John Te Herekiekie Grace was typical of a group of Māori 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 Māori 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 Māori society and culture and two of his sons married Māori women. The other important line was through Te Herekiekie of Tokaanu, a senior chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and leader of Ngāti 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 Whanganui.
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 Māori 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 Māori 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 (Māori) 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 Māori in 1949 but the party endorsed Iriaka Rātana, the widow of the former MP and president of the Rātana church, because the Rātana 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 Māori 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 Tūwharetoa Trust Board on a more businesslike basis and found suitable office space in Tūrangi for the Tūwharetoa proprietors of an incorporated land block to manage their affairs. He also initiated the afforestation of Māori land around Lakes Taupō 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 Māori seat but instead stood for Whanganui in 1963 and 1966. His reasonable (albeit unsuccessful) showing opened the way for other Māori 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 Māori Education Foundation, the Māori 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 Tūwharetoa 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 Māori 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 Whanganui. He remained keenly interested in tribal developments, serving on the Tūwharetoa Trust Board, the Lake Rotoaira Trust Board and the Taupō forestry trust. He remained a regular attender at meetings to discuss Māori issues until his last years. In 1985 he developed cancer of the lungs. He died on 11 August that year at Whanganui, survived by his wife. After cremation his ashes were interred at Tokaanu.