Just about the entire island of Aitutaki met at the Araura College hall to share prayers, sing songs and listen to stories of how “Papa Joe” had contributed to the island, the country and beyond in the global health sector.
Teina Bishop spoke strongly about the deservedness of the highest of honours for Dr Williams and coined the new name Dr ‘Sir’ Joe Williams at the special service.
Bishop reminisced about the turbulent political period when Dr Williams became prime minister and the immense contributions he had made for Cook Islands people, including those in Aotearoa.
A close cousin and long-time professional colleague Dr Roro Daniel likened the passing of Dr Williams to the falling of a great mango tree of Araura.
“E pu vi atupaka no Araura nei kua inga ki raro – a great mango tree has fallen.”
Dr Daniel challenged those at the service to consider who will now replace this greatly treasured fallen one.
Both men were born on Aitutaki and were pupils of Araura Primary School.
Back then the classrooms were made of coconut thatch and the walls were made of au sticks, says Dr Daniel.
“Our uniform as boys comprised of short navy pants and no shirt. First order of the day was fingernail inspection by the teachers – dirty nails attracted the smack of a ruler across our knuckles,” he says.
“Ever intrepid, we Aitutaki boys learned that by scraping hard on the inside of the white mango we could easily cover the dirt in our nails.”
During school break time, the kids played rugby using mango seeds for a ball.
“To escape class, we would often run to the pit latrine situated at a distance from the classroom where we would stay a while then eventually run home instead of returning to class,” Dr Daniel says.
“Speaking Maori in school was forbidden and if caught doing so, our punishment was to spend an extra hour in the school pineapple patch after school. When eventually we made it home, we would feed pigs, shift the horses and maybe work again in our family plantation.
“In those days there was strong discipline around children being out after dark so our childhood days were prescribed by school, home and church.”
In the early 1970s Dr Williams was director general of Health. Dr Daniel returned to Rarotonga as a junior doctor and they began to work closely together.
“Knowing we were family and both of us being doctors meant we were able to work together much more readily and thus effectively for the betterment of our people,” he says.
By the mid-1980s, the two doctors travelled globally to attend World Health Organization meetings in Geneva and in the region.
One of Dr Daniel’s most memorable times was when they had tried to secure the position of Secretary General of the World Health Organization for Dr Williams, not an easy feat to accomplish.
“Although an entirely opportunist plan knowing how politicised these appointments always are, we decided it was symbolically important to show that even tiny island nations are no less capable of exercising global leadership,” Dr Daniel says.
“Together we worked day and night to prepare an impressive Curriculum Vitae, a Strategic Goals presentation and we figured out who we needed to lobby for support.
“Dr Joe made the shortlist which was an unsurpassed achievement for any Pacific medical leader at the time; he was interviewed in Geneva.”
Though they knew the appointment was unlikely to occur, the enthusiastic island fighting spirit of the two did not deter either of them to continue to aspire and maybe manage to acquire one of the most powerful health administrative leadership posts in the world.
“Ultimately the appointment hinges on the votes of member countries and so while Dr Joe was well supported by Pacific members, unfortunately his support was in the end outnumbered by those in the world who are better economically and politically connected,” says Dr Daniel.
Dr Daniel spoke of the extraordinary breadth of Dr Williams’ reach and commitment to either developing or implementing medical advancements beneficial to the people of the Cook Islands.
He noted that during the 1960s and 70s in response to widespread and debilitating conditions such as worm infestations among Cook Island children and filariasis among adult population, Dr Joe had initiated very successful response treatments to both conditions.
“The latter response treatment was soon afterward officially adopted by the WHO as a prototype for the world,” says Dr Daniel.
Dr Williams’ nephew Tai Herman shared how personally inspirational his Papa Joe had been to him over the years, especially when it came to the importance of planning effectively in order to achieve one’s goals.
Aitutaki’s hospital manager, Metua Bates spoke of his immense contribution to raise networks of health professionals among Cook Islanders in Aotearoa and of how invaluable these were.
She pleaded to young Aitutakians to consider careers in health, thus ensuring the generations ahead will continue to be as well served by local doctors as have those in the past.
Manarangi Ariki reminded the audience that during Dr Williams’ term as Minister for Education he was responsible for banning corporal punishment in schools – something he saw as a cruel and unjustified colonial practise.
He was also the initiator of Kia Orana Day, a day that continues to be celebrated today at schools in the country when the students and teachers wear pareu.
Reverend Frank shared a very personal story of being “gently reprimanded” by Dr Williams of the serious health risks he was facing due to his obesity.
While the Reverend had not initially welcomed his medical assessment, he did indeed follow the advice offered and to this day credits Dr Williams for his encouragement to enable him to lose nearly half his former body weight.
During this time Reverend Frank also witnessed the extent of Dr Williams pastoral reach into underprivileged Pacific communities.
Many others stood to attest similarly to the phenomenal impact of the doctor’s work over the years from healing, to counselling, to inspiring and always with a gentle and deeply caring manner.
The evening started as a solemn tribute, but closed as a wonderful respectful celebration of the life and selfless contributions of a loyal son of Aitutaki who rose to become a very significant leader in Cook Islands, Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.
“Aere ra e Papa Joe. Uatu e kua moe koe, te ora nei rai koe I roto I to matou au ngakau. Farewell Papa Joe. Rest in peace, you will live on in our hearts forever.”