Sir John Graham

9 January 1935 - 2 August 2017

By Bill Francis

Distinguishing where Sir John Graham's greatest contribution lay presents a dilemma, such was his input across a vast array of endeavours.

For the former headmaster of Auckland Grammar, who died this week aged 82, there was no argument - school teaching was what he chose and he never wanted to do anything else.


He became the foremost boys' educator of his time, at the helm of Auckland Grammar from 1973 to 1993 - leading with a belief that boys were best shaped by male teachers directed by a headmaster with the expectation that the pursuit of excellence for boys, masters and staff would be the key to their success. It was.

To all he became 'DJ' but, of course for the boys, never to his face.

He could be a man of sharp edges - a black and white man with well-formed views. This sometimes placed him on a collision course with others. Yet, if he was flinty and authoritarian he also had a deep sense of fairness and compassion.

If he was direct and to the point he was also kind and considerate. John Graham was a man's man who was shaped by three exceptional women: his mother Cicely, an early teacher Adeline McCarroll, and wife Shiela, who gave him 58 years of unstinting love and support.

Along with his brothers Jim (later Sir Jim) and Bob (Auckland Ranfurly Shield captain in the 60's), John learnt to kick a ball around on their farm at Putaruru.

This farming background gave Graham a strong physical frame and a powerful pair of legs - leading to an eventual All Black career as a loose forward with tours to South Africa in 1960 and Britain under Wilson Whineray in 1963/64. He was the All Black captain in 1964 against Australia.

During the 1960 tour Graham delved into issues around apartheid and he soon became a firm opponent of sporting contact, without fanfare refusing to attend any matches of the Springbok visit in 1981.

But he continued to give mightily to rugby - an assistant coach to John Hart at Waitemata, and to Eric Boggs and Graham Henry for Auckland; the President of New Zealand Rugby while still mentoring countless other coaches and players.


If the John Graham name was most easily recognisable alongside rugby, cricket held his passion and interest above all. He would have liked to have been a better player himself but this was a game he fiercely identified with, for the skill level required and its endearing idiosyncrasies.

In the mid 1990s, Christopher Doig, then CEO of New Zealand Cricket asked him if he would take over as manager of the Blackcaps. "Take over a New Zealand cricket team" said Graham. "They've just been involved in drugs for heaven's sake".

Take them over he did - setting up a new regime where the players shaved every day (some baulked) - just one requirement in a whole series of new protocols that players not only accepted but came to embrace under the firm but kindly direction of Graham.

The managing and mentoring of those Blackcaps underlined more than anything about John Graham's role in life. He wanted people to do their best, believing it was not unhealthy to aim high -if he could help them along the way he would. Twenty-five teachers under his leadership became headmasters themselves, wanting to emulate his charismatic, intelligent and collaborative style.

Most New Zealanders love their country as John Graham did but few have actively touched and moved so many to make a difference.

Bill Francis is the author of Sir John Graham - Sportsman, Master, Mentor (2011)