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‘He loved and lived life at full speed’

Saturday 12 March 2022 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Memory Lane

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‘He loved and lived life at full speed’
Bret John Gibson ‘Gibbo’ during his heydays. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/22031105

Tributes flowed and the island mourned for the most popular, sociable and sporty ‘pa’paa lawyer of the Cook Islands’, who was buried yesterday at his home in Avaavaroa.

A close friend Mike Carr says the name ‘Gibbo’ in Rarotonga is a bit like saying ‘Elvis’ in other countries.

The name needs no other explanation or words and brings to mind his many qualities, talents and remembrances.

“A lawyer, surfer, Bon Vivant and a great mate and the man with the biggest clean floor obsession any of us have ever met,” says Carr while paying tribute to the 62-year-old who passed away earlier this week.

Another close friend John Whitta says: “He took us and our home to his heart, and we took him to ours.”

“Our family got to know him later in 1987 when Gaye and I returned home from NZ, and in all the years we have known him there has never been any question that this was, and always would be his home.”

Gibbo was born on the 12th of October 1959, the son of Ruth and John Gibson. Bret was his mother Ruth’s maiden name with the “t” dropped off.

He grew up on a farm in Waiuku south of Auckland and when Gibbo was nine the family moved to a farm near Morrinsville.

He attended Tatuanui Primary School, Morrinsville College, then took a gap year or two working as a taxi driver in Bondi, a ski instructor at Mt Hutt, and a block layer in Noosa, Australia.

Gibbo obtained his law degree from Auckland University where according to fellow lawyer Steve Breed he was known for putting his head down and working ceaselessly and conscientiously in the library while Steve and their mates sat around and chatted.

Bret John Gibson, fondly known as “Gibbo” is finally at peace after a long illness, he was laid to rest at his home in Avaavaroa. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/22031107

His reasoning was, “work now and you are free to party later”.

A future at the high-profile law firm Russell McVeagh beckoned but Rarotonga looked far more attractive so he made the move in 1987.

He moved to Rarotonga the same year as Cyclone Sally but, unlike Sally, Gibbo never left, Rarotonga and the Cooks have been his home ever since.

Gibbo arrived to the island at the age of 27 or 28 – one of a batch of surfing lawyers that included Steve Breed and David Sceats.

The lone surfing accountant in the bunch was Mike Carr, who became one of Gibbo’s closest friends, “but apparently lawyers made of sterner stuff”, as Mike gave up surfing the Raro reefs after just a couple of outings.

Lawyer and Opposition leader Tina Browne, who formed a partnership with Gibbo and Tim Arnold in 1989, puts Gibbo’s enjoyment of life into context, “he enjoyed life notwithstanding his medical condition”.

“We all remained very close even after Tim went on his own followed by Gibbo,” says Browne.

“It was very sad to hear of Gibbo’s passing notwithstanding that we all knew that his condition had deteriorated in the last few weeks. I was particularly sad that I was not able to attend at least one of his send-off services but watched it on live-stream.”

Browne says the three of them became family and remained that way until his passing.

“He will be sadly missed, the following quote by Abraham Lincoln best expresses Gibbo’s life; ‘In the end it is not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years’.”

Hoani Gibson and Tui John Gibson holding a framed photo of the late Bret John Gibson, fondly known as “Gibbo”, at his send-off service hosted by the Cook Islands Law Society at the Courthouse on Thursday. PHOTO: MELINA ETCHES/22031122

Whitta says the many lawyers who worked with or for him over the years were left with a deep and abiding respect for his knowledge, skill, and integrity.

Gibbo’s world changed forever with his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2002.

He faced that challenge with humour, determination, and an incredible training regime designed to combat the symptoms of that awful disease.

Gibbo then went through the trauma of shattering his arm on the courthouse steps, and the ensuing operations as he kept re damaging it.

The Parkinson’s grew worse, but his humour and determination grew with it.

“It robbed him of his physique, his balance and coordination and much of the ability to live life in a way that the rest of us take for granted. And had to stop surfing for one, but still, he kept his sense of humour and wit,” says Whitta.

“Then came the cancer, that was a hammer blow but, in some way, I think it affected us emotionally more than it did him.

“The day he arrived back after his diagnosis a few of us had a drink on Gibbo’s back deck. He was laughing, cracking jokes, just like normal.

“I was amazed. But that strength and invincible humour has carried him through these dark weeks.

“He has impressed everyone who saw him lying in pain yet still able make a smart comment or tease you, he is also a son, brother and most importantly a father to Hoani Gibson and Tui Gibson.”

To his friends, Gibbo was an “energiser bunny” – he was constantly racing somewhere, charging into this activity or that adventure.

Members of the Law Society at his service. PHOTO: MELINA ETCHES/22031123

“Which probably explains why the first thing to be damaged on any new car he had – and he had many – was the rear panel of the car, once that was gone then he clearly didn’t need the side mirrors so those would go next,” says Whitta.

“But he took this energy into everything he did.”

He never held a grudge but “he just loved reminding you that you had perhaps slipped up in some way”.

“He was generous, kind, always quick to help, fun and a wonderful storyteller, and he loved to share his home, his food, his drink, and his time.”

The list of his friends runs the full range of age and background – he did not care who you were, and your wealth or position did not impress him, just the fact that he found in you something that he liked, and you in him.

“He was generous to a fault,” says Whitta.

Another close friend, Ray Newnham says Gibbo loved sports, fishing on his beloved Jig, his poker, friendships, and of course his social life.

“We all have stories of our times with Gibbo. The youngies probably won’t believe me but there was once a time when we did exactly what you do – have great times until the sun comes up,” says Newnham.

“The problem was we all got old and Gibbo turned into Peter Pan.

“And I know, if you were cynical you could say, ‘well, that wasn’t a good life choice’, but you know what, Gibbo just loved being with people.

“He was far more than just vodka and juice, though he did pour a good one.”

Puai Wichman says: “Gibbo is, and was always way faster than I ever could be at running, a better swimmer, better at soccer and to add insult to my bruised ego – had way more girlfriends than I could ever dream of; on top of all that he could surf too!”

Pictured is Hoani Gibson with the late Bret John Gibson’s mum, Ruth. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/22031124

“His dry and sometimes acid humour, even to the very last, is my stand out memory of a mate who loved and lived life at full speed! 

“He loved the Cook Islands and its people, and I am extremely grateful to the landowners that they paid him the ultimate respect by allowing him to be laid to rest next to his beloved home in Avaavaroa, I will miss him.”

Brent York says: “He’s been a true friend to me since meeting him shortly after arriving on Rarotonga, but this friendship grew to include all of our family.”

“It was not an easy task when he had to win over Maria, and this did not get off to a good start when once as she left for her night shift at Air NZ, Gibbo and I were just about to have a vodka; when she came home in the middle of the morning, we were still having a drink… 

“However, his charm, the enjoyment of having him around and his compassion soon won her over and they developed their own friendship alongside mine.”

Gibbo was the best man at their wedding and Logan, Brent and Maria’s son, had the pleasure of spending time with him when they were both in lockdown in NZ.

Graeme Whitfield praised the down-to-earth, kind and thoughtful ways of Gibbo, saying “he approached everything with such positivity”.

“An older brother to me, Gibbo constantly inspired me with how he didn’t allow his Parkinson’s to get in the way. He still strived ahead with his life, throwing himself into everything he loved and showed us all how incredibly resilient and independent he was.”

Recently he inspired us all with his spirit, says Whitfield, adding “his battle was the toughest of his life, yet he fought bravely with courage, strength and where possible, his sense of humour. Rest easy my brother”.