Our People: Janet Wepa

By Jill Nicholas

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Janet Wepa. Photograph by Ben Fraser
Janet Wepa. Photograph by Ben Fraser

Year of hard knocks has ousted councillor reflecting on past and firing up to move forward

Janet Wepa an alternative lifestyler of the '60s - who'd have thought?

Our source is impeccable, it's a fact of her life the former Rotorua councillor delivers in person, but she does qualify it with the declaration she was never a fully-fledged hippie.

We're talking in the aftermath of Janet losing the seat she first won in a 2002 by-election for the then West Ward.

It's a painful conversation but she's hopeful her ousting has sealed the stopper on what, for her, has been a terrible year.

Her husband Matthew died on Easter Sunday; less than two months later their grandson suffered what Janet brands a "horrible accident". Out of respect for him and his parents she prefers not to elaborate, other than say the weeks he spent on life support in Starship Hospital was one of her rare times away from the council table during her 14-year tenure.

But there's no way she'll use that, or her husband's death, as excuses for her defeat which she accepts is the way of the democratic world; that not being re-elected was always a real possibility.

Put the hard word on her why she thinks she did lose and, family commitments apart, the answer's she was probably working too hard on council affairs to push her own barrow with the force she might have.

"In retrospect I should have just focused on marketing myself, hindsight's a fine thing as is often repeated."

Picking up that hindsight keyword we engage her in some looking back of her own, encouraging her to take us through her life's time tunnel which is where we discover this seemingly mainstream woman's unlikely connections to the Flower Power era.

It harks back to her teenage years, unsurprisingly a bloke was involved.

Through him she became a committed Christian at 16.

"I had this boyfriend who invited me to an evangelical service in Masterton and I felt what I know now, the understanding that God is real and not a man made of concept."

She married "the bloke" when she was 19 and two years into nursing training.

"I got married far too young, had two children, we were married five years."

Her husband was drawn to poet JK Baxter's Hiruharama commune at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River.

"I went up there with a little baby, there were no facilities like running water, washing nappies in a creek cured me of thinking I wanted an alternative lifestyle, you go through phases, learn from them."

We tell this groomed, carefully coiffured woman our mind boggles at the thought of her being a hard-core hippie.

She admits to the long hair that was members' hallmark "but I was far too trendy to wear Roman sandals".

She was at Hiruharama when she met Matthew Wepa, the carver from Rotorua who used the area as a hunting base.

"We got to know each other over a period of time, married, had three more daughters, he always considered my girls his girls."

After seven years in Levin Matthew brought his family north in 1986.

They built a two storey home on Ngongotaha Rd, to be precise Matthew did.

"The builder didn't seem to know what he was doing, employed an engineer to sort out the ground conditions, foundations then Matthew took over, learning from a book out of the library. The building inspector was convinced we couldn't do it... all these years on that house has stood the test of time."

Initially a stay-at-home mum, Janet became involved in community organisations, working part-time with the Red Cross when the girls grew older.

All her daughters are musical, play instruments, this led her to running the Sheraton Concerto, continuing when it merged with the Lockwood Aria, spearheading its contemporary section. Rhapsody Rotorua is another annual commitment.

We raise the subject of her Destiny Church involvement and quiz her about its controversial leader.

"It was Pastor [now Bishop] Brian Tamaki's passionate preaching from the Bible that first attracted me to Destiny. His vision for encouraging everyone to reach their full potential really resonated with me. Matthew joined about a year later and together we produced and organised Easter and Christmas productions for a number of years."

Janet declines to be drawn into the controversy that's followed the bishop pinning the Kaikoura quake's cause on human sin.

Janet's learned a thing or two about commenting publicly during her council years.

Her entry into matters politick came when Rotorua's then MP, now mayor, Steve Chadwick invited Janet to run her second parliamentary campaign.

"I managed to pull it together in three months so I will take some of the credit for Steve's success, her fundraising. After that I was doing various things in the community when Steve said 'why don't you stand for council?" Matthew had stood unsuccessfully a couple of times, was very disappointed he didn't get there.

"I knew nothing about local politics but I prayed, committed the idea to God and had real peace that it was the right opportunity to take."

Being an elected councillor became a full time undertaking. She's held a host of roles, sat on a slew of committees including representing the council on the Arts Village and St Chad's Trusts and is a qualified Resource Management Commissioner.

All was going swimmingly in the Wepas' lives until seven years ago when Matthew was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"He was only 56, by the time it was discovered it was in his bones, we were told he had about 18 months to live, five years maximum, he beat that by two years, he was really grateful to meet lots more grandchildren and a great grandchild, he's left me with lots of people to care about."

Now with unscheduled time on her hands where to from here?

"I have a number of ideas, there's a lot to think about, but I'm taking my time before committing to anything new, my grandson still requires 24-hour care, I'm helping with that."

JANET WEPA
Born: Masterton, 1954.
Education: Harley Street Primary, Masterton Intermediate, Wairarapa College.
Family: Widow, five daughters, 12 grandchildren, one great granddaughter.
Interests: Family, church. "Up to now I haven't had a lot of spare time but I love music, going to the theatre, reading, gardening. I'm going to spend more time on exercise."
On Rotorua: "It's an amazing city, full of contrasts, the people, the environment."
Personal Philosophy: "Value life, it's so fleeting."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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