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An obituary for All Black captain and education icon Sir John Graham

Former Auckland Grammar School headmaster Sir John Graham has died. His successor, John Morris, pays tribute.

Sir John Graham was a great New Zealander whose impact and legacy extended well beyond his 20 years as headmaster of Auckland Grammar School.

John’s time at Grammar was what he was particularly known for but his involvement in the wider educational scene was also significant and vitally important to John. In particular his work as Commissioner at the troubled Nga Tapuwae College in the mid-1990s and his leadership in helping transform Nga Tapuwae into the first campus school in New Zealand, Southern Cross Campus, with students from Year 1 through to Year 13, was highly regarded by all involved in the education sector.

His founding of Senior College as part of the Academic Colleges Group in association with Dawn Jones showed a very different side of John. This was very much a niche school: based in the CBD, senior students only, no uniform, students only attended relevant classes and were free to wander the CBD, 80 minute periods. It was so very different to Grammar but a great reflection on his ability to see beyond the Grammar model and accept that there were many different ways to inspire teenagers and help them achieve to their potential.

John stood for excellence in education. He wanted all students to be the best they could be regardless of their background, ability or ethnicity. He may have come across as a stern leader at Grammar but he also had a human and compassionate side to his personality that was particularly evident when dealing with boys who had transgressed.

After retiring from Grammar in 1993 John became involved in the University of Auckland as Chancellor, a role he held for a number of years. His tenure saw the huge physical expansion of the university, the building of the iconic Business School, a broadening of the university’s academic offerings, a massive growth in student numbers and, alongside Vice Chancellor John Hood, created a formidable leadership team that helped the university attain the high status it has today.

John’s sporting pedigree is well known. All Black captain, successful rugby coach and administrator, president of the NZRU, legendary Black Caps manager and avid supporter of Aston Villa!

But it was education that was perhaps closest to his heart. John retained a strong interest in education throughout his retirement and recent illness. Over the past ten years John and I would meet regularly over coffee at his favourite cafés and chat about sport, school, family and anything else that came up. I thoroughly enjoyed these meetings as I know John did and they will be, for me, a lasting memory of a humble and compassionate man who made a huge difference to the lives of so many people and inspired so many to feats they never thought possible.

John’s contribution to Auckland Grammar School is unparalleled. He was able to maintain its academic niche and enhance its reputation in an era of massive change in education. He abhorred the trend to internal assessment and the abolition of the prestigious Scholarship examination. He did not sit idly by and complain but rather did something about that and was instrumental in setting up the Combined Schools’ Examination and the NZ Education and Scholarship Trust which ran external examinations for schools that were also keen to keep academic standards high.

John was a man of principle in all matters. His boycott of the 1981 Springbok tour epitomised the man and his stance on educational issues was always based on principle. In particular his belief in the need for schools to teach knowledge because children need knowledge to understand and interpret the world and grow into useful contributing citizens. He knew all too well that knowledge opens doors and that it is fair and just that all children should have access to it.

John Graham was a fine man, fair and just, principled, humble, compassionate, an academic, a sportsman, a loving husband and father. He was one of the best, my good friend and mentor.

John Morris was headmaster of Auckland Grammar School from 1993 to 2012.


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