Sat, Oct 9, 2021 1:12 PM

Legacy of John Mitchell celebrated

John Mitchell recently died at the age of 80, having lived a great life of generosity, love and care. Right: John in his beloved Outward Bound warden days from 1974 to 1978. Photos: Supplied.

Erin Bradnock

Mauī John Mitchell will be remembered as a loving family man and generous historian whose approach to life touched the lives many through the region.

John, of Ngāti Tama, Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Toa, and Taranaki Tūturu descent, died on September 23 after suffering from lymphoma for the past 12 years.

According to his wife and research partner, Hilary, John managed to squeeze a lot of living into his 80 years.

Hilary met John when they were both 17 in their first week of study at the University of Canterbury in 1959. After seven years they married in 1966.

John graduated with a BSc in geology, chemistry, physics, and maths, before switching to psychology and sociology. For the next seven years he lectured at Canterbury’s psychology department as the only person of Māori descent on the teaching staff.

From there, it was a chance meeting with the country’s first Outward Bound warden at a party that changed his fate.

“I’d love to do that,” he told Hilary at the time. “That’s real psychology in practice.”

He became an Outward Bound warden in Anakiwa from 1974 to 1978. While Hilary said his pay dropped by half, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Then, the pair turned to tomato growing at their then Rutherford Rd home in 1979. With just his high school tomato picking experience to fall back on, Hilary says his lens on life was “once you take one big risk you can do anything”.

That risk-taking mentality led the pair to set up Mitchell Research in 1985.

After the Waitangi Tribunal was finally permitted to investigate historic claims, John and Hilary set out on canvassing the histories of local iwi. Kaumātua asked John to publish his findings.

“Kaumātua told John it would be a great shame if all that history were to just rot on a shelf in Wellington,” Hilary says.

After the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, their findings were modified to become Volume I of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka in 2004. Their research into regional and personal histories continued well into the 2000s and, in 2014, the pair finished the final book in their four-part Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka series.

Hilary says she was pleased that he lived long enough to see their latest book, He Ringatoi o Ngā Tūpuna, about English artist Isaac Coates and the 58 Māori he painted portraits of, released earlier this year.

John would also reply to hundreds who asked after their own whakapapa. Last year alone John helped 43 people across the country in collating their family history.

“He would reply to them all. He did it because people need to know their own whakapapa,”  Hilary says.

She says John was never an activist by nature but says “someone had to be”.
“You have to stand up for what you believe in, and he always did.”

Wakatū Incorporation says he will be well missed but his legacy lives on his whānau and in his published works.

“His deep love for people, whakapapa and history shone through in everything he did,” a statement reads.