Archive: Papa Tom Obituary
Sir Tom Davis (1917-2007)
Papa Tom's quests for truth, history and culture has taken him around the world but it was in Rarotonga where it all began.
He was born in June 1917, and as a boy growing up in the islands it was only natural that he would develop a strong bond with the sea. In his youth he built a sailboat which he often took miles offshore. This love affair with the sea would be a recurring theme in his extraordinary life.
At the age of 12 Papa Tom attended Kings College in Auckland. He then went on to study medicine at Otago University. As a student in the depression era he made money by working as a labourer and a taxi driver. It was cold, hard work.
The cold and the sea actually helped Papa Tom in his University studies. A keen surfer he had a novel method of collecting data off his surfer mates while doing research into the body's reaction to extreme cold. It was an area of study that he was to focus on later in life.
In 1945, married to Lydia and with a three-year-old son, Tom became the first Cook Islander to graduate with a Medical Degree in New Zealand. That year he applied for and eventually got the vacant post of Medical Officer in the Cook Islands.
He was actually rejected three times, which he put down to
a reluctance by the New Zealand administrators to hire a Cook
In the Cook Islands he worked to transform an antiquated and inadequate health system.
After 7 years in the post, Papa Tom was offered the unique opportunity to study at Harvard University in Boston - again the first Pacific person to do so. He completed a masters degree in public health and continued his early research into the body's adaptation to cold which was put into practise in the US armed forces and then in the space programme with NASA.
Papa Tom remained in the United States right up until 1970 - by then his homeland had grown strong and his marriage was coming to an end. Newly promoted to self-governing status, the Cook Islands was in need of its best and brightest. In 1970 he decided to sail back home and go into politics. So in 1971 Papa Tom founded the Democratic Party to put his thoughts and plans for his island home into practice.
In 1978 following a court decision, Papa Tom became Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, and apart from a few months in 1983 he remained leader until 1987. Economic reform was top of his agenda.
In 1979 Papa Tom married Pa Tepaeru Ariki - the Paramount Chief. He later received the title of Pa Tuterangi Ariki. In 1980 he received a knighthood for services to his country.
By 1987 however, Papa Tom's grip on power was faltering and his party ousted him as Prime Minister. A driven and ambitious man, he was sometimes seen by his peers as arrogant and conceited.
In the years following his departure from politics Papa Tom immersed himself in writing and in his life-long love, the sea. Using his scientific and engineering expertise, coupled with his knowledge of age old sailing techniques he built two ocean voyaging canoes, the 'Takitumu' and the 'Te Au O Tonga'.
He trained local crews and sailed the Pacific using traditional navigation techniques. He was able to single-handedly revive the lost of art of Ocean Voyaging in the Cook Islands.
Papa Tom had been a widower since his second wife Pa Tepaeru died in 1990. In 2000 he re-married to Naturopatha Carla Cassatta. Later the couple moved to New Zealand where Papa Tom had been asked to build a replica voyaging canoe whilst collaborating on other projects.
In 2004 at the ripe old age of 87 he became the Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand and a year later he received an honorary doctorate from Otago University.
In the middle of last year after some time in Australia and with his marriage ended, Papa Tom moved back to live in Rarotonga . Locals were surprised when he started seeing patients again at the age of 89. But that was typical of the man who lived life to the fullest... and loved the sea.
Written by John Utanga
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