Jack Raharuhi Hēmi was born on 23 August 1914 at Te Whiti-o-Tutāwake, east of Masterton, the eldest surviving son of Hineipikitia-ki-te-rangi (Piki) Reiri, of Te Whiti, and her husband, Paraikete (Blanket) Hēmi, a farmhand from Pāpāwai. His tribal affiliations included Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne and Ngāti Koata. Jack was one of a family of 13 children and grew up in a time of extreme hardship. He received assistance, however, from neighbours, including several prominent local Pākehā families, from whom he learnt the social conventions of European society. This, coupled with his handsome appearance, physical prowess and sporting ability, shaped him into a charming and sophisticated young man.
Jack Hēmi also spent time living with his mother’s relations, where he learnt to work hard. His first job was on a farm near Featherston, and he later worked in Gladstone and Pukio before shifting to Pāpāwai with his family to take a job at the Waingawa freezing works. When his father died in 1936, Jack took responsibility for his mother and four youngest siblings. Work became an important focus in his life: he was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave each day, and he had little tolerance for laziness or shoddy work. He became an A-grade beef butcher at Waingawa and was the pace-man for the chain, setting the work rate each day.
This attitude was reflected in Hēmi’s sporting career. From an early age he displayed a remarkable talent at rugby. While still a pupil at Te Whiti School he took part in sponsored place-kicking displays for spectators at local matches. He played his early football for Gladstone, appearing at fullback for the Wairarapa representative team in 1933 at the age of 18. He played for the New Zealand Māori team in 1934 and 1935, and was an All Black trialist in the latter year. He continued to impress with his goal-kicking, and on the 1935 Māori tour of Australia, George Nēpia deferred all kicking duties to Hēmi. Five feet eleven inches tall and weighing 13 stone, Jack played mostly at centre on the tour. He scored over 60 points, including two tries, and replaced Nēpia at fullback for the final match against Newcastle.
In 1936 Hēmi switched codes and joined the Manukau rugby league club in its inaugural year. He earned the nickname ‘The Idol’ from the Carlaw Park crowd for his ‘phenomenal’ goal-kicking, and represented New Zealand in the first test against Great Britain that year. Nēpia had also turned to league and in 1938 he joined Jack at the Manukau club. They played together in the New Zealand Māori team which beat the touring Australians, but injury prevented Hēmi from appearing in the two test matches.
The following year, while touring Australia with the national team, Hēmi slotted a remarkable goal against Queensland from 17 yards behind the halfway line. The 1939 tour to Britain was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War, effectively ending Jack’s international career. He never played again for New Zealand but in 1945, at the age of 30, he and his younger brother Lou turned out for Wellington.
Jack Hēmi married Mary Elizabeth Evans in Napier on 2 March 1938; they were to raise a large family. During the war years his working life continued. Being sole provider for his extended family he was exempt from military service and remained at home, shearing, butchering and playing football. He travelled each winter to Onehunga to play for the Manukau club, then returned to Carterton at the end of the season to work in the shearing sheds or freezing works.
Hēmi’s upbringing among Pākehā families, along with his sporting commitments, saw him spend many of his formative years away from his family, and he became more comfortable in Pākehā than in Māori society. As an adult he tended to avoid the formalities of the marae, usually heading straight to the rear to help prepare the meat. It was not until shortly before his death that he stood and spoke on his own marae, and he did so primarily in English. Nevertheless, from the 1950s to the 1970s he was active in local tribal and land committees.
Jack Hēmi died at his family property at Carterton on 1 June 1996, survived by his wife, five sons and four daughters; he was buried at Pāpāwai. He is remembered as a devoted father who worked hard to provide for his family, and as an outstanding rugby union and league player. A gifted runner and kicker of the football, with a representative career spanning 15 years, he remains one of Wairarapa’s most successful sportsmen.