SOMEWHAT tetchily Anaru Rangiheuea accused Our People of being persistent. To pin down one of Te Arawa's most senior kaumatua we had to be.

His 81st birthday may be looming but it's a rare day when he's not out by 8am - home late. The time between is devoted to a raft of trusts, organisations and projects, the majority dedicated to his Tuhourangi iwi.

When we eventually snared him, he was preparing for a judges' hui at Whakarewarewa.

Anaru knows a thing or two about the justice system; that for youth offenders traditional courts tend not to work, that Nga Kooti Rangatahi (marae-based courts) where iwi, hapu and whanau come together to tunnel down to the root causes of offending often do.

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"They [miscreants] have to learn their pepeha [ancestral connections], many are ignorant of their heritage because their parents don't know and respect it either."

Sharing the informal court's bench with a judge and fellow kaumatua and kuia, his wisdom's been honed by a lifetime devoted to tikanga Maori (practices and protocol).

Put another way - he's the former truckie who is one step away from a knighthood. He became Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008, nine years after his admission to the Order.

Each recognises his dedication to bettering his people's lot, 30 years' membership of Te Arawa Trust Board, six as chairman, included.

He was a pivotal figure in this region's Treaty settlements and securing the lakes' return to Te Arawa ownership. That achieved, he stood down from the trust board, declining a place on the replacement Lakes Trust. "It was time for younger people to keep the waka rolling."

Long before that, he led the charge to save Whakarewarewa's geyser field, winning the infamous 1987 "Bore Wars" that saw all bores within 1.5km of the area closed.

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He insists, again a tad tetchily, all this is already well known, this newspaper's archives are full of articles in which he features, that Our People's compiler has written a fair few, ergo what new can be said about him?

That, we say, is entirely up to him. Our objective is to be given a history lesson of Anaru Rangiheuea by Anaru Rangiheuea. "High time," says a moko, who agrees he's far too backward in coming forward about himself.

Slightly appeased, he agrees to begin where his life began - in Te Teko.

He wasn't there long before being whangaied (adopted) by Murupara farmers "I was privileged to have two sets of parents ... I was hand-milking cows as soon as I could reach the teats."

Sent to Wesley College at 14 to study agriculture, he came home convinced dairying wasn't making the best use of whanau land.

Tuhourangi kaumatua Anaru Rangiheuea, right, and architect Fred Stevens with designs for a proposed marae at Lake Tarawera. Photo/File
Tuhourangi kaumatua Anaru Rangiheuea, right, and architect Fred Stevens with designs for a proposed marae at Lake Tarawera. Photo/File

"I managed to influence my father to sell [the herd] and in 1955 bought my first truck for 3000 , started carting waste products, moved on to metal from the quarry on our farm. They were building the Kaingaroa Forest roads and the new railway line to Kawerau, we were busy, busy, my truck was my home."

When the quarry ran dry, he contracted to local councils and carted logs to the region's mills.

In the mid-1980s, he sold his truck to a nephew and began what was to become his entree to serving others.

Long before that, he'd married June Skipwith, settling in Rotorua in 1962. "I just loaded up the truck and over we came [from Te Teko]."

With 10 children, June steered him towards school committees and boards.

"Western Heights Primary and Kaitao Intermediate, I chaired them for a while, had some great people on with me."

If he thinks some compliment may be directed his way, he's adept at deflecting it, crediting others.

June was, and remains, the centre of his universe. When she died in 2000 he buried her on the Tuhourangi iwi land the couple had moved to overlooking Tarawera's lake and the mountain whose eruption claimed so many of his iwi's lives.

In real estate speak the setting is a "piece of paradise". It is June's paradise for ever and a day.

"Once, I said 'Mum, if anything happens to you I'll bury you in our garden.' I went to the council, the Maori Land Court, got it registered as a cemetery reserve."

June Rangiheuea's grave isn't just any grave, it's a tomb.

"She thought that was a lovely idea, it would let the moko play on top of her - they do. My mates say my wife's there so she can keep an eye on me. When my time comes, I'll be buried with her. It's a commitment we made to each other."

Anaru has high hopes it will be some years yet before he joins June. "My father and two sisters died in their 90s, so if I can get to at least 90 before I get to the finish line I'll be happy."

There's a lot remaining on his "to do" list. Topping it's a marae for Tuhourangi but on the proviso it's shared with Tarawera's predominantly Pakeha residents. "It will only make the marae's function stronger."

Like June's tomb, it won't be bog-standard. Anaru plans a glass wharenui framing the site's stunning view "with two galleries behind to display our culture, our carvings".

It's his vision, it will come with mod cons, including beds that can be lowered so kuia can sleep alongside bodies during tangi.

"A lot can't get down on the floor any more, have to go home. I've got the same sort of idea for elders with LazyBoys on the paepae. I've only had one objection, it was from a Maori who said it wasn't traditional.

"I asked what's traditional? Life changes every day, we have to have cultural changes for the people, all people's convenience."

We leave him on his treadmill: "I've got a lot to keep fit for."

ANARU RANGIHEUEA:
BORN: Te Teko, 1935.
Education: Rangatahi Native and High Schools, Wesley College.
FAMILY: Wife the late June Rangiheuea, five sons (another deceased), four daughters. Moko? "Where do I start? About 28."
INTERESTS: Whanau, iwi affairs, "fundraising for my marae", fishing, boating, repairing vehicles, "grubbing weeds".
ON WINNING THE 'BORE WARS': "I'd do it again in a heartbeat, it's my legacy."
PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY: "Service to my people and your people too."