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Desmond Peter Ryan (Des), 1951 – 2011

by John Sneyd

On 4 January this year we lost our colleague and dear friend Des Ryan after a long illness.

We had been preparing for it, of course, but the reality of his death was still a shock as we found it difficult to believe that a man with so much life, so much energy and such inexhaustible good humour had left us.

Des had been a senior solicitor at the Department of Building and Housing since 2005. He was an expert in leaky homes, and in particular the application of the Weathertight Homes Resolution Service Act. There were few, if any, lawyers around the country with his grasp of not only the legislative provisions but also the policy work underpinning the legislation.

He worked on the implementation of the 2002 Act when he was with the Department of Internal Affairs, and at the Department was instrumental in the development and implementation of the 2006 legislation. He was an invaluable resource to the Department’s Weathertight Services Group and was inevitably besieged every day by internal clients who wanted not only legal advice but also just a wise head and good counsel on a thorny issue of judgment.

Leaky homes, though, were just the final chapter in a varied and successful career Des followed. He spent 15 years in legal publishing, and he was managing editor on a wide range of law reports and periodicals.

Des then spent some years doing community work, setting up and administering charitable trusts delivering social support services to alcoholics, addicts and their families. As in all his endeavours, he made a real difference; his work resulted in changes to the methadone programme, he pioneered private needle-exchange services and he set up and ran half-way houses for recovering addicts.

He subsequently returned to the law, working in the Parliamentary Library for 4 years, setting up and editing the Bills Digest during that time.

Six years at the Ministry of Justice as a senior legal advisor followed, specialising in criminal and international law. From there, it was on to leaky homes, first with DIA and then finally with the Department of Building and Housing.

In 2010 Des was nominated for the CLANZ in-house lawyer of the year award. The nomination was intended to recognise his years of high quality customer service to internal clients at the Department, and the enormous contribution he had made to the work of the Department and to leaky home owners across the country. He was delighted to have his work recognised through the nomination. In a recent function at the Department celebrating his achievements, he was deeply moved to receive a framed letter written by Hon Maurice Williamson, the Minister for Building and Construction, thanking him for his outstanding contribution and spirit of public service.

But Des was so much more than the sum of his professional experience and achievements. He was a man of extraordinary warmth, energy and compassion with endless enthusiasm for his work and for the people around him.

Des dearly loved his wife Barbara, and the day of their marriage a few months ago is how I will remember him best – surrounded by those he loved, basking in his adoration of Barb and beaming from ear to ear.

He was fiercely proud of his children, and loved being Koro to his mokopuna.

At work, there was no better colleague. He was a talented lawyer and clients loved him for his warmth and robust pragmatism. In the Legal group we loved him for his irrepressible sense of humour, his concern for his colleagues and the social impetus he gave to the team. And, of course, his unsurpassed style. No-one dressed better than Des. You can only imagine his delight when Crane Bros opened a store in Wellington across the road from the office; no longer did he have to fly to Auckland to buy suits he considered acceptable. It became the ultimate accolade for any new purchase: “Des would wear that”.

He was always the first to a party, and the last to leave. He was always the person responsible for our team meetings degenerating into raucous hilarity. There were always fresh flowers on his desk, his desk that was impeccably clean and tidy. He knew everyone at the Department, and everyone knew him.

Des bore his illness with grace and dignity. He never once complained about the burden he was carrying, but kept playing his role within our team. Only days before his death, at the last team meeting of the year, he had us helpless with laughter at one of his classic one-liners.

In the months before his death, we shared some really special times with him. I look at his empty desk now and I miss him. I’ll miss him even more at our Friday morning teas when he was always at his mischievous best. Every day I think of him, resting in Makara with a view over the hills, and I remember a fine lawyer and a wonderful friend.

I am very proud to have been Des Ryan’s friend and colleague. Haere ra, e hoa.

This obituary was first published in Council Brief, March 2011.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012