Born of Ngati Maniapoto Iwi, Rongo Herehere Wetere was brought up on a farm at Piopio. It was a challenging time and Mr Wetere left school at 15 to help run and develop the family property.
In 1961 he purchased a rundown dairy farm at Ngutunui and during this time, Mr Wetere got his education for life outside school. He joined the local Young Farmers Club where he honed his debating skills and developed his leadership qualities.
Married and with a young family in the late 1960s, Mr Wetere had a career change to become an insurance agent. The family shifted to Te Awamutu and for 18 years he was AMP’s top salesman. A natural progression was into community affairs and leadership roles in Waikato Arts Council, Lions Club, Te Awamutu College Board of Governors and trustee for the Maniapoto Trust Board.
While serving on the College Board, Mr Wetere came face to face with an alarming poor performance by students especially young Maori. He resolved to solve this problem and that decision became a life changing experience. Initially Mr Wetere led the drive and funding for the building of Otawhao Marae at the College in 1983. Mr Wetere’s vision, along with that of others, was to build a ‘marae of learning’ that would provide learning, create employment and empower us all to make a difference.
In 1984 the Waipa Kokiri Arts Centre was established which offered Maori arts and trades training programmes. For the next 25 years he led the organisation from this humble beginning as a small trade training programme to the national institution Te Wananga O Aotearoa which offers free education to over 40,000 New Zealanders.
Mr Wetere believed in taking education to the community, and through his innovations, between 1988 — 2000, built campuses throughout New Zealand and established out reach and distance learning opportunities. Against all odds, Mr Wetere never swayed from his ambition to do more for Maori educational opportunity. He challenged successive governments to do more and on three separate occasions he challenged the Crown through the Waitangi Treaty Tribunal.
Mr Wetere was never satisfied that current tertiary systems reached enough people or satisfied their needs in learning, and his concern was for creating jobs and providing better life pathways for all through education. As well, the Wananga’s method of education has attracted the interest of other indigenous organisations around the world. International leaders visit to seek knowledge and skills to take home for their own people.
Tumuaki Dr Rongo Wetere’s vision conceived Te Wananga o Aotearoa and, through effort and struggle, he has led the institution to where it is today. This was recognised with him being awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Negative publicity surrounding Te Wananga O Aotearoa in 2005 led to Mr Wetere standing down as chief executive. But not one to stand idle, Mr Wetere left to work for Arrowmight International, a subsidiary of the Aotearoa Institute in Canada where he continues his effort for the education of indigenous peoples. He is founding co-chair of the World Indigenous Higher Education Consortium and participates in many forums for indigenous initiatives throughout Canada and the USA.
From humble beginnings as a farmer to the chief executive of a large tertiary institution, Mr Wetere has served his people with commitment and success.
Rongo Wetere was inducted into the Te Awamutu Walk of Fame in 2009 (see video at TATV).