The week of the Christchurch earthquake, Jerry Mateparae was spotted collecting donations at the Wellington Railway Station.

Just retired as the Chief of Defence Force, he was wearing a Rotary apron over the civilian workclothes he wears as head of the Government Communications Security Bureau.

By that time, he was holding a Big Secret. He was to become the next Governor-General.

It didn't stop him getting out and shaking a bucket for fellow New Zealanders in Christchurch.

And when he takes on the role in August, it probably won't stop him doing ordinary things like that.

That's the man that people who know him talk about - someone with his feet on the ground, in touch with people, and who wasn't weighed down by the braid he accumulated in high office.

The person who identified Mateparae at the rail station was TVNZ's Te Karere reporter, Joe Glenn.

Glenn was one of the NCO trainers for selection courses into the Special Air Service when Mateparae applied in the 1970s.

One memory that has never left him was of the young officer turning up to Glenn's checkpoint halfway through one of the gruelling tests in sandhills near Helensville.

Mateparae, a couple of hours ahead of the others, limped in with a boot off, saying: "I don't want to give up but I don't think I can carry on with my foot like this."

Glenn says it was the worst blister he had ever seen: "The whole ball of his foot had come away and was just hanging there."

Glenn advised him to put his foot in a basin of methylated spirits in the back of the checkpoint truck. "I knew he'd put his foot in because there was an almighty scream from the back of the truck."

About 10 of some 60 hopefuls got into the SAS that time. Mateparae was in the top two.

Mateparae followed an uncle into the Army, though he had initially been turned down for officer training when he applied in Wanganui in 1972. Instead of being crushed, he clearly persevered. His oldest son, Jerry Mateparae junior, is also in the Army.

Soldiers on the ground speak with pride of the appointment.

SAS Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Parson told the Weekend Herald that Lt-General Mateparae had been an excellent leader, with "a common touch that appeals to soldiers".

"We also felt that he would 'back' his people and that gave us great confidence to work hard for him.

"In the SAS he was an air trooper and among his cohort, stories are regaled of night-time parachute drops and long and arduous patrols in jungle and desert.

"He carries himself with great mana. I'm sure that as Governor-General he will be a unifying force in our country and will represent it superbly on the international stage."

Parson's view of his former boss is a commonly held one.

Glenn isn't surprised the 56-year-old Mateparae he has done so well "but in his own style - nothing bolshie, nothing big, just a quiet unassuming guy who got things done - and more. He's the sort of guy who would probably go home after work and go for a five-mile run."

Glenn is probably not wrong. Mateparae's CV states: "His interests include keeping fit, diving, reading, sport, and health and well-being."

Mateparae had been mentioned in early speculation last year as a contender and scored highest in a poll by the Republican Movement in February.

The choice was ultimately Prime Minister John Key's and there are some common features between the men: both were ordinary youngsters from ordinary homes who used every opportunity to achieve extraordinary success.

Neither is a great speaker, neither has charisma, both are bright but not brilliant, and they each relate easily and well to others.

Both are popular because they are ordinary people who use what talents they have to maximum effect.

Key got to know Mateparae when they went to Gallipoli a year ago, where they shared the shocking news of the tragic Anzac Day helicopter crash north of Wellington.

They returned for the funerals of the three airmen then headed back to Dubai to prepare for Key's secret trip to Afghanistan.

TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner recalls the long, loud trip on the Hercules to Kabul, the chief sitting among his men, back bowed, hands locked together, contemplating.

"He is exceptionally good shape for his age. You would have thought he was another one of the men," says Espiner.

"He didn't have any swagger about him but you kind of thought you wouldn't want to mess with him. I don't think there'd be too many takers for breaking into Government House if he was around."

One well-placed source tells of a time he did decide to pull rank against a promising young NCO who had been identified as the best candidate for an important post.

The NCO didn't think he was ready and turned down the job.

He was summoned to Mateparae's office.

"Who the f ... do you think you are?" the boss said. "You have been identified as the best person for the job. I think you are ready. Are you accusing me of being wrong?"

"No sir," came the reply.

"Well get out of my office and get on with the job," he said.

Publicly, Mateparae's profile has been less forceful. He has presided over tragic deaths of defence personnel and had to apologise for the "bloody embarrassing" fiasco over the hiring of fantasist Stephen Wilce as chief defence scientist.

Helen Clark's Labour Government appointed Mateparae as Chief of Defence Force in 2006. He was the first Maori to hold the post.

Four years earlier he had been named head of the Army, the second Maori after Brian Poananga to hold that post.

He has three adult children with his late first wife, Raewynne - who died in 1990 - and two teenage boys (17 and 14) with his second wife, Janine. Mateparae is on the Board of Trustees at Palmerston North Boys' High School, which a son attends.

His childhood was complicated. As a whangai child, he was adopted out to relatives - born to the Andrews and given to his birth mother's brother, Tete Mateparae, to raise.

Both set of parents were strong in the Ratana faith. Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia remembers them well, particularly Sam Andrews, who gave religious instruction at her marae.

Of both sets of parents, she says, "They were absolutely wonderful people. The good thing about [Mateparae] is that he has grown up with very, very strong values

"You can hear it in the way he expresses himself about his pride in who he is, with his genealogical links but also his pride in being a New Zealander.

"Because of that, because he is a well-rounded person, he will make a really good Governor-General."