Lady June Hillary, a ‘beacon of compassion’ dies, aged 92

Dr Satendra Singh and his wife Kriti Singh with Lady June Hillary at the Government House in Auckland
(Photo Supplied by Dr Satendra Singh)

Dr Satendra Singh
Auckland, June 2, 2024

Standfirst from the Editor: Lady June Hillary, who continued the great work done by her legendary husband Sir Edmund Hillary, died in Auckland on June 1, 2024. She was 92 and is survived by her daughters Sue and Robyn Mulgrew from her previous marriage. Her death came just three days after the 71st anniversary of her late husband Sir Edmund’s world feat of climbing Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. Lady Hillary was the Patron of the New Zealand Nepal Society and served as the Honorary Consul-General of Nepal to New Zealand from 1990 to 2017.
In a note to Indian Newslink, Honorary Consul of Nepal Dinesh Khadka described Lady June as ‘more than a patron of the New Zealand Nepal Society.’
“She was a beacon of compassion, understanding, and unwavering support for the Nepalese community in New Zealand. She regularly attended our community events, and her presence alone was an inspiration to all of us. Her tireless work alongside Sir Edmund in both countries, especially in the realms of education, healthcare, humanitarian efforts, and cultural exchange, has touched countless lives and will continue to inspire future generations. Lady June’s legacy is one of kindness, resilience, and a commitment to making the world a better place,” he said.
The Indian government conferred the title of ‘Padma Vibhushan,’ on the late Sir Edmund Hillary, in recognition of his achievements and the services he rendered during his lifetime to the people of Himalayas. Lady June Hillary received the posthumous award given on behalf of then-Indian President Pratibha Patil by then-visiting Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath at a ceremony hosted by then Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand at the Government House in Auckland on May 22, 2008.
‘Padma Vibhushan’ is the highest among the ‘Padma’ awards given by the Indian government every year on the occasion of India’s Republic Day on January 26 and second only to ‘Bharata Ratna,’ the highest civilian award. The late Sir Edmund was the 13th foreigner of non-Indian origin to receive the Padma Vibhushan award, since its installation in 1954.
In his condolence message to Indian Newslink, Mr Nath said, “Lady Hillary was a wonderful woman, with a heart of gold. She will be greatly missed.” 

Now the Tribute by Dr Satendra Singh

I last met Lady June Hillary two weeks before her passing on 1 June 2024. It was to discuss the New Zealand High Commission’s 2024 Essay Writing Competition for Fijian secondary schools.  Lady Hillary and I have judged the annual competition for the past 16 years.

Kamal Nath, former Commerce and Industry Minister of India with Lady June Hillary after conferring the Padma Vibhushan Award posthumously to Sir Edmund Hillary at the Government House in Auckland on May 22, 2008 (INL File Photo)

A stalwart New Zealander

In that time, Lady June has visited school assemblies with successive High Commissioners in Suva, where we have been able to meet with future leaders whose vision on various salient matters in the Fiji-New Zealand relationship formed the basis of their entries.

This typifies Lady June’s place as a stalwart New Zealander whose reach has been felt beyond our shores, among many communities.

Sir Edmund served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force at Laucala Bay in Suva during World War II. Adventuring was in his DNA. He attempted to climb Joske’s Thumb, a landmark Hill rising from the ground just outside Suva. He failed on two separate occasions to reach the top due to the bad weather mostly.

Sir Edmund went on to reach the top of Mt Everest in 1953, returning to Fiji thirty years later to complete his ascent of Joske’s Hill, with members of the local Rucksack Club of which he was the Patron.

Lady June delighted students in 2012 when she visited schools in Fiji, and we lauded those who had written excellent essays on Sir Edmund’s contribution to the region.

She also charmed students at the Indian Cultural Center of the High Commission of India when she helped them celebrate the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Fiji Centre’s 40th anniversary.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Lady June Hillary with (from left) Veer Khar, Paul Singh Bains, Nimmi Bedi, Ratilal Champaneri and Manjit Singh. Then office-bearers of the New Zealand Indian Central Association honoured Sir Edmund with an Honorary Membership Award at his residence in Remuera, Auckland on June 11, 2007 (INL File Photo)

Bringing people together

Like her husband, Lady June drew people together.

I first met Sir Edmund more than forty years ago and had the privilege of being a part of many projects for India and Fiji with both of them. These included a visit to India in 1990 by Te Waka Huia Maori Cultural Group, silk screen printing for Maori youth, contributing to myths and legends about Oceania for school children in India and Fiji, a Ganesha Exhibition of life-size bronze figures and many ICCR concerts.

Lady June and Sir Edmund were remarkable patrons, giving their valuable time and actively supporting the promotion of Indian culture. Like-minded supporters in Auckland who worked closely on such pathways with us included Sir John Turei and Lady Turei, Dr Ngapo Wehi and his son Tapeta Wehi, the current lead in the Maori group established by his parents. They led a Youth Group to India with me in November 2022 to the International Tribal Festival held in Raipur, continuing the work of his family.

Lady June as always, was an ardent supporter and enjoyed any celebratory occasion that marked close links between cultures.

Lady June Hillary at the Nepal Festival held in Auckland in 2009 (INL File Photo)

A memorable gift

An important occasion for which Lady June will be remembered in Fiji took place in 2012 when former Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Anand Satyanand, handed to Lady Hillary and me a Tabua, gifted to him by the President of Fiji when he assumed the Office of Governor-General in 2006.

This was arranged by the Fiji Vice-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi to celebrate the Governor-General’s close family links in Fiji. At Sir Anand’s request, we handed the Tabua to the New Zealand High Commissioner after traditional Fijian ceremonies, for permanent display at the Official Residence in Suva.

Returning to the place where her late husband served in the 1940s at Laucala Bay, Lady June was the Chief Guest at the University of the South Pacific at a special screening of a documentary about Sir Edmund in Fiji, helping raise awareness of environmental issues long before we truly understood such terms as climate change.

The facility where he served with the RNZAF was gifted by the New Zealand government in the 1960s for the establishment of Fiji’s first university that also serves the region in many significant ways.

Supporting Child Education

Lady Hillary was an ardent supporter of children’s learning. Some years ago, she opened a special daycare centre in Avondale (West Auckland), where preschool children could see how two tall trees that stood in vigil for over 100 years had been carefully preserved and the whole facility made to support the trees, hopefully for many more decades ahead.

Such was Lady Hillary’s reach, benefits and occasions blossomed and those fortunate to be present knew well an iconic New Zealander was among them.

Lady June leaves a legacy that will warm hearts and encourage minds for years to come, in New Zealand and beyond.

Her funeral is expected to take place later this week in Auckland.

Dr Satendra Singh is a prominent community leader with a longstanding service and association with India, his native Fiji and New Zealand. He served as a Justice of the Peace for 43 years before seeking retirement recently. The New Zealand government honoured him with his appointment as the Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2007 (he received the Queen’s Service Medal in 1990) and the Indian government presented him with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award on January 9, 2013 in New Delhi for his services to the community. He lives in Auckland.

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