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‘Markham Tom’, big-hearted PNG pioneer, dies at 83


Tom LeahyTHE REMARKABLE TOM LEAHY – Papua New Guinea pioneer, planter and politician – passed away in Toowoomba at the weekend aged 83.

Leahy was known universally as “Markham Tom” – for his bonds to the soil and people of the Markham Valley in the Morobe district. He was the first European farmer to settle those vast savannah plains soon after arriving from Queensland as a 17-year-old in 1947.

He planted cocoa, copra, rice, sorghum and peanuts and grew cattle on his Maralumie farm and soon became inextricably linked to the people of his new land and home.

He was elected to the first local government council in his area – Huon Gulf – and his 15 years of service gave him a broad understanding and connection that would shape his life and affect many.

Tom Leahy represented Markham in the House of Assembly (of the newly-united PNG) from 1968-72 and his contemporaries included two young men who would play a huge part in the history of their country, Michael Somare and John Guise.

Leahy became leader of government business ensuring passage of bills through parliament and a member of the Constitutional Planning Committee.

In 2000, the 25th anniversary of independence the PNG government honoured him with a citation commending him for his contribution to the country and its people.

Tom Leahy was part of a family ‘dynasty’ whose surname became synonymous with PNG history since the 1930s after four uncles migrated from Queensland to New Guinea in the interwar years. (His uncle, Mick Leahy, was immortalized in the documentary First Contact). He was intensely proud of his clan.

But Tom Leahy’s achievements were distinct and unique – he was the ultimate individual.

The big-hearted Irish-Australian who would passionately add PNG to his DNA – was a beloved character who loved characters. He was both plain speaking and well-spoken, a widely-read raconteur who could turn a riotously funny yarn into a lesson in philosophy. He was fierce in spirit and gentle in nature.

Perhaps that nature was best demonstrated by the mutual respect between him the people with whom he spent so much of his life: the Markhams, the folk of Erap, Chivasing and Gabsonki, the tribesmen of the Wains and Wantoats who also worked Maralumie and the broader communities of PNG he represented.

His immaculate Tok Pisin gave him even more currency, as did his curiosity and respect for their customs, traditions and lore.

He was intrigued with the spirit world and the politics of PNG and these would dominate two fascinating books he later penned, including, of course, Markham Tom.

Many words will be written and tales exchanged about Tom Leahy long after family and friends gather to farewell him on the Darling Downs later this week

But for the moment these lines from his friend Kitty Ginter in her foreword to his second book Tamburan, Others and Me gives a flavour:

One of the first things that impressed us about Tom was the way he moved seamlessly between races and tribes, between town life and village life and also among the bureaucrats, bankers and administrators in PNG; a rare skill in those days of inflexible social barriers.

Tom is survived by his children Peter, Ann and Neil and grandchildren. Family and friends will gather for a graveside ceremony at the Myall Lawn Cemetery at Dalby (near Toowoomba) at 11am this Saturday 4 August.


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Domhnall & Máire Uí Mhurchadha

We had the pleasure of meeting with Tom in the late seventies while on one of his first of many visits to Ireland to establish his family origins. What an interesting individual who loved to share his experiences with us, while also showing remarkable interest in our day to day living.
A physically strong man whose gentle nature alloyed to his sense people and place made him a wonderfully interesting conversationalist. Small wonder that he was revered by those whom he encountered at home and away.Ae dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal

Jan Berry (nee Skardon)

Although I did not know Tom Leahy, I arrived on the Gold Coast Qld in 1970 and met Peter and Ann Leahy (twins).

He would have been proud of them as they are such nice people and have been good friends over the years.

My thoughts go to his children.

Joe Wasia

It’s sad to learn the stories of the great people who were instrumental in building this nation when we could not do so in its infant state.

Young talented people like Tom Leahy, Graham Pople, Paul Bustin and Jack Karukuru whose stories are told on PNG Attitude, and of course our great contributors Bob Cleland, John Fowke, Keith Jackson and others.

They moved to PNG in 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in different areas of business, politics etc and are now in their old age. They survived so many challenges in their lives.

