Keeping a secret while being ribbed at her birthday celebrations was hard going for one of the country's newest Dames, June Mariu.

The former Silver Ferns captain turned 80 on Friday and Rutherford College in Te Atatu, where she once taught physical education and Maori, threw the Westie identity a party.

She got lots of teasing about her lifetime habit of turning up late for virtually anything from past pupils Yvonne Willering, another national netball captain, and entertainer Pio Terei.

True to form, she had been held up by a hair appointment and the search for something purple to wear.


Hundreds packed the school hall to share memories and laugh with the lady they called Aunty June or Mrs M.

Students, ex-pupils, staff, politicians and entertainers mingled but Dame June told the Herald she was struggling to keep mum about being made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Saying what needs to be said comes more naturally to the cheerful Te Whanau a Apanui and Ngati Porou grandmother who has worked tirelessly for women and youth.

Dame June established an alternative education programme at Te Kotuku Marae in Te Atatu, is the current national co-ordinator of Aotearoa Netball, and is a former Maori Women's Welfare League president.

She said young people were close to her heart and she hoped to continue working with them for many years.

Former Cabinet minister John Tamihere, who sweetened his speech by singing Prince Tui Teka's ode Mum, told the crowd she had tough love down to an art.

"Even though she's called me a little mongrel, she's been able to get the best out of me and look sideways at the worst of me."

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples said she was a woman of purpose who knew how to make community things happen.