Harvard-educated Kiwi lawyer who laid down haka challenge against cancer passes away in the US

Michael Byrne with his two children: Griffin, left, and Shennie.

Michael Byrne with his two children: Griffin, left, and Shennie.

His love for the All Blacks remained undimmed as his legal career took him from the deep south of New Zealand to the midwest of the United States. 

And so when high-flying lawyer Michael Byrne, 44, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he laid down his own challenge to the feared disease with a ferocious haka. 

The haka was filmed and shared amongst his American friends, who began performing their own haka as a mark of respect to their dying friend. 

Kiwi and US lawyer Michael Byrne's family and friends are paying tribute to him by making this picture their profile ...

Kiwi and US lawyer Michael Byrne's family and friends are paying tribute to him by making this picture their profile picture on social media.

His wife Rigel Oliveri, 44, a university law professor, and their two children Griffin and Shennie now plan to come to New Zealand to scatter his ashes on Mt Kaukau, near Wellington, and in the Marlborough Sounds.

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Oliveri said her husband always wanted to return to his "true home".

Michael Byrne's love of the All Blacks was well known among his American friends.

Michael Byrne's love of the All Blacks was well known among his American friends.

"Michael wanted to show the kids New Zealand but in the end, it became too difficult for him to do so. But he was very clear about where his ashes must be scattered," said Oliveri.

Byrne died on September 20 at his home in Columbia, Missouri, 18-months after he was first diagnosed with cancer.

In a final salute to the 44-year-old's life, friends and family honoured him by changing their social media account pictures to a shot of a Silver Fern flag with the words #HAKABYRNE.

The "rallying cry" of support replaced the All Blacks name beneath a black and white silver fern emblem.

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The image spans their social media pages and before Byrne's death, on September 20, it brightened his final months as a reminder of his favourite sport and the place he always considered home.

"Michael wanted to show us that he was going to fight his cancer, and our friends showed their support through #HAKABYRNE," said Oliveri.

She said that before his death, Michael met with various people to say his goodbyes and to plan his memorial services.

"He researched everything and did all he wanted to do before his death. That's how he approached life, in a matter-of-fact way."

Michael also spent many days filming personal messages to his wife, kids, relatives and friends. Oliveri said she hasn't seen any of them but knew that he recorded 40-hours worth of footage.

Byrne was a fifth-generation Kiwi born in Manila on November 9, 1972.

His parents, Jean and Anthony Byrne left the Philippines for Geneva then returned to New Zealand where Byrne's playground became the ridges surrounding Mount Kaukau, Wellington.

Byrne's family moved to Vienna, Virginia in 1980 but he later returned to be the first student to graduate from Otago University with three bachelor degrees, in law, arts, and commerce.

His first job as an economic analyst for the New Zealand Treasury earned Byrne "fame" for attempting to limit the tax advantages for filming in New Zealand, before Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings shoot.

With a flavour for the work he returned to the US and studied tax law at Harvard Law School.

In 2009, Byrne opened his own criminal defense practice, Byrne Law Firm, with a goal to support people's human rights.

He pursued a successful legal career, going on to work as an assistant attorney general at the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

In 2016, Byrne was diagnosed with stage three esophageal cancer.

"I don't mind fighting the impossible fight, but I'm not going to be in denial about what I'm facing," he said in a Facebook post.

"I wish I still had time with the kids ... I would like to experience their lives and to go to New Zealand with them."

Pain, and Byrne's beliefs in people's rights pushed him to advocate for a change to euthanasia laws in his last months, convinced prolonging life was a "fundamental injustice" of medical and legislative systems.

"I fought as hard as I could but now that my body has given out why should anybody, much less some asshole [sic] politician, dictate that I have to suffer in my final days," he said.

Byrne hoped to be remembered as an honest man who spoke his mind. His friends said he was an animated character with "impossibly perfect hair", had a vivid imagination, mischievous streak and determination to excel in everything.

His funeral will be held on Saturday, October 7.

 - Sunday Star Times


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