Mad Butcher shared close bond with Taranaki league stalwart
Taranaki rugby league has lost one of its greatest supporters.
Esme Myrtle Tamati died in Waikato Hospital on Tuesday. She was 94.
For more than 55 years, Esme volunteered countless hours of her time to the Waitara rugby league club.
Every week she washed the players' jerseys, which were often seen billowing in the wind on the clothesline outside her property.
She even re-mortgaged her house, along with a group of others, to stump up the funds to help build the league club headquarters at Waitara's Clifton Park.
Close friend and the face of the New Zealand Warriors rugby league team Sir Peter Leitch - better known as The Mad Butcher - described Esme as a "special" person.
"She was a very dear friend. She was just what I would call a beautiful lady," he said.
Leitch first met Esme in the late 1970s.
"We just became friends over the years. If I was ever in town I always saw her," he said.
He said the thing which "really bonded" them was a series of cards Esme sent to him during a period of ill health.
"They got me through a very tough time," he said.
In 2010, Esme was one of eight women recognised by the NRL for their contributions to rugby league. She was also made a life member of Taranaki Rugby League and the Waitara Bears club.
"Rugby league in the Waitara area owes her a lot," Leitch said.
"She was one out of the box."
Along with her contribution to sport, Esme helped out in the kitchen during functions at Owae Marae for 20 years and volunteered at Waitara's Foodbank and its Corso community recycling store.
Friend and fellow Corso worker Fiona Clark said Esme worked there for years before leaving in 2013, at the age of 90.
Esme was a thoughtful, kind woman and a "great role model," Clark said.
"She was really quite an extraordinary person."
Son Howie Tamati - a former Kiwis player and coach one of Esme's six children - said his mother was "legendary" for the cards she would give to family members, taking special care to choose the right one.
The Waitara woman had 20 grandchildren, 43 great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren.
This thoughtfulness meant she never forgot a birthday or a special occasion but her love of people extended beyond her family, he said.
She was tireless in her support for the Waitara community and its people as well.
"We've been blessed to have someone with a value set like that - her honesty, her integrity and her giving heart," he said.
Tamati said there had been an outpouring of messages from people following news of Esme's death, something he put down to the number of people she had connected with over the decades.
He said she watched five generations of rugby league players go through the Waitara Bears club alone.
"She watched them grow from kids to men. She fed them, cared for them and loved them," he said.
"And she never lost one jersey off that clothesline either," he said.
Esme will be farewelled on Friday at a service to be held at the Waitara High School hall.