Page 1: Biography
Grace, John Te Herekiekie
Ngati Tuwharetoa; interpreter, public servant, community leader, high commissioner
This biography, written by Graham Butterworth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
John Te Herekiekie Grace was typical of a group of Maori leaders that emerged in the 1950s. They represented a second generation of well-connected men who prided themselves on their loyalty to the Crown and their support of the Anglican church and believed Maori could develop within the framework of existing conditions.
Two lines of descent were important to John Grace’s identity. The first was from the missionary Thomas Samuel Grace, who was recruited by Bishop George Augustus Selwyn in 1850. Grace appears to have had some sympathy for Maori society and culture and two of his sons married Maori women. The other important line was through Te Herekiekie of Tokaanu, a senior chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa and leader of Ngati Te Aho. His grand-daughter Rangiamohia married John Edward Grace, a sheepfarmer of Tokaanu and son of T. S. Grace. Their son, John Te Herekiekie Grace, was born on 28 July 1905 in Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui’s (Major Kemp’s) house in Wanganui.
Grace’s mother died in 1908 when he was three. He received his primary schooling at Tokaanu and attended St Stephen’s Native Boys’ School, Auckland, and Wanganui Technical College. When he was 15 his father was unable to support him at school and he was taken away to earn money for his fees. Working as a driver with a Hawke’s Bay bus company he saved enough to attend Te Aute College as a boarder. There he excelled at sport, especially running and rugby, and passed the junior civil service examination.
On leaving school he lived with an English aunt at Auckland, where he studied for his Maori interpreter’s licence, gaining a first-grade pass. The results of his education were to make him a meticulous, competent and courteous person, qualities that were coupled with a fine sense of humour and a pleasant disposition. He greatly admired Apirana Ngata and considered him the greatest orator and thinker the Maori race had produced.
In June 1926 Grace joined the Department of Lands and Survey, where he did a course on surveying. He also joined the Territorial Force and was commissioned in 1927. He took up golf after breaking his leg playing rugby. Playing golf, he said, enabled him to make many friends from all walks of life.
Grace transferred to Wellington in 1928 as a clerk in the Native Department. He joined the Wellington Territorial Squadron but was discharged when he was found to have tuberculosis. In 1935 he gained his flying certificate and in 1938 he became a member of the Territorial Air Force. Meanwhile his career was progressing in the Native Department. In 1935 he became a clerk interpreter working for the Native Land Court judges, first in Wellington, then Hastings and finally Rotorua. He married Marion Linton Tennent (née McGregor) on 15 July 1940 in Wellington. There were no children from this marriage, but Marion had two children from an earlier marriage.
His career was diverted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Ngata wanted him to be an officer in the 28th (Maori) Battalion, but Grace found that he would be unable to pass the medical examination. Drawing on his flying experience, he served in New Zealand as a squadron leader in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and received the Air Efficiency Award.
His career blossomed after the war. In a 1943 letter to Ngata he had hoped to ‘get back to help my people in their struggles against the unsympathetic pakeha’. He initially returned to the Native Department’s head office in Wellington as a re-establishment officer. In 1947 he was appointed private secretary to the native minister, Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Grace was to have been the New Zealand Labour Party candidate for Western Maori in 1949 but the party endorsed Iriaka Ratana, the widow of the former MP and president of the Ratana church, because the Ratana movement intended supporting her as an independent if she was not the Labour candidate.
The National Party won the 1949 general election and Grace became private secretary to its minister of Maori affairs, Ernest Corbett (and later to Keith Holyoake). As by this time administrative decisions were increasingly made by the department, with the minister confining himself to making policy and monitoring the work of the department, Grace was less influential in this position than his predecessors had been. He assisted in setting up the Tuwharetoa Trust Board on a more businesslike basis and found suitable office space in Turangi for the Tuwharetoa proprietors of an incorporated land block to manage their affairs. He also initiated the afforestation of Maori land around Lakes Taupo and Rotoaira.
After the Labour Party won the 1957 election John Grace found his new minister, Walter Nash, uncongenial. He resigned as private secretary in 1959 and bought a farm outside Wanganui. Once quit of the public service, he was able to seek a political career, and became a vice president and dominion councillor of the National Party. He did not attempt a Maori seat but instead stood for Wanganui in 1963 and 1966. His reasonable (albeit unsuccessful) showing opened the way for other Maori to be selected as candidates by National.
In the 1960s Grace’s public prominence increased. He had considerable presence, being a tall and well-presented man who expected others to perform to the best of their ability. His 1950s appointments to the New Zealand Geographic Board and the National Historic Places Trust were supplemented by appointments to the Maori Education Foundation, the Maori Purposes Fund Board, the New Zealand Nature Conservation Council and the National Council of Adult Education. His reputation was enhanced by the publication of his book Tuwharetoa in 1959. He had worked for 15 years on researching the book, and from its first publication it was recognised as a tribal classic.
Grace’s first wife, Marion, died in 1962. On 21 June 1968 he married Dorothy Merle Kirkcaldie (née Paterson), in Wellington. He had no children himself but was an affectionate and attentive stepfather to Dorothy’s children from a previous marriage. That same year he was knighted for services to the Maori people.
In 1970 Sir John was appointed as the first New Zealand high commissioner to newly independent Fiji, where he was involved in the promotion of forestry. The first Fijian governor general and the deputy prime minister had been at Wanganui Technical College with him so he had good rapport with the government.
On his return he sold his farm and retired to Wanganui. He remained keenly interested in tribal developments, serving on the Tuwharetoa Trust Board, the Lake Rotoaira Trust Board and the Taupo forestry trust. He remained a regular attender at meetings to discuss Maori issues until his last years. In 1985 he developed cancer of the lungs. He died on 11 August that year at Wanganui, survived by his wife. After cremation his ashes were interred at Tokaanu.