William (Wiremu) Leonard Parker was born at Mākarika station near Waipiro Bay, on the East Coast, on 4 February 1914, the son of Ngāti Porou parents William Leonard Parker, a farmer, and his wife, Te Oharepe Ruta (Ruth) Collier. Bill was educated at Hiruharama Native School and attended Te Aute College (1930–36), where he became a prefect and captain of the First XV. He occasionally worked on the Te Aute farm during holidays to offset fees. Family members looked up to him as the mātāmua (senior member), and recalled his early sense of responsibility and his deep love of his family. From his father, who was self-taught, a prodigious reader and a Herculean worker, he learned the discipline of hard work and reading.
The family had respect for both Pākehā and Māori knowledge and Bill developed a sense of the strength of Māori traditions. He later used to show students his missing little finger, which was amputated in a childhood accident, and tell of how his grandmother quickly insisted that it be buried as an honoured part of his body, in an appropriate place and with appropriate Māori ritual. Neither he nor any of his friends would dream of swimming where the taniwha were to be found. From listening to marae debates he established the basis of his expertise in Māori culture and language. He was to model himself on figures of authority among both Māori and Pākehā, especially those whose knowledge meant that their words commanded respect. He learned much about mediating between these worlds and between the old and modern Māori worlds by listening to the talk of Apirana Ngata.
After leaving Te Aute College, Parker began a BA degree at Victoria University College in 1937. He and his friend, Hēnare Ngata, lived at Weir House and suffered from the cultural strangeness of Wellington and university life. They found it hard to settle at their studies, and Parker left to join the Department of Education in 1938.
On 17 May 1940, at Wellington, Bill Parker married Matakaihoe Josephine Takarangi, a dental nurse, of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. They were to have a daughter and two sons; another daughter died in infancy.
Parker had assiduously practised his use of Māori, and was a model speaker and writer. In 1943 he was appointed New Zealand’s first Māori news broadcaster after being recommended by Māori MPs to the cabinet. He became a household name in every Māori community in the country, and built up a reputation as a skilled journalist and broadcaster, and as a highly respected and admired exponent of the language. He covered the arrival back in New Zealand of the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion in 1946 and provided the poroporoaki (farewell) to Ngata on his death in 1950.
Bill Parker also enjoyed debate. He became a leading figure in Māori intellectual life at a relatively early age and was able to debate all matters Māori with authority. He appeared at the fledgeling Māori students’ conferences in the 1950s and was held in a good deal of awe by the participants. He contributed to the discussions and was regarded as a particularly perceptive kaumātua. There were conflicts, however. He upset some Ngāti Porou who believed that the individual’s strongest loyalties were to the hapū and iwi, and that Māori in the city should be seen frequently on their home marae. He was prepared to debate dogmatic traditions and strictures, and often did. In addition, the circumstances of the difficult choice to sell the family farm on his father’s death created some ill feeling towards Parker from some of his Ngāti Porou kin in later years.
In the late 1940s he and his family moved to Auckland, where Parker continued to work for the Department of Education and became involved in the administration of Māori schools. However, he was unable to settle in to the department in Auckland, and Matiu Te Hau was a major influence in steering him towards the field of adult education. When a vacancy came up in Wellington in 1950, the family moved back, and Parker became a tutor in adult education at Victoria University College. He became a lecturer in 1964.
Bill Parker now became a familiar figure in Māori communities throughout the lower North Island. Through his lectures he shared his knowledge of and insights into Māori culture, introduced courses and ran programmes in mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge). As part of this work, Parker decided to try re-educating an entire community in the full range of mātauranga Māori , from marae-based courses on the language to practical skills in the various arts. He chose the Ngāti Parewahawaha community at Bulls and worked with them over a period of 10 years. In that time they built and opened the carved meeting house Parewahawaha. Parker himself was responsible for urging the people of the community to decorate the house in the traditional manner, rather than proceeding with plans for a plain house. He remarked to a kaumātua of Ngāti Parewahawaha, ‘That house you are planning will be no different from my father’s woolshed’. Two notable carvers, Hāpai Winiata and Whetū-mārama-o-te-ata Kereama, emerged out of this programme.
From 1967 Parker worked alongside Te Kapunga (Koro) Dewes and Hirini Mead teaching Māori at Victoria University of Wellington. Because of his knowledge and experience in things Māori, Parker was a leader in postgraduate teaching. His counsel as a Māori language expert was wise and trusted; many of the country’s writers on Māori studies and Māori history consulted him in this period. He himself wrote for Te Ao Hou and other publications on proverbs, waiata and his other areas of interest. Regarded as one of the foremost translators of Māori, he was an editorial consultant and translator to numerous projects, and a member of the committee that revised H. W. Williams’s Dictionary of the Māori language and of the Advisory Committee on the Teaching of the Māori Language. In 1985–86 he acted as a Māori adviser to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography project; he was influential in commending the project to Māori groups, and in assuring them that the language would be treated with respect.
Bill Parker’s association with broadcasting continued until his death. From 1964 he compèred a weekly radio series, ‘The Māori Programme’. In 1981 he was a consulting editor and major contributor to David Somerset’s radio programmes, later published as a booklet and three tapes entitled Whaikoorero: ceremonial farewells to the dead. It is a highly regarded addition to the bilingual literature of New Zealand. He continued to broadcast book reviews, but his major contribution in later years was to the staff training programme for both radio and television. His services to the development of broadcasting in New Zealand were recognised in 1986 by the establishment of the Wiremu Parker Scholarship for Māori trainees by the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand.
Parker was a member of numerous professional bodies and national committees, including the Māori Purposes Fund Board from around 1965, the Polynesian Society, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, the UNESCO education sub-commission, and the National Development Council. In 1972 he visited Australia, South Korea and Japan, where he was deeply impressed by Japanese artists and craftspeople. He spent a refresher leave in Wales, and became pessimistic about the survival of Welsh in a supposedly bilingual country. He was made an MBE in 1976.
Parker retired from Victoria in 1980, but continued to teach part time. He was one of the team who began building a marae, Te Herenga Waka, on campus. After his retirement, he was awarded the title of ahorangi (professor). An attempt by Mead to encourage Parker, then in his mid 60s, to complete a postgraduate degree, was rejected by him, with the comment that he was too old to become a student again and that it was best for him to enjoy being an elder.
Parker died in Lower Hutt on 10 November 1986 after suffering from cancer of the pancreas. He was awarded an honorary LittD by Victoria University on his deathbed. His tangihanga was held at Pipitea marae, Wellington. He was later buried at the Te Puni cemetery in Petone alongside his infant daughter. He was survived by his wife and children.