Biographies depend on the quality of their subject, of their research and of their author. Andrew Mason's acute work is based on careful research by Wayne Ryburn, initiated by the Auckland Grammar School Old Boys' Association, which co-edited the book.

Its importance extends beyond those who experienced Sir Henry Cooper's formidable qualities at first hand.

Cooper's appointment as headmaster in 1954 brought to the school a sense of new vitality.

He seized the respect and confidence of masters of longer service, of the great hall full of 1300 restive boys, and of the great and good of his day.

His orbit included Douglas Robb, William Liley, Graham Speight, James Fletcher (jr), Martin Sullivan, Woolf Fisher, Lewis Ross, Colin Maiden, Wilson Whineray and Roger Douglas. Among the current or future fellow knights with whom he was especially close were Governors-General, Rotarians and other business leaders, university intellectuals and sportsmen - as well as each boy and his family.

Many readers will measure the book by vignettes of their own. Some confirm its accounts of Cooper's extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination - swinging a heavy art ruler over the head of the inattentive in the headmaster's "Friday Afternoon Latin Book" class.

It is anachronistic, if accurate, to compare it to the skill and control of a Maori warrior trained on Mokoia Island. The Cooper era saw the Treaty through the eyes of the school's founder, Sir George Grey, whose exploits remain central to the great Honours Board.

Others will bear out the quick temper at any apparent breach of standards, but also the tireless patience in writing interminable testimonials to do full justice to performance and unexpected calls suggesting options for a career or for public service.

Cooper's educational philosophy may perhaps be summarised as the Parable of the Talents in action.

A profound meritocrat, acutely aware that the Rawlings Scholarship had taken him from poverty to fame, he was impatient of wasted opportunity.

Educationalists will be fascinated by what led his school to high academic and sporting success and allowed an unprecedented successful contribution by a university chancellor to promotions policy. Students of leadership may find parallels between the techniques of the single-mindedly determined Cooper who, maintaining exact knowledge of the worth of each member of his staff and "personnel", kept from a key master the option of higher appointment elsewhere, and those of successful military commanders. Cooper's unremitting application of personal standards took him from farm boy to the best-known educationalist of his time.

The message of his practical vision, by Woolf Fisher Fellowships and other means including his own example, of reinforcing the role of teaching as a profession attracting its fair share of the very best men and women of each generation, is a contribution by Cooper, Ryburn and Mason of prime importance.

* Published by David Ling, $50