Mike Williams gave his old mate Sir Paul Holmes a farewell kiss on the cheek as he slept. The next morning Holmes, 62, passed away at his Hawke's Bay home.
The greatest broadcaster of a generation, Holmes had previously been treated for prostate cancer, but it returned last year. He had also undergone heart surgery, with his poor health forcing him to end his long and celebrated television and radio career in December.
A late inclusion in the New Year honours list, Holmes was knighted in a special investiture in front of friends, family and dignitaries at his home two weeks ago.
He died early yesterday morning, aged 62.
In a statement his family said he died peacefully at home - just as he had wanted. "More than just a broadcaster, Paul was a loving husband and father, as well as a generous friend. He loved people and people loved him."
His wife, Deborah, Lady Holmes, his children Millie and Reuben and his brother Ken, thanked the public for their "incredible support", but said they now needed privacy to grieve.
Prime Minister John Key said it was the end of an era, labelling Holmes a "gentleman broadcaster . . . someone who entertained us and informed us and who a great many New Zealanders had enormous affection for."
Mr Williams, a former Labour Party president, said he first met Holmes close to 50 years ago as the pair started at Hastings' Karamu High School together.
He last saw him on Thursday.
"I went out in the morning at about 9. Deborah [Lady Holmes] said he was asleep but said, ‘Go and say goodbye'. He was sleeping quite peacefully and . . . I kissed him on the cheek. I think maybe I did have an inkling," he said. "It's strange. It's about now that schools go back, meaning it's about 50 years to the day that I met Paul."
Holmes told him late last year that he had terminal cancer, so he had spent as much time with him as possible. "I went down there four or five times, including a long period over Christmas. There was plenty of time to talk about old times and reminisce.
"It makes you treasure every day. It's not a great innings, 62."
Holmes built his hugely successful broadcasting career on championing the underdog and holding authorities to account.
But he knew he would lose his final battle with cancer, saying grimly at his investiture: "I don't think Houdini will do it this time."
He had previously cheated death five times - twice in plane crashes, once in a helicopter crash, once in a car crash and once with prostate cancer.
He was just 22 when he lost the sight in his right eye in a car crash near Kaikoura. He later recounted walking through Hagley Park in Christchurch with his tearful mother and vowing "to try to always be positive, always believe things would turn out for the better".
"I loved the world that day and still try, whenever things get me down, to remember the walk in Hagley Park and the vow I made. I had survived," he wrote in his autobiography.
Twenty-four years ago Holmes and Wayne Johnson spurred each other on in a perilous swim through freezing waves to survive a fatal helicopter crash.
Mr Johnson, a cameraman, was one of five in the chopper that crashed into the sea off the East Coast in stormy conditions in June 1989.
After the chopper hit the water, they were separated from the others, and encouraged each other to survive as they swam the one kilometre to shore.
In his autobiography, Holmes recounted the high, cold waves and driving rain in the dark. "I was nearly dead when I reached the shore, with no more than a few minutes of struggle left in me."
It came just three months after Holmes launched with the infamous Dennis Conner interview, and preceded a 20-year period in which the broadcaster found fame and the occasional infamy on television and radio.
It took all the characteristic doggedness that marked his career to reach the shore that day, Mr Johnson recalled to The Dominion Post.
"Paul is not a quitter and he certainly is a tenacious character, as he had the odds stacked against him on this occasion," he said.
"As we swam to shore, Paul was struggling with little more than a dog paddle and my constant reassurance and guidance that we were going to make it in his ear.
"We all survived the initial crash into the sea, but sadly we lost cameraman Joe Von Dinklage."
Holmes' son Reuben, now 21, has Apirana as a middle name, after Api Mahuika, the Ngati Porou leader who said a prayer with survivors in the hours after the crash.
Despite the fatal helicopter crash, Holmes would later gain a pilot's licence. On New Year's Eve in 2004 he walked away from the wreck of his beloved Boeing Stearman biplane, after flipping it near Hastings. A year earlier he crashed the plane on the remote Ngamatea Station, between Napier and Taihape.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999. He beat it with treatment and went on to front adverts encouraging men to get regular check-ups.
More Paul Holmes stories:
- 'He was the light and shade in all of us' - friends and colleages reflects on Holmes' life
- Angel Eve 'guiding him through all this - Eve van Grafhorst's mother Gloria Taylor on her experiences with Holmes
- 'I hope the Lord decides I'm on the right side of the ledger' - excerpts from Holmes' last interview
- The Dominion Post
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