By Ashley Wickham
Those who watched his state funeral heard the official story of his life and about his many significant contributions and accomplishments in his public life.
What more can be said of this wonderful man? Plenty! and his many friends can tell you more. Here are some of what I know of this famous man.
He was known by his friends and family as a warm, friendly, well-loved, generous and courageous person.
From his early days in school he was recognised as a person of substance, someone reliable, someone who was respectful of others, someone who was worthy of recognition and respect, someone you could trust. And he repaid this trustfully throughout his lifetime.
His personality and courage were first noticed at St. Gregory’s college at Campbelltown near Sydney where he excelled in rugby league and athletics.
Later in life when he visited Canberra as Speaker of Parliament, he was welcomed by the then champion rugby league team the Canberra Raiders. The champion players of the team were Mal Meninga, Laurie Daly, and Ricky Stuart who all went on to play in the Australian national team, the Kangaroos. Their coach, Mr. Tim Sheens who shared a desk with Paul at St. Gregory’s.
After High School, Paul went to Rabaul where he studied land valuation, and again became a rugby league star. He was a winger for the all-conquering Crusaders team and went on to represent the Niugini Islands. Rugby league was and still is the most popular team sport in PNG.
On the social side, Paul was a minor celebrity in Rabaul as his surname began with the letters ‘To’ which is common in many Tolai names. Among his team mates at the Crusaders was Ratu Timoci Vesikula who later entered parliament in Fiji. Among others there at the time was our cousin Milner Tozaka who would also later enter parliament.
On the sidelines were a group of my cousins who grew up in Rabaul, ardent Crusaders fans, one of whose husband also played with Paul.
In 1969 the South Pacific Games were held in Port Moresby. Two of our best rugby players were studying in PNG at the time, so they didn’t have to take the ten-day boat trip from Honiara to Port Moresby – and back.
They were Aquila Talasasa and David Campbell. My brother Adrian remembers that Paul collected a loose ball on their goal line and ran 100 meters to score the winning points over New Caledonia to win the bronze medal, the only rugby medal so far won by a Solomons rugby team.
Paul enjoyed family life, community life, sporting life, and life in the bush and mountains. As an MP, he walked many miles in his constituency in the mountains of Guadalcanal.
Many times he walked across Guadalcanal. On some of those occasions, he would drop in on his friend Fr. Percy McSweeney the parish priest in Avuavu who would walk with him back across the island. And then they would play golf!
Fr. Percy’s relatives and friends in New Zealand built him a house at Henderson, and the good priest willed it to Paul and Julie on his death in the early 2000s.
Paul and Julie became very involved in the community of golfers in Honiara. Recognized for his dignity, he was elected as a life member in early 2000. Every year at the Golf club he would watch the NRL and the State of Origin rugby league matches and cheer his favourite ‘Blues’. He was as noisy as the rest of us. The golfing community always ensured he had the best seat to watch the games.
Of course, Paul did not succeed in his endeavours on his own. His good wife Julie was always at his side, and when he was knighted in 2019 we his friends took great delight in calling her ‘Lady Julie’.
She is a much-respected person in her own right and we want her to know that we recognise and thank her most sincerely for supporting this great man whom we have come to love and respect. She mastered his language, learned his customs, and interacted appropriately with the elders and people of his tribe. This was important as he was their paramount chief.
I was honoured to accompany Sir Paul on one of his last official overseas visits and mention this to demonstrate how well-known and much respected he was by the leaders and officials in neighbouring countries.
It was July 2010 and the national general elections were about to be held. MP’s and ministers were very busy campaigning as was then Prime Minister Dr. Derek Sikua who asked Paul to be the Solomons delegate to the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Port Vila. He tasked me with accompanying and supporting him. I expected to be very busy. But I need not have worried.
From the time we arrived in Port Vila, the Vanuatu diplomatic staff and the staff of the Forum Secretariat took over and I only had to ensure he was comfortable in our accommodations.
He was treated as a Pacific elder statesman, accorded every courtesy, and even attended the Retreat usually reserved only for Prime Ministers and Presidents, which he was asked to open with a prayer. This was a singular honour that even surprised Paul.
Notice I am referring to him by name before he was knighted in 2019. Many of us believe he should have been knighted earlier.
When Sir Paul began ailing he had medical checks which (he told me) revealed a kidney problem. We expected he would be taken for overseas specialist treatment since we didn’t have a renal specialist and I understand there is also no dialysis equipment. Perhaps those in power can move to rectify this. We should look after our senior citizens better.
We do however acknowledge the hard work of our medical staff – nurses and doctors and all who supported them in caring for Sir Paul.
He was a man who will long be remembered as a fine example of a Solomon Islands family, community, tribal and national leadership.
We would be blessed if younger aspirants to leadership in our communities and country look to Sir Paul Tovua as their model and inspiration.