Frank David Winter (registered as Francis David Charles) was born at Waipukurau on 5 January 1906, the first child of Caroline Blanche Thomas and her husband, David Horatio Winter, a telegraph linesman. His grandmother, Eliza Thomas (Raiha Tamati), had lived on Stewart Island and was a member of Ngati Irakehu, a hapu of Ngai Tahu. His parents were both born in Otago and moved to Hawke’s Bay shortly before his birth. When he was 13 his father died and his mother went out to work, becoming the postmistress at Mohaka and subsequently Clive. In later years she was to live with Frank’s family in Gisborne and in Wellington.
Frank Winter was educated at Te Aute College, where he was dux in 1922. He began to study law at Victoria University College, but left without completing his degree. In 1924 he joined the Native Department as a cadet and for the next nine years was employed in its Ikaroa and South Island district office in Wellington. During this period he began a lifetime study of Ngai Tahu and their claims, and spent many leisure hours searching government archives. As young clerks he and John Grace travelled around the South Island with a group investigating the Ngai Tahu claim.
On 10 June 1931, in Wellington, Winter married Perle Hera Rakapa Taiaroa, one of the first fully qualified Maori dental nurses. Born at Otakou, she also was of Ngai Tahu descent; both of her grandfathers, H. K. Taiaroa and Tame Parata, had been members of the House of Representatives and of the Legislative Council. As a bonded dental nurse, she served in New Plymouth from 1928 to 1931, when she was free to marry Frank after a five-year engagement. They were to have three daughters and three sons (one of whom died in childhood). Perle and Frank strongly believed that education was the path to the future and also shared a passion for Ngai Tahu issues and history. Perle had learned whakapapa as a child and for many years helped Frank record and document Ngai Tahu information. She was to become vice president of the Wellington section of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association, president of the Poneke branch of the Maori Women’s Welfare League, and vice president and treasurer of its Wellington district council.
In 1933 Frank Winter transferred to the Native Department’s Tairawhiti district office in Gisborne, where he was senior court clerk for five years and later a consolidation officer. During the Second World War he tried three times to enlist in the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion and was bitterly disappointed he was rejected on medical grounds. He served instead as an instructor at the Home Guard Maori training camp at Hicks Bay.
Winter had a lifelong passion for social justice and workers’ rights. He was an early and energetic member of the New Zealand Labour Party, and later actively campaigned on its behalf. In 1926 he had been elected a departmental representative on the Wellington section committee of the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA). When he transferred to Gisborne he became a departmental representative and was later secretary of the PSA’s Gisborne section. In 1947 he brought his family (including his mother) back to Wellington to take up the position of assistant general secretary of the PSA. In 1961 he became deputy general secretary, serving until 1964. He was a strong advocate of government superannuation, maternity leave and better working conditions. Immediately after his retirement from the PSA he became national secretary of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.
However, his most significant public role was his 20 years’ service as chairman of the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board (1956–76). On election as chairman, Winter, who represented North Island Ngai Tahu, faced a crisis over poor administration, and after an investigation the board’s secretary resigned; subsequently, professional accountants were retained as secretaries. With board members he vetted all applications for grants, adopting a firm policy that only trust beneficiaries were to benefit from the board’s funds, and tightened the rules concerning the provision of loans and mortgages. He supervised financial investments, including the purchase of real estate, and eventually transferred several properties to a non-taxable charitable trust for education purposes. He lobbied for and presided over the gradual reduction of the government’s supervisory role over the activities of the board, and made numerous representations on behalf of Ngai Tahu groups to government departments and other bodies.
In the 1960s there was a resurgence of dissatisfaction among Ngai Tahu over the 1944 settlement of their claim. Unlike other Maori trust boards, whose compensation was to continue in perpetuity, the last payment to Ngai Tahu was scheduled for 1973. In 1966 and 1969 Winter petitioned Parliament seeking legislation to amend and extend the Ngaitahu Maori Trust. In June 1972 he and the board met the four Maori MPs to canvass support, and with the help of Matiu Rata and Philip Amos their plans were included in the Labour Party’s manifesto. When Labour became the government later that year, Winter’s proposals were incorporated in the Maori Purposes Act 1973. During his time as chairman he helped to build a thriving and efficient organisation, laying valuable foundations for the future settlement of Ngai Tahu’s claims.
Winter also served on the Waitangi National Trust Board, chaired the Akapatiki A Block Incorporation (a Maori farming interest on the Otago Peninsula), and was a member of the Mangakino Township Incorporation. He served on the Te Aute Trust Board for some years and became patron of Victoria University’s Maori club, offering support and hospitality to many Maori students in Wellington.
At the time of the 1960 All Black tour of South Africa Winter was a prominent member (and national treasurer) of the Citizens’ All Black Tour Association, which campaigned to stop the tour with the slogan ‘No Maoris, no tour’. Although over 150,000 New Zealanders signed a petition opposing the tour, it went ahead. Winter had grown up with rugby greats such as George Nepia, who, despite their talent, were never considered for tours to South Africa. Later, he was appalled when Maori in the 1970 All Black team were given the status of honorary whites while touring South Africa.
Frank Winter was equally proud of his Maori and Pakeha ancestry and was passionate in his support of New Zealand. He steadfastly rejected the offer of a royal honour, but looked forward to the day when New Zealand would have its own awards system. His vision was of a strong New Zealand where Maori sovereignty was fully recognised. A tireless worker for Maori and for social justice, he was a man of great energy, humour and compassion. Despite developing a terminal illness he continued working from his bed until hours before his death, at his Wellington home on 28 March 1976. He was survived by his wife, Perle (who died in 1982), two daughters and two sons.