A knighthood in today's royal honours is the latest in a long list of plaudits for John Graham, the former All Black captain who was headmaster of Auckland Grammar School for 21 years.

Sir John has been a leading figure in education, business and sport, and has championed a number of charities.

He was described as "the man who set standards" when North & South magazine named him its New Zealander of the year in 1999.

But when the 76-year-old remembers what has been most satisfying in a life brimming with achievement, his response is that of any good teacher.

"I suppose the thing that rewards you most in the end is that the average - and sometimes the so-called below average - youngsters, given the right environment and encouragement, can make massive progress.

"It wasn't the high flyers that you got the greatest joy out of. All we tried to do at Grammar was encourage every boy to give his best. And you can't ask for more than that."

Sir John, who was Grammar headmaster from 1973 until 1993, said it had been a privilege to see thousands of boys' potential and chart their progress into adulthood.

"I always say, 'Now, what are you doing now?' And they enjoy telling me ... and some of them are in their 50s now, so they're getting on a bit."

His involvement in education continued as Chancellor of Auckland University from 1999 to 2005, and he is a director of the Academic Colleges Group of New Zealand.

For 25 years, Sir John has been a member of the Woolf Fisher Trust, which provides educational scholarships. He has also been chairman of Parents Inc since 1995.

Sir John said today's honour was a reflection of the outstanding people he had worked with over the years.

And while he views his 22-test All Black career as "just a bonus", a love of sport has been a driving force in his life.

"Rugby certainly broadened my outlook. It got me out of going to school, going to university, then going back to teach at school. It gave me other experiences."

Sir John's service to sport includes his work as president of the NZ Rugby Union and as manager of the New Zealand cricket team. He nominates the cricketers' first series win in England as a highlight. But any past sporting glories - or running battles with the Ministry of Education - have been put firmly in context through his work assisting badly injured rugby players through the NZ Rugby Foundation.

"When a person is consigned to a wheelchair, the prospect for that person is initially just dreadful. The parents have to rally around with massive strength.

"They're so strong in themselves, and so positive. And you see that developing in them ... It's inspiring, it's emotionally inspiring."

Only the media and Lady Sheila, his wife of 52 years, knew of today's knighthood. The fact his three children remained in the dark is unsurprising in light of his former Grammar job.

"They say it's strictly confidential. So when I said that to a boy or school master, I assumed they'd make it strictly confidential as well."