Percy Leo Fowler was born at Litherland, Lancashire, England, on 14 December 1902, the son of Percy Nason Fowler, a clothing collector, and his wife, Christina O’Sullivan, 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 family’s income. He became a paper-boy selling Auckland’s 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 Leo’s 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 Pomare’s 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 ceremony’s 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 marriage.
In 1946 Fowler took charge of the National Broadcasting Service’s 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 service’s 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 station’s 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 service’s 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 Fowler’s second-in-command. Kerekere was a musician, songwriter, cultural tutor and leader of the Waihirere Maori Club. His expertise balanced Fowler’s 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 Tuwhare.