john graham

I owe a lot to John Graham.

So when I went to Whitcoulls intent on finding the Steve Jobs' biography for some light Christmas reading, I was easily distracted by Bill Francis' Sir John Graham: Sportsman, Master, Mentor - and devoured it in a couple of days.

It was 1977. In their wisdom, my parents decided that after an entire schooling based around Woodstock School, a co-ed American boarding school in the Himalayas, I should return home to NZ six months before graduation for a full year at Auckland Grammar School (AGS), a uniformed elitist boy's school in Auckland. I was one lost puppy for awhile. However a month or two into the first term a prefect left the school and, very surprisingly, John Graham appointed me to fill the gap. Coupled with my background in basketball, this trust placed in me gave me the confidence I needed. At AGS it was the season of Crowes and Whettons, Graham Henrys and Ken Rapsons (my form-room teacher who took such an interest in me, later to become my children's principal) ... and the hardest year in my life became the year that cemented my identity as a Kiwi. 

It was 1980. I had just finished my degree with plans to go to the USA for theological training late in 1981. I needed a job. 'Why don't you go and ask John Graham if he has a job for you?' I made an appointment, trembled my way into his office without any teacher training and barely 21 years of age, explained my situation and he responded with, 'OK - can you start on Monday?' That was another tough, but strategic, few months of employment in the 'real world' and it was John Graham who made it happen. One Tuesday afternoon with the 4G class stands out in my memory. One of my physical features is that I have an upturned nose. I walked into the classroom and every single boy had their index finger pressed against their nose in an effort to look like me. However for an entire term I was relieved from the trauma of relief teaching and given Ramesh Patel's Maths' classes while he was away with the NZ Hockey team. It was my first taste of class preparation and classroom management.

'OK, OK, Paul - but what about the book?'

In its pages I met again the awe-inspiring John Graham who commanded both the daily Assembly (in 1977) and the staff-room (in 1980). I also met again the man in his office (in 1977 and 1980) who treated me with such compassion and kindness. But what new things did I learn about him?

When we returned to live in Auckland in 1989 I chuckled away because I counted 8 secondary school principals in Auckland who were in that AGS staff room eight years earlier. In fact there are 23 of John Graham's staff who went on to become principals, with some special words for a couple of today's fine Christian principals, Larne Edmeades and Roger Moses ('He's now the outstanding principal in the country in my view' (134)). This is mentoring at its very finest. Sometimes this meant making some tough calls, like giving broadcaster Murray Deaker his marching orders from the staff when his inability to control his drinking impacted his performance.

'He says he caned no more than 20 boys in 21 years.' (103) - but each time, a few days later, he would personally seek the boy out. 'I didn't send for him. I wanted to meet him and just say, 'Well, Jackson, are you okay with me son, because I'm okay with you'. (103). This is a feature of his life: he does not seem to hold grudges.

John Graham has been a controversial figure in education, always fighting 'the constant belittling of academic achievement' (111) which distinguished the 1970s and 1980s. He invited enormous problems when he referred to Maori as 'lazy' and yet it is a descriptor he'd use of anyone who did not achieve at school. After retirement from AGS he was involved for eight years with Nga Tapuwae College in South Auckland, initially as a Commissioner appointed by the government to turn the school around. 'The underlying venom in the welcoming words' at the powhiri' (173) took him by surprise, but he succeeded in his task of turning the school around, developing a deep affection for the those in the school community.

Back in 1960 he was muzzled by the NZ Rugby Union for outspoken comments about apartheid. On a tour of South Africa, John Graham and a young University student (Tony Davies) visited places like Sharpeville. Bill Francis adds, 'it seems astounding that they were the only All Blacks, on a four month tour of South Africa, to make a concerted effort to check out the situation that existed for blacks' (89).

Naturally, I loved the chapter on his stint as manager of the NZ cricket team. Coming in after a disastrous period of ill-discipline and poor performance to work with a young captain (Fleming) and to bring the best out of a bunch of difficult personalities like Cairns, Parore and Astle ... masterful stuff. One philosophy he instilled was 'life can be great when you give' (164). A lot of focus on getting the players to read books when on tour and to feed their minds. They even did crosswords together as a team, with a 'word for the day' which had to be utilised in the media interview later in the day. For John Graham, managing the NZ cricket team was more satisfying than being the All Black captain (172). 'In all the pleasures I had in sport nothing surpassed this.' (172).

His approach to speech-making and communication was simple. 'Forget the silly jokes, be well prepared and give them something they didn't already know' (87), and the value of 'simply explained messages of meaningful content' (229).

John Graham has 'a hardness of mind' (63), 'a special steadfastness' (65). There are comments about 'a religious faith' (217). 'Having a religious compass has made our lives richer ... my renewed faith drives me to help those in need without making a fuss of it' (217). I enjoyed the way his wife, Sheila, was such an active partner in his life and so involved in all the big decisions along the way.

nice chatting


[PS. I see this is my 300th post, as I head into my 7th year of blogging. It has proven to be one of the more energising things I do. I love chatting away - and it has become my filing cabinet of ideas and illustrations. Now that my DMin is done, I am thinking of celebrating by publishing a little book of my favourite posts over the years: The Art of Unpacking: Exegesis as a Way of Life...but we'll see].


not a wild hera said…
And I really enjoyed this post :) I like how you make me interested in people and subjects that aren't on my radar. Ta! And happy new finished-the-DMin year :)
Paul said…
Thanks, Mum...

Facebook photos of a certain baby have sent my family members into oohing and ahhing of an uncommon kind.
not a wild hera said…
Ha! We are pretty pleased with a certain baby too :) Can't wait to see the new one in your family pretty soon...

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