Robert Agrippa Moengaroa Waitiri (later Whaitiri), commonly known as Bob, was born in Bluff, Southland, on 9 May 1916. Through his parents, Robert Agrippa Waitiri, an oysterman, and his wife, Mariam (Miriam) Effie Te Aroha Tōpi Pātuki, he could claim links with Ngāti Māmoe, Waitaha and Ngāi Tahu, and was related to the Whaitiri family of the Chatham Islands. He was the youngest of three children and the only one to survive into adulthood: his brother and sister died young of tuberculosis. At 13 months he was fostered with his mother’s relations, the Lloyds, in Puketeraki, north of Dunedin, where he stayed until he was 13, attending Seacliff School. When his brother died his parents took him to Lake Waikaremoana, where his father worked for the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts as launch master.
Bob was sent to Te Aute College, but his formal education was cut short when in 1931 the Hawke’s Bay earthquake partially destroyed the school. Along with other senior boys he helped with rescue work in Hastings, before making his way back to Lake Waikaremoana. He found temporary employment with the tourist department assisting his father on the launch and guiding people around the lake. He learnt Tūhoe history and began to develop skills as a communicator and leader. After three years as an apprentice in the motor trade at Rotorua, he guided at Waiotapu, Wairākei, Waitomo Caves and the Chateau Tongariro. He worked (eventually full time) on Lake Tarawera as assistant launch master and guide.
In 1937 Waitiri-Lloyd, as he was now known, joined the Territorial Force. He entered Burnham Camp in October 1939, and joined the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion. He rose to sergeant and saw action in Greece, Crete (where he was wounded), Syria and North Africa. He returned home in June 1942 to become an instructor for replacement troops, and was discharged as medically unfit in August 1943.
Bob Waitiri-Lloyd married Ida May Mills (née Martin) on 15 August 1942, in Auckland; they were to have one daughter. After the war he rejoined the tourist department in Rotorua and worked towards his marine engineer’s ticket. In 1946 he gained a master’s ticket which enabled him to carry passengers on launches. He made a strong impression on overseas tourists with his good looks, spotless white uniform and historical and geographical knowledge of the area. Ida, a first-class pastry cook, added to the couple’s renown.
Bob’s mother, Effie, died in 1951, and the following year he and Ida returned to Bluff, then a bustling port where work was plentiful. Back on home ground, he adopted the original spelling of his family name, Whaitiri, and dispensed with the Lloyd. He worked for the Bluff Harbour Board, in charge of a steam dredge, and was engineer on the Rānui , which fished in Fiordland. He was also skipper of a pilot launch, and tug master for the company building the new Bluff wharf. For a short time he was foreman of a rock crusher at Greenhills and, later, factory manager for Fowler and Roderique, fish and oyster merchants. His last paid employment was with the Southland Harbour Board in its general works department and, finally, as watchman. He retired in 1976.
In the North Island Whaitiri had voted in a general electorate, but on returning to Bluff and becoming involved in the affairs of the local Māori community he had transferred to the Southern Māori roll. In 1956 he was voted onto the Ngāitahu Trust Board as the Murihiku representative. He remained on the board until 1986, and made a major contribution to its development and instilled new life into Murihiku Māori. He became secretary of the Hokonui Trust Board in 1967, chairman of the Murihiku tribal executive, and a foundation member of the New Zealand Māori Council. Whaitiri also served on the executive committee of Te Waipounamu District Māori Council and, much later, was a director of Murihiku Holdings.
In his retirement Bob Whaitiri was busier than ever representing Māori, and particularly Ngāi Tahu, on boards and committees such as the Rūnanga Matua, the Tītī (muttonbird) Island Committee, the Ngārimu VC and 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund, and the Waitangi National Trust Board. In 1962 he was presented with the Māori Education Foundation’s certificate of life membership, and he was awarded a Kaumatua Award by the Council for Māori and South Pacific Arts. In 1990 he was chosen to represent his people as head of Te Rūnanganui a Tahu.
Whaitiri’s community services were not limited to Māori. For 31 years he was on the executive of the Bluff RSA; he was president for a decade and was awarded the coveted Gold Star. He served as president of the Bluff branch of the New Zealand Harbour Board Employees’ Union in the 1970s. Whaitiri was also appointed to many boards and committees, including the Fiordland National Park Board, Southland Catchment Board, Southland United Council and Southland National Parks and Reserves Board.
As respected elders among their people, the Whaitiris were widely known as Uncle Bob and Aunty Mary. Bob’s knowledge of whakapapa, of Māori culture and of regional and national history was prodigious. He was called on often for advice, support and information. He always gave willingly and in the spirit of his ancestors.
Robert Whaitiri died in Invercargill on 11 July 1996. Ida had predeceased him, in 1973, and he was survived by his daughter, grandson and three great-grandsons. People from many parts of the country attended his tangihanga at Te Rau Aroha marae, Bluff. He was then ferried to Ruapuke Island to join his ancestors, accompanied by those brave enough to face the howling wind and mountainous seas on a day well suited to a rangatira of the deep south.