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Bob Francis receives national recognition

Well-known local icon Bob Francis is enjoying a well-deserved turn in the national spotlight, after being named as the 2024 Kiwibank Senior New Zealander of the Year.

His win was announced while he was sitting on the stage in front of 900 guests at Auckland’s Viaduct Events Centre in Auckland on Wednesday night alongside the two other finalists in the seniors category – intersex advocate Mani Mitchell, and botanist and ecologist Neill Simpson.

Formally known as Bob Francis CNZM QSO MBE JP, he prevailed on the night on the strength – and longevity – of his community service, leadership, and commitment to improving the region’s health services, not to mention his seven terms as mayor of Masterton.

When the Times-Age caught up with Francis on Thursday he said he was “grateful to have won”.

“I wasn’t too nervous sitting on the stage; I’m at that point in my life where I handle those things well,” he said.

“It was so satisfying, and I’m happy to have had friends and family around me who supported me.”

Beyond the personal euphoria of the achievement, he noted the acknowledgement is also a win for the region.

His list of contributions to Wairarapa’s community is extensive, covering a wide range of sectors.

He served as Masterton’s mayor from 1986 to 2007, which at the time was the longest period that anyone in New Zealand had led a local council, following seven years as a councillor.

Among other things, Francis was a member of the UCOL Council from 2001-2008, established Violence-Free Wairarapa in 2002, was chair of the Wairarapa Sports Education Trust from 2003 to 2012, and became chair of the Wairarapa Healthy Homes Steering Committee in 2004.

In 2006, he was appointed as chairperson of the Wairarapa District Health Board – a position he held until 2013. He was also appointed to the board of the NZ Fire Service Commission.

He’s also served as chair of Pūkaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, the Aratoi Foundation, Wings Over Wairarapa Community Trust, Heartland Wairarapa, Masterton Medical, Five Rivers Medical, and the Wairarapa Multi-Sport Stadium Trust.

While this latest award is important to Francis and the community, he is no stranger to being recognised for his service.

Francis was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire at the 1991 New Year’s Honours, as well as being made a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order for public service in the 2002 Queens Birthday and Golden Jubilee honours.

In the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours he was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the community and conservation.

Francis was also a leading international rugby presiding over almost 100 first-class matches, including 12 Ranfurly Shield games and 10 test matches, and during the 1980s he was ranked as the world’s number one rugby referee.

As noted by Gary Caffell, current Masterton mayor, and friend of Francis, “There is very little Bob hasn’t done.”

“I was absolutely delighted to see that he had won,” Caffell said, who also wrote the biography Bob Francis: A Story of My Town [2015].

“Even in Masterton, I’ve noticed the whole place is buzzing about it.”

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