take you to Shiseido and Dior and I'm going to give you a makeover'. We couldn't do that with our husbands, they just like us how we were.

"After this, I said to Kath, 'We are going to go and spend Jim's money'."

Gerrard Brown, who served in Malaya with Mr Gray, said he and another pilot, Arthur Henderson, who couldn't be at the funeral, had kept in touch all these years.

"We weren't the Three Musketeers, but the three Must-Have Beers," he joked.


Another friend who served with Mr Gray, Jock Hunter, said he had taken part in an oyster-eating competition when they were staying at the Grand Hotel in Hong Kong while serving their country.

Mr Gray's body is put in the hearse. Photo / Ben Fraser
Mr Gray's body is put in the hearse. Photo / Ben Fraser

One man ate eight dozen oysters in one go, but Mr Gray won the competition after eating "a heck of a lot more than that".

Te Ao Pragnell, the former operations manager for Hell's Gate, where Mr Gray was a trustee, called him "a grumpy old fart".

"He was a proud man. I was scared of him, as were my workmates. But he taught my generation to be proud workers.

"He used to berate us if our shirts weren't tucked in, or we were wearing too much make-up. he'd tell us to wipe it off. 'Why aren't you wearing the right shoes?', he'd say."

Lain Jager, chief executive of Zespri, where Mr Gray was a shareholder, said he had attended a meeting as recently as Thursday.

He'd stood up and asked why more money wasn't going back to growers.

"He had his opinions and he was not afraid to use them," Mr Jager said.

Tai Eru, who was part of the Howard Morrison Quartet in the 1950s, paid tribute to Mrs Gray, who he called a woman with "sartorial elegance".

"Behind every good man, there has to be a very tenacious, pretty woman.

"Every time I came around to your place, you would cook a meal for 10 people and there was only two of us - me and Jim."

Another kaumatua shared a story about Mr Gray applying for a job as a cook at a local school.

He wasn't qualified for the job, like other candidates.

A final goodbye. Photo/Ben Fraser
A final goodbye. Photo/Ben Fraser

"I wanted to give him the job but parents would be up in arms.

"I went outside and said to him, 'I'm sorry Jim, we can't give it to you, but can you come inside and help us appoint one of them?'

"That is the kind of person he was. While he wanted something, he wanted the best for kaupapa."

John Treanor, who met Mr Gray through his work with the Maori Land Court, led the service.

"To put it bluntly, he was not everyone's cup of tea," he joked.

"But we are not here for a tea-tasting session. We are here for his whanau ... to celebrate and honour him and the contribution he has made in his life.

"If you wanted a fight, you'd go and make an appointment with Jim. But make sure you were prepared. you might go in a lion, but you'd come out - or be thrown out - like a lamb."

A slideshow of old photos of Mr Gray and his family was played during the service to songs including Jim Reeves' Welcome to My World.
The Last Post was played before Mr Gray's coffin was carried out by pall bearers including Miss Marshall and his two sons Jim and Stu.