New Zealand Law Society - John Adam Wilson QSO, 1914 - 2010

John Adam Wilson QSO, 1914 - 2010

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John Adam Wilson QSO has been described as “… an excellent lawyer, an outstanding citizen, a wonderful man.”

He spent most of his 50-year legal career in the firm of Gault Mitchell & Wilson (now Gault Mitchell Law). He was still working in the firm well into his eighties. He was in his 97th year when he died recently.

John Wilson grew up on the West Coast where his father, A A (“Batty”) Wilson, practised law all his life and was Crown Solicitor for Westport. Born in 1914, John was the youngest child of four with three older sisters. The game of golf, at which John was more than competent, was part of his upbringing. A family history relates the story of John and his parents heading off to play at the Westport Golf Club. “Getting to golf was an adventure in itself. His father would push the bike to start it – then his mother would get on with John holding on behind and together with two sets of clubs and the picnic afternoon tea, they would sally forth.”

John Wilson was a fine golfer who got down to a 1 handicap and played in the New Zealand Open. Over many years, John played an important role in the development of the Royal Wellington Golf Club at Heretaunga. Among other golfing successes, he won the Law Society Devil’s Own tournament at Hokowhitu in 1947.

He went to Nelson College as a boarder and then studied law, first at Canterbury and then extramurally through Victoria while back in Westport. He was admitted to the bar in Westport in June 1937 by Mr Justice Northcroft in a sole admission ceremony.

John Wilson worked in his father’s firm for a time but in the Depression there was not enough work and he moved to the North Island to fill a one-year locum in Malcolm Ward’s practice in Featherston. When John joined the army in September 1940, Ward already being overseas, he tidied up the practice, handed over to Card and Lawson, and closed the "Wartime service"

He became an officer, volunteered for the Indian Army and was posted to the First Punjab Regiment, training in India for six months. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the regiment was sent to help in the defence of Singapore where John was wounded in the leg and was fortunate not to have been killed in the Alexandra Hospital massacre. He was taken with other prisoners of war to Thailand in October 1942 to work on the Burma railway where he spent three and a half years of dreadful physical and mental deprivation, somehow surviving until the end of the war.

When he finally returned to New Zealand in October 1945 he weighed just a little over 40kg!

John Wilson joined the firm of Holdsworth Gault & Mitchell in January 1946. The firm, which soon became Gault Mitchell & Wilson, had three partners: Charlie Gault, Sir Hamilton Mitchell and John Wilson. A partner in later years, Andy Marshall, said at the funeral that had the three partners wanted to develop the firm into a major commercial firm they could easily have done so, given their abilities.

“They chose a different path. They made a decision to dedicate some of their considerable talents and energy into charitable works and community causes and they encouraged others within the firm to do likewise. They gave themselves about a day a week to community causes.”

John Wilson was an excellent lawyer, Mr Marshall said, whose sharpness of mind and ability to get quickly to the heart of matters enabled him to assist his clients with their commercial and property concerns.

“John approached the practice of law as a member of a profession, not as a businessman… John’s primary concern was always how he could best apply his skills to help his client. A true professional, the focus was on service rather than income.”

He built a large practice and acted for many years for organisations in the expanding travel and tourism industry among many other areas. He spent a part of each week working at the firm’s office in Tawa where he developed a strong personal following. Many of those clients still remain with the firm.

“John was a delight to work with. He was much loved by his partners and the staff… he was polite, calm, unflappable and charming and he treated all those in the office, and indeed his clients, exactly the same, with real concern for their interests with courtesy and respect.”tc "Red Cross work"

While working hard at his legal practice, John Wilson was also making a significant contribution to Red Cross in New Zealand. During the 1960s John and his wife Judy developed the Upper Hutt Red Cross branch into one of the strongest community organisations in the Hutt Valley.

John was soon elected to the national executive and then became national president. Jerry Talbot, who was Red Cross secretary-general at the time, said John brought admirable personal qualities to the benefit of Red Cross.

“Commitment, hard work, energy and readiness to always take on new challenges are all trademarks of John’s involvement… He did things with a combined sense of purpose and enjoyment. Nobody can forget his delightful sense of humour. He had a charm that was infectious, affecting the people around him.”

Mr Talbot said John Wilson’s contribution had been particularly important in three significant areas: drafting the trust and establishing the NZ Red Cross Foundation, setting the stage for future growth; leading the restructuring of the Red Cross organisation towards professionalism and business-like programming, without alienating valued volunteers; and working with then Professor Kenneth Keith to establish a government inter-ministerial committee for the dissemination of international humanitarian law, as part of the government’s responsibility under the Geneva Conventions.

On this last Mr Talbot said: “Clearly, John’s own experience influenced his determination to do what he could to create the environment where inhumane treatment of people during war becomes totally unacceptable and wrong.”

John Wilson was an exemplary lawyer and also a family man. John and Judy were together for 61 years and lived at their beloved house in Chatsworth Road, Silverstream, for 60 of them. They had three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. So far the Wilson family has produced four generations of lawyers which include John’s son Rupert who was a partner at Chapman Tripp for over 25 years and John’s grandchildren Kate and Tim who are both practising law in Wellington.

John Wilson was an admired and much-loved person who lived an active and full life. He had a quick wit and wonderful sense of humour; he had no false pretensions, was thoughtful of others, was an outstanding member of the profession for all of his practising career and generated enthusiasm in those around him.

This obituary was first published in Council Brief, August 2010.

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