From an office boy running errands to retiring as the head of the then Whangarei Borough Council in a stellar career spanning 42 years, Frank Wilson saw the district develop enough to become a city.

The 93-year-old was given a wooden spoon with names of council staff inscribed in it for his "stirring" service when he retired as the general manager and chief executive of the Whangarei City Council in May, 1981.

Yesterday Mr Wilson spoke candidly to The Northern Advocate ahead of a special ceremony today to mark Whangarei becoming a city 50 years ago.

While at school, his father thought he wasn't fit to sit the matrix exam and instead of proving him wrong, Mr Wilson secured work as an office boy just four days before Christmas in 1938.

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He clearly recalled the mayor then was Bill Jones.

A five-year hiatus from the then council followed after he joined the New Zealand Army's pay office in 1941 and he even went to war in Italy but in a non-combative role.

After the war Mr Wilson returned to the council as an accountant and remained in the treasury section until retirement.

Recalling the district turning into a city on May 21, 1964, Mr Wilson said: "Everybody thought it was a big deal but it didn't worry me one way or the other because it was declared a city only because we had X number of people living here at that time." All transactions, he said, were recorded painstakingly in written form and the fact that he just missed the advent of computers when he retired doesn't bother him.

Mr Wilson said the council's core functions and the need for people to pay for services they received were as much relevant these days as they were back then.

"I used to say to people 'anything you want you have to pay for it because Santa Claus doesn't live here'."

He lamented the council's decision to get involved in non-core activities such as the Hundertwasser project and funding towards Toll Stadium upgrade and upkeep.

"They should keep out of it because they're wasting big money when they can't get rid of sewage on Rathbone St," he said.

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Mr Wilson said he was amazed at recent developments on the fringes of central Whangarei.

"Before 1981, the town planners said to me the town would go towards Okara Park way and they were dead right."