By STACEY BODGER and BERNARD ORSMAN
Phil Raffills' name plate was still at the top of a staff whiteboard at Avondale College yesterday, without a green marker to indicate if the former principal was in or out.
It was simply a reminder that while Mr Raffills died, aged 54, on Monday night after a year-long battle with leukemia, he is still the school's figurehead.
The former principal, who was also an Auckland City councillor, devout Christian and family man, led the country's largest school for nearly 14 years.
Yesterday, students gathered around a flag at half-mast to place cards, poems and flowers in tribute to the man they called "Raffs."
"He was just a legend," said seventh-former Anna Egan-Reid.
"Raffs always said the school was his family and that's how he treated us. He would never pass you without stopping to ask how you were going."
To his wife of 29 years, Noelene, and their three adult children, Mr Raffills was the perfect father. There were no regrets, no guilty feelings, when he came out of hospital to spend his last 10 days at the family home in Hillsborough.
"We were a three-stranded chord. Philly, me and Jesus," Mrs Raffills said.
In 1989, Mr Raffills was a member of a church group that smuggled Bibles into China.
To some he was a brilliant educationist. To others, he was a moral conservative they derided for his views on sex education and opposition to the Hero Parade.
Bruce Kilmister, the former Hero Parade chairman, said he disagreed with Mr Raffills' view that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice but respected his ability as a councillor.
But it was in the field of education and his long association with Avondale College that Mr Raffills made the biggest mark.
After a fire gutted the school in 1990, he worked day and night with volunteers to resurrect it, and had students back within a week.
Glenfield College principal Warren Seastrand says that Mr Raffills was initially lukewarm about bulk-funding of teacher salaries but became an ardent supporter, which led to an acerbic relationship with the teachers' union.
Education Minister Trevor Mallard recalled having some almighty clashes with Mr Raffills. "I think we were probably as far apart on the political spectrum as you could be. But you always had to admire his tenacity. He really fought hard for the causes he believed in."
Avondale principal Warren Peat said he hoped to continue Mr Raffills' crusade of pushing students to extend themselves.
"Phil held excellence as being of the highest value and passed that onto his students."
City council colleagues yesterday praised Mr Raffills' trademark style of speaking his mind and articulating causes, ranging from declaring an all-out war on graffiti to minting a millennium medallion, which proved a huge success.
The public stand that put him in the headlines most recently was his support for Metrowater, the council water business. Protesters opposed to the firm several times interrupted his speeches in the council chamber. Four of them also woke him as they loudly protested outside his home one Sunday in May. He responded by smashing a side window on their campaign fire truck.
Friend and former deputy mayor David Hay said Mr Raffills was a no-nonsense, clear thinker who made up his mind and let everyone know where he stood on issues.
Auckland Mayor Christine Fletcher said Mr Raffills was an outstanding man who gave 100 per cent and put his heart into everything he did. He represented the Avondale-Roskill ward from 1995, sat on the Avondale Community Board and was chairman of the parks and recreation committee.
He stood for National against Helen Clark in Owairaka in the 1996 general election and against Phil Goff last year in Mt Roskill.
Opposition leader Jenny Shipley said Mr Raffills showed great leadership in promoting new ideas and had a love of young people as the future generation of New Zealand.
His funeral will be held at Avondale College tomorrow at 1 pm.