We appreciate your input in building this great nation. And we pay tribute to those great people who left us. May their souls rest in eternal peace.

Bob Fulton

I met Tom in the late 1960s in PNG. He was a Director of Talair and in Australia, Flight West Airlines.

A wonderful guy, great sincere friend.

There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of Tom and the memories of our 40 odd years of friendship.

Donald and Marjorie Weaver

We first meet Tom and his wife Pam when we did a farm stay there in 1991, and stayed in touch with them, again staying with them in 2000 when we were again in Au.

We were there in 2010, but sadly Pam had passed away. However, we spent a week with Tom in his new home in Dalby, and had a very enjoyable visit with a very intelligent and knowlegable man.

I made several attempts to contact Tom after he sent us his book, but was unable to reach him by phone or email, and feared that something was wrong.

Our daughter just sent us this information today.

God Bless you Tom, rest in peace, from your Canadian friends, Don and Marjorie Weaver.

Mark Gapi

Tom you are a true PNG. Mi hahamas lo contribution blo yu lo PNG

Heather Pegg

Great man, great friend. After living with my family and working with Tom I got to know him and had many funny times.

He talked of his beliefs in the spirit world and he always seemed to find the positives in life.

When comming back to Australia we stayed in contact. You will be greatly missed Masta Tom.

Jim Dudgeon

I also was sad to learn that Tom had died. I first ran into him at his place on the Markham in the 50's.

Then afterwards we ran into each other in Dalby and at Warra when he would attend the ANZAC Day ceremonies.

We chatted together about old times in New Guinea and I considered him a great friend. I'm going to miss him.

Dave and Sally Maunder

Tom was a great man and has been an inspiration to many.

His books are amazing, as he fitted so much into his 83 years.

He helped so many in PNG and also in Australia. Tom was also in local politics here in Australia, and did a great job as a member of the Wambo shire council at Dalby for several terms.

He was a big reason why my brother and I decided to work in PNG, on a fly in fly out roster.

Tom said that it would be a great experience and a big adventure, which it certainly is.

It was a excellent service today in Dalby for Tom, and he was farewelled by many. He will be sadly missed.

Zenaleze Abage

A man with a heart of gold who will be missed by all who knew him.

Thanks to him for the establishment of the Constitutional Planning because, from that commitee we now, have the Ombudsman Commission.

Thank you so much for being a pioneer in PNG's history.

Annette Peterson

Sincere thanks to the late Tom Leahy for a job well done.

He was truly a lion-hearted hero who ultimately billed his life for the common good of our people.

To mention a few traits of him will linger in the hearts of patriots who truly cherished and understood the spirit world and politics of indigenous Papua New Guinea.

We will all surely miss him. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Raymond Rifireka

Thanks to Tom Leahy. As someone from Markham you really did an excellent job during the time of my grandparents. You may rest in peace.

Bernard Yegiora

Very remarkable person.

Many thanks to his family and Rest in Peace.

Keith, I am sending the link to my students.

Mrs Barbara Short

I remember I met Tom Leahy in 1971 when I was teaching at Brandi High School.

We were visited by the Administrator’s Executive Council, (AEC), which held a most interesting Question and Answer session with the assembled school.

The AEC had been set up in May 1968 to increase the degree of internal self-government. It remained an advisory body to the Administrator, Les Johnson, and included national members of parliament who were to learn the ropes, but most power still seemed to lie with the Administrator.

Tom Leahy, who was their spokesman, outlined the functions of the AEC to the students and then the students put questions to the various local members of the AEC. I was impressed by the way Tom Leahy handled his role.

As far as I remember, in the 1972 elections a Pangu candidate surprisingly beat Tom Leahy by 99 votes and it was reported that he "feared the worst for PNG".

I guess he could forsee the problems that we have been discussing on PNG Attitude. Let's hope this newly elected group of politicians will start to give their priority to "solving the problems of PNG" and put the country before self!

John Wali

Rest in true peace, Markham Tom. Thanks for your contribution to PNG's nationhood.

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