Bill Conroy sadly reports that the cry of the Grey Warbler is stilled; the Dowager Duchess of Te Aroha is no more; that Thomas ‘Piako’ has left the building.
On July 16 2015, Kenneth James Thomas, QSO, a life member of LGNZ, a long-serving mayor of the Matamata-Piako District, and a giant and indeed legendary figure in local government affairs – both across the Waikato region and at national level – lost a gallant fight against cancer.
Ken Thomas bestrode local government like a veritable colossus at many levels. His passing is deeply regretted and he is mourned by many people. He was respected, admired and indeed loved by his contemporaries almost without exception.
Ken Thomas was a man of letters – he claimed to have started his working life as a postman. And he certainly was a man of many parts – many of them replacement. When he had his first hip replacement he boasted that he then had the best TV reception in the Waikato area.
I first met “Thomas Piako” early in 1978 when as a newly-appointed secretary I was struggling to take my first meeting of Ward 2, New Zealand Counties Association, at a venue in Hamilton.
Early in the meeting the chairman asked me a question which I could not answer and foolishly I tried to fashion a reply. Then from the body of the meeting a man dressed in a grey suit, with grey hair and aged moustache shouted “Conroy! For God’s sake pull yourself together and answer the chairman’s question!” Red-faced I did as I was bid.
Later delegates were attempting to agree on a date for the next meeting. A day was suggested and Thomas, checking his diary, announced “That is Ascension Day”. Someone enquired “Will you be able to get back?” Thomas replied: “Yes” and he did not smile.
Warm & hilarious relationship
That was the measure of the man. There can be no doubt that in the celestial council chamber in which he now finds himself Thomas will be firmly in control and probably on the rostrum.
That first meeting with the man that I subsequently named “The Grey Warbler” (an accolade he wore with pride for the rest of his life) was the beginning of a warm and hilarious relationship that lasted almost 37 years.
Thomas passed up no opportunity to score a point, or points, off a paid council flunkey and zone two lackey. It was a battle that continued by email long after we had each retired from local government and up until a few weeks before he died.
Ken Thomas was a man of few words – it was just that he kept repeating them and he would miss no opportunity to seize the microphone.
Fiery oratory on furry friends
At a New Zealand Counties conference in Dunedin in the early 1980s the conference was discussing a remit calling for a total ban on the breeding and / or keeping of rabbits on domestic property.
The remit was strongly presented by a county delegation from the lower South Island and persuasive and fiery oratory was winning the day. Then Thomas Piako took the microphone.
The conference fell silent as the great man prepared to speak. Then, reminiscent of Adolf Hitler and the Nuremberg rallies, Thomas shouted “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” then went on to deliver a blistering attack on the intent of the remit and the motives of those who had prepared it.
Warming to his task Thomas had the conference hanging on his every word as he spoke (nay shouted) about the way the Counties Association was preparing to treat poor o1d ladies, destitute and alone, depriving them of the simple pleasure of breeding, nurturing and cuddling little bunnies in hutches at the bottom of the garden.
“What is this association coming to?” demanded The Great Man (TGM). It was a question that the delegates could not answer. The remit was put and was heavily defeated, much to the fury of the sponsoring county’s delegation.
Chair becomes mayor
Ken joined Piako County Council in 1959 and became chairman in 1974. He had strong views about the exalted place that county chairmen held in the world of local government. In 1987 at a seminar in Te Kuiti he presented a paper comparing the roles of chairman and mayor, and he dealt harshly with the mayoral system.
Among his dismissive remarks was this: “To become a mayor requires no knowledge of local government and certainly it is no prerequisite; all it requires is a penchant for the headlines.”
Strong stuff! I often told his Grace that if he continued to defy the march of events it was likely that divine retribution would be swift and severe. He scoffed at my advice.
In barely two years Piako County had fallen beneath the scythe of the Elwood Reformation haymaking exercise to give birth to Matamata-Piako District Council and his nibs was the inaugural mayor subject to the electoral cycle.
Oh dear! Fortunately Mr Thomas was not burdened by any of the despicable traits he outlined in his seminar paper. He swiftly adapted to the mayoral chain and regalia of office and quickly showed his superbly crafted penchant for the headlines.
Thomas firmly believed that he could walk on water and frequently threatened to do so. His contemporaries had no doubt that Thomas could execute the manoeuvre if he were so minded.
A dedicated man
Ken Thomas was an intelligent, knowledgeable and well-read man. He loved to quote from Shakespeare’s works and was not averse to tossing a few Latin quotations about from time to time. I recall that on one occasion he drew me aside and cautioned me with the words “Non potes pedet contra tonitrus”.
I was deeply impressed with the majesty of the words and pleaded with His Eminence to enlighten me.
“Flunky,” the great man chortled, “heed well these words; literally translated they mean ‘You can’t fart against thunder!’.” And he was right.
Thomas boasted a brilliant military record and claimed to have served for many years with the Women’s Division where he gained many awards and decorations for his work in the potting shed. Some of the more senior ladies of the gardening committee still get moist eyes when they recall his outstanding dried arrangements.
It was suggested to him recently that if he sold off half of his gongs, awards and decorations he would have enough to pay off a large part of the country’s national debt. Seemingly, he did not rise to that challenge.
By any measure, Ken Thomas was a dedicated husband and father, an excellent farmer, and a skilled politician who genuinely cared for his country, district and constituents. He gave a significant portion of his life to working for, and in the interest of, his community at the local, regional and national level of government politics. He did a mighty job and his record of service says it all.
We will not soon see another to match the Grey Warbler.
Bill Conroy is a freelance writer and poet who was once district secretary to the Waitomo District Council and was the inaugural secretary of zone two LGNZ from its formation in 1988 until 1993 and for a period later. During that time he carried the awesome responsibility of having to accurately record the Great Man’s words for posterity. Bill is now living in retirement in Tauranga.