When a letter arrived with the governor-general's crest on it, Annette King thought it was her annual invitation to Waitangi Day.
"When I opened it I was genuinely shocked and surprised - then I was delighted," the newly-minted dame told NZ Newswire.
She could have turned it down. After all, her government abolished the Queen's honours.
"Yes, we got rid of them but once they were brought back New Zealanders seemed to accept them and wanted to keep them," she said.
"So I thought it's very rarely that you get an opportunity like this in your life and I would be silly to say no."
What really pleased her was that she had been nominated for the honour by the National government and after the election the process was taken over by Jacinda Ardern's Labour-led coalition.
"The actual nomination came from National and the letter of congratulations came from Jacinda - it went across both governments," she said.
"I was thrilled, it made it really special that both governments were involved and I will treasure that."
She first came to parliament in 1984 and was a minister in two Labour governments, holding senior portfolios including health, justice, transport and police.
The citation lists her achievements, and she picks health as the stand out.
"I served as minister of health for six years, I was at that time the longest serving health minister," she said
"The people who made it for me are those who provided the service, the doctors, nurses, home care workers, low-paid workers.
"They are the ones who have given me this honour."