The life of one of New Zealand Police’s longest serving and highly respected officers was celebrated by friends, family and former colleagues earlier this month.
Retired Inspector Greg Gilpin (pictured) died on 26 November after a long illness.
At his funeral in Paraparaumu, he was remembered as a loving husband to Vivienne; proud father to daughters Jo and Gina and son Sam – a Senior Sergeant in Central District; a devoted granddad; and an inspiring mentor and respected leader, whose loyalty and support for his staff earned him the affectionate nickname, ‘The Chief’.
Recalling some of the reflections of those who worked with Greg over the years, his friend and former colleague Detective Inspector Paul Berry said: “He was one of the most genuine, honest men I’ve ever met who was prepared to stand up for the truth. They don’t come much better.”
Greg joined Police as a member of Wing 31 in 1965. At the time of his retirement in 2011, he was the only serving member of his wing and the longest-serving commissioned officer. His career spanned more than 46 years, all in Wellington, including four as Area Commander.
Throughout his career, Greg was involved with some of New Zealand’s most significant events, such as helping survivors as they came to shore from the sinking of the Wahine in 1968; policing multiple high-profile demonstrations during the Springbok tour in 1981; and having a leading role in assisting passengers from the Russian cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov, which sunk in the Malborough Sounds in 1986.
In the mid 1980s, he ran the Wellington Team Policing Unit dealing with highly visible ethnic and motorcycle gangs.
During this time the unit was regularly requested to attend bars in the Hutt Valley and Porirua to deal with major disorder involving these gangs. Greg was prepared to lead his unit to stand up to the gangs and was not easily intimidated.
He was a tough, no nonsense leader and in the words of a former colleague: “His leadership was born out of respect. Every guy in that squad would have walked through hell to follow him.”
Of all the varied events and challenges Greg dealt with during his career, it was his involvement in the immediate aftermath of the Mount Erebus air crash in 1979, and his subsequent quest for truth, for which he is best known publicly.
As a sergeant, Greg was one of the first officers on the ice to lead the Disaster Victim Identification team in the operation to recover victims’ bodies. It was an experience that decades later he said never left him.
In the aftermath of the disaster, Greg fought tirelessly to have the pilot of the doomed flight, Captain Jim Collins, exonerated and he privately and publicly supported the Collins family. This fight ultimately led to a public apology from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Air New Zealand Chair in 2019 for how the flight crew and families had been treated.
“This tragic event shocked New Zealanders and led Greg to devoting years of his life fighting for the truth to be told,” said Paul.
“The long-standing grievance about the injustice to Captain Jim Collins and his flight crew consumed Greg, a man of principle who wanted the truth heard.”
Greg received a commendation from Commissioner Bob Walton in recognition of his outstanding service during the recovery operation. In 2004, he became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand Police.
It wasn’t until 2007, that Greg and others involved in the recovery operation were awarded the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus).
Retired Inspector Stuart Leighton, who was a constable when he worked alongside Greg on Mount Erebus, said he was “a truly inspirational leader”.
“His fight for truth and justice in the Erebus tragedy and our recognition was unwavering,” he said.
“His compassion for the families was equally strong and he went above and beyond to ensure any information we had or could obtain was passed on to those families.”
Sam Gilpin said that was typical of his dad, who he described as tough but fair, an inspiration to many and “an operational cop through and through”.
“He was a man of principles and morals who’d stop at nothing to put things right, he said. “Not for himself, but for others.”
Sam said the five things that mattered most to Greg were his family, friends, faith, Police and rugby. And he remained loyal to them all.
“Superman had nothing on Dad as we were growing up and this remained true throughout the years,” said Sam. “He could fix anything, sort out any situation and always make everything better.”
Greg was fiercely proud of being a police officer and Sam said that as a child he was in awe of the amazing stories his dad would tell him of the jobs he’d dealt with.
“So many of these were from his enquiry office and team policing days which he enjoyed the most in his 46-year career,” said Sam.
“All I ever wanted to do was to follow in Dad’s footsteps and join Police, to experience what he had and work alongside him.
“In the end, I had the privilege of working with Dad for 10 years. I was so proud of him, and still am.”
After the funeral, more than 100 current and former Police staff formed an honour guard to farewell Greg as the hearse carrying him left the church.