Our People: Toby Curtis

By Jill Nicholas

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Toby Curtis
Toby Curtis

If it hadn't been for a nun's intervention a good number of Rotorua homes could have been wired up by Toby Curtis.

His fourth form year at St Michael's was to be his last and he'd signed on for an apprenticeship with the town's biggest electrical firm but that nun who knew a thing or two about potential, told Toby's dad he'd perform better as a student.

Six decades on the son of a drain digger-cum-carpenter reflects that it was his life's turning point.

His father sold a lakeside Rotoiti section to a wealthy Pakeha family to fund his 15th child's education at Hato Petara (then St Peter's Maori College) in Northcote.

"It wasn't until I was in my 20s I realised what a great thing he did for me . . . that we were poor, abjectly poor," says this fellow who went on to become his former school's principal and the holder of a doctorate in education, his thesis on Maori educational success. In 1989 he received a Fulbright scholarship.

Grand as the title 'Dr' sounds, to locals he's just plain Toby . . . to be strictly accurate his given names are Noble Thompson.

"My grandfather, a Pom, was Richard Curtis Rowe but dropped the Rowe when he became disenfranchised from his family."

With his adult life steeped in academia there's nothing the slightest bit donnish about Dr Curtis, no musty old cardy or carpet slippers favoured by the teacher type movies tend to depict.

He turns up for our chat at Te Arawa Lakes Trust (he's chaired it since its inception) in track pants and Hawaiian shirt.

As we talk he picks his way through a plate of grapes hoping they'll sooth his puku (stomach), protesting at a surfeit of too much rich kai (food).

"I was at the [Maori] king's table at a dinner last night and the kai kept on coming ... I'm paying for it today, I'm telling myself that'll be the last time I eat so much, even on a marae."

Toby's not into name dropping. That he regularly dines with King Tuheitia is an accurate reflection of the life he leads as a senior Te Arawa kaumatua, holder of many ministerial appointments and the host of professional organisations with which he's associated. To list them all today's Rotorua Daily Post would have to run a special edition.

His CV ranges from teaching children with learning disabilities at Glenholme Primary in the 1960s, to Deputy Vice Chancellor of Auckland University of Technology.

Then there's been his chairmanship of Te Mangai Paho, the Maori Broadcasting Funding Agency and vice presidency of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management.

We won't go on, we're confident you'll have the picture. It's one of a man of Ngati Pikiao lineage whose life's become a high-achieving success story.

We're compelled to add that all these top-flight appointments haven't robbed him of his "Maori boy's laugh"- it's positively Billy T James-esque, flowing frequently from its throaty depths.

Maybe he's retained that endearing trait because Maori was the language of his childhood. His family spoke it, although he was encouraged not to.

"When I went to boarding school I was a horrible, terrible speaker of English, realising I had to do something about it I carried a notebook around writing down new words I heard, learning them, so by the time I left I was able to speak reasonably educated English."

Out of school, he continued his holiday job at the Waipa State Mill but what Toby and a cousin really wanted was to become coppers; they were deemed too short. Maori Affairs didn't have height restrictions, a relative found Toby work there.

"They asked me what my best subject was I said 'chemistry' so they gave me a job taking files from one office to another."

When bureaucratic mind-changing began to bug him, teaching appealed; he enrolled at Ardmore Training College where he met his partner of the past 10 years, Sherell Almazo. Years on he became a lecturer, then vice principal of Auckland Teachers' College; a pattern emerges here of a student returning to the kind of places that honed his own educational aspirations.

"I was involved in education for 45 years but probably only in front of a class for seven of them."

In 2005 he returned to Rotorua, the reason's straightforward.

"It's always remained home."

Iwi welcomed him as a neutral party.

"They wanted me to chair meetings, God, it's hard being neutral when they're all related to you."

He wasn't long back when the name Curtis hit the headlines - for all the wrong reasons.

Two whanau members were charged in connection with Nia Glassie's sordid death. "They were my brother's grandchildren, because he'd died they were my grandchildren in Maori terms. I called a whanau meeting and said 'let's not pussyfoot around, this is our problem.' I reminded them we basked in the Hollywood success of Cliff [Curtis, his nephew] and that we had to embrace this too in terms of its inglorious outcome."

Toby doesn't flinch in the telling of this slice of a life that's still leaving him with two unfulfilled ambitions.

"When I retired I was determined to reduce my [golfing] handicap to single figures and put fresh fish on the table at least twice a week, I've played six games of golf and never gone fishing."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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