| Percy Leo Fowler was born at Litherland,
Lancashire on 14 December 1902, the son of Percy Nason Fowler,
a clothing collector, and his wife, Christina OSullivan,
a schoolteacher. In 1910 the family emigrated to New Zealand,
where his father had gone earlier and was working as a pork grocer.
They were not well off, and as a young boy Leo was expected to
contribute to the familys income. He became a paper-boy
selling Aucklands evening newspaper at a lucrative site,
an intersection with a hotel on each corner. Groups of Maori sat
outside one hotel and he became friendly with them. When older
boys tried to take over his site, the Maori, who had taken him
under their wing, scared the bullies away.
The family succeeded in drawing
a government land ballot, a 50-acre block at Taumarere in the
Bay of Islands. On the property were Maori burial caves, and
Leos father built a house nearby in an area regarded by
Maori as tapu. Leo had developed friendships with local Maori,
particularly with the Ngati Manu rangatira Nepia Pomare of Te
Karetu. An impasse developed between the Fowlers and Pomares
people. His father could not afford to shift the house, while
the Maori were deeply concerned about the violation of tapu.
Pomare resolved the problem. He adopted Fowler and performed
on him a purification ceremony, cleansing him, and by association
the house, of tapu. At the ceremonys end Pomare removed
his prized heirloom greenstone ornament and gave it to the boy.
The farm failed, however. Fowler
had attended Pakaru School but had no secondary education. He
took up a variety of jobs tram driver, miner, bullock-team
driver, reporter and grocer. On 5 March 1922 in Auckland he
married Avis Mary Isabella Egan. They had two sons, but divorced
in 1933. On 7 December that year in Auckland he married Lulu
Alyth Weigel, with whom he had a son and a daughter. During
the depression he did a series of temporary jobs, including
working in a public works camp, managing an orchard and selling
flowers door-to-door. He also became involved with the Auckland
WEA, for which he held debating and public speaking classes,
and was a member of the Fabian society. In 1937 he joined the
National Broadcasting Service as an announcer, and in 1939 he
published Pit poems. During the Second World War he served with
the Army Education and Welfare Service and edited Kiwi News
, the newspaper of the 3rd New Zealand Division, published in
New Caledonia. He divorced Lulu in 1942, and on 21 August that
year married Mavis Louise Shute; they had a son, who died young.
Leo subsequently had a daughter from a relationship after this
In 1946 Fowler took charge of the
National Broadcasting Services mobile recording unit.
During field trips as organiser and producer, he began to record
Maori people. He was sensitive to Maori customs and acted as
a mediator between Maori and broadcasting staff. Continually
frustrated by the services not making funds available,
he placed koha (donations) from his own resources on to the
marae. He made recordings at hui and private homes. His persistent
involvement with Maori communities earned him respect from leading
Maori scholars, including Rongowhakaata Halbert, and he formed
a close friendship with Hetekia Te Kani te Ua, a noted orator,
genealogist and historian whom he regularly consulted on aspects
of Maori culture and history.
Fowler was director of broadcasting
in Western Samoa from 1949 until 1952, when he became manager
of the Gisborne radio station 2XG. Shortly after arriving in
Gisborne he was accorded a Maori welcome, at which he was informed
by tribal elders that 50 per cent of the radio stations
audience was Maori but no programmes were designed for a Maori
audience. He was asked to bear this in mind and subsequently
broadcast recordings he had made earlier with the broadcasting
services mobile unit.
Fowler helped establish the Gisborne
museum and was its honorary director from 1953 to 1955. He was
a member of the Polynesian Society, the New Zealand Archaeological
Association and the Takitimu Tribal District executive committee.
From 1955 to 1960 he was a member of the dominion executive
of the New Zealand Red Cross Society.
In 1964 Fowler left Gisborne for
Wellington, to form the Maori programmes section of the New
Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. Wiremu Kerekere of Waihirere
became Fowlers second-in-command. Kerekere was a musician,
songwriter, cultural tutor and leader of the Waihirere Maori
Club. His expertise balanced Fowlers understanding of
the politics of broadcasting and his familiarity with the organisation.
Fowler organised a nationwide Maori song-writing contest in
1966, the first of its kind. Response from Maori and Pakeha
was enormous, prompting him to comment that the contest was
the most important thing he had done in broadcasting.
Fowler retired from broadcasting
in 1966. He had published the historical novel Brown conflict
in 1959 and in 1974 published Te Mana o Turanga , the story
of the carved meeting house on Whakato marae in Manutuke, near
Gisborne. He had fallen in love with the house when he first
saw it 20 years earlier.
He returned briefly to Gisborne
as liaison officer for a television film, Songs of their forefathers
, featuring Maori culture and entertainment including performances
by the Waihirere Maori Club, with which he had been associated
for many years.
Leo Fowler died in Auckland on
3 November 1976, survived by his wife and his children. Before
his death he had asked to be buried at the feet of his friend
Hetekia Te Kani te Ua. His request was granted by his family
and by the people of Waihirere. During his tangihanga two poems
were read: one, his 1939 composition, Immortality;
the other, composed for the occasion by his friend, poet Hone