St John would not take no for an answer when it approached Lady June Blundell to take her late husband's place as president of the community services division in the mid-1980s.

"I said 'no' but they sent two groups of people to come and convince me ... They said, 'I promise you, you will never have to speak in front of anyone.'

"But there has never been any St John occasion where I haven't got to my feet to have a waffle."

Lady June, widow of former Governor-General Sir Denis Blundell, was speaking yesterday at the release of First to Care - which celebrates 125 years of St John - where she was presented with a certificate for her 37 years of service to the ambulance service.

The 87-year-old was admitted as a Commander of the Order of St John in 1972, the same year her husband was appointed Governor-General by the Queen, and was later made a Dame of Grace of the Order.

In 2004, she was appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the order and is now the St John northern region patron.

Community care manager Dennis Dufty said Lady June, also the Child Cancer Foundation patron, had shaken at least 3000 St John Cadets' hands and had as many photos taken with them in the 25 years since becoming involved in the youth programme.

"One mother came up to me the other day and said, 'I'm so glad to meet you. My daughter has your photo over her mantelpiece'," Lady June said.

First to Care, by author, commentator and historian Graeme Hunt, details St John's New Zealand start in Christchurch in April 1885, about 800 years after it was formed in Jerusalem by Benedictine monks.

A Christchurch St John volunteer is credited as the first member in the world to deliver first aid at a rugby match, and possibly at any sporting match.

In 1891, 22-year-old grocer's assistant William Bowden, who had recently acquired his St John first aid certificate, came to the aid of rugby player William Larcombe, who had been knocked unconscious. Mr Bowden had been watching the game from the sidelines.