Sir John Graham: More than just a headmaster

8:43 pm on 3 August 2017

As principal of Auckland Grammar School, Sir John Graham had an unwavering sense of what was right, a ready smile and a genuine interest in the fortunes of his students, writes Finlay Macdonald.

Sir John Graham

Sir John Graham Photo: Supplied: Sir Peter Blake Trust

Back when we were both making our spotty, hormonal way through Auckland Grammar School, a friend of mine used to refer to Sir John Graham as the president, rather than the principal. He was only half joking.

Sir John - known to us all simply by his initials DJ - was more than just a headmaster. The school was hardly a democracy - not even remotely - so there the presidential analogy probably ended. But the man who led the assembly every morning was very much our commander in chief.

He could seem intimidating, especially to a newly-arrived third former. Stern, austere, and a stickler for standards, he appeared to have little time for individuals in the massed ranks of pupils, identically-clad in borstal blue and addressed only by their surnames.

After a few years and a few chance interactions with the man however, you began to see the warmth in the eyes and the ready smile, the genuine interest in your fortunes, and most surprisingly, that he did in fact know you existed. As far as I recall, he wrote a comment on every boy's term report that showed he'd actually read it, too.

This was the second half of the 1970s, and the school had by then adapted a little to social change. You could wear your hair long, not play rugby, and the days of cadet training were long, long gone.

But don't get me wrong, this was Auckland Grammar. I remember DJ's observation, upon spying a sliver chain around the neck of some hapless pupil, that "jewellery is not part of a man's apparel."

We addressed the teachers (known as masters, of course) as "Sir". There were no female teachers at all, so that was easy. Corporal punishment had yet to be outlawed, and there were regular canings for all manner of misdemeanours. Certain masters were feared for their ruthless technique, in particular one former sprint champion who liked to take a run up.

We were graded within an inch of our lives in every subject, every term, so that you were always aware of your academic ranking. One particularly malicious master liked to promise that failure would see you "sent to a form more suited to your intellectual ability".

So relentless could the school's emphasis on success seem that a friend invented an imaginary award to be handed out at prize-giving - a mounted, worn-down molar known as the Grinder Memorial Tooth for More Outstanding Achievement in All Fields of Excellence.

But looking back, I now see how Sir John, outwardly the authoritarian upholder of traditional values, was also the moderniser. He rid the school of semi-institutionalised bullying (something I was grateful for, arriving just three years after he began in 1972), encouraged sports other than rugby, and supported the development of a strong drama programme.

His predecessor, Henry Cooper, was positively Victorian by comparison.

Much later, having left school and begun work as a journalist, I crossed paths with Sir John a few more times. When I interviewed him for a television documentary series about rugby, he spoke candidly about touring South Africa as an All Black in 1960. At that time, the anti-tour movement was in its infancy, focused then on the Rugby Union's craven policy of not selecting Māori players.

As a history teacher, Sir John took an interest in South African politics, and asked to be shown a black township. What he saw changed his mind, and on his return to New Zealand he stated publicly he thought the tour was wrong. He later spoke against the disastrous Springbok tour in 1981, no doubt to the dismay of the then-ossified rugby establishment.

As schoolboys we were largely ignorant of this, and '81 hadn't even happened. So it was only later I realised that the same steely, unwavering sense of what was right that I'd seen and occasionally mocked in my old headmaster was actually the same moral strength and probity he applied in general.

No one could have ever accused Sir John of being a radical, but he possessed a more open and flexible mind than many might have assumed. His belief that there was too much emphasis on and reverence for rugby was not always such a commonplace idea, especially coming from a former All Black captain.

When he retired in 1993 I was commissioned to interview him, and I found myself on his doorstep hoping my shoes were acceptably shined, my question line suitably astute and well-researched. But the the man who answered the door was friendly, funny, and interested in my life since school. After the interview, we joked about me having done my homework. I remember still finding it weird hearing him call me by my first name.

Sir John had a busy late career in rugby and cricket administration, but it's as an educator he'll be best remembered. Others can speak with more authority of his legacy and contribution in that field, so for now I'll remember him as DJ, the president who ruled the republic of my youth. Hail to the chief.