Old-fashioned values form the core of Len Brown's political outlook - and much of it stems from his upbringing in a community and religiously-minded family.

His early life instilled a belief in the power of communities to solve their own problems and an easy ability to engage with diverse groups.

Brown was born in 1956 and spent his formative years in rural towns during the prosperous late baby-boomer years.

He enjoyed the freedom to roam; everyone was equal. "You were raised in the community in those days - families just opened their doors. They were generous, generous days."

Life revolved around family, church, school and community. Parents Tom and Ngaire were strong believers in social equity and social justice and were active players in community life.

Both were from European settler families in south Auckland. Ngaire's father, Charles Ferguson, was a chemist who took his family south to Taumarunui to run a pharmacy.

The 1930s Depression took its toll on the business and he ended up breaking rocks on a river. That experience shaped Ngaire's outlook on life.

"She was really penny proud," says Brown. "She would always carry something in her purse so she could 'feel the money'. It's where I get my frugality from."

Ngaire believed strongly in giving everyone a fair go and the family's door was always open, he says.

Father Tom, of Irish Catholic stock, was a progressive teacher who became a primary school principal. Teaching took him to Taumarunui where he met and married Ngaire. She was Presbyterian but later converted to Catholicism.

Leonard, the third of their six children, was born in Taumarunui and named after his paternal grandfather, who was the fire chief in Pukekohe for 46 years and had a street named after him.

Within a year, Tom was promoted to principal of the small Glen Murray School near Pukekawa. A couple of years later, he transferred to Normanby, near Hawera, where Brown's schooling began in 1961.

Ngaire began to work part-time in the school's administration.

Brown recalls the whole town would turn out for events such as Peter Snell running through Normanby after the 1960 Olympics, or Don Clarke kicking goals from halfway at Hicks Park, Hawera.

Taranaki's hold on the Ranfurly Shield and its three All Blacks were a source of local pride.

His father was a rugby nut (he had played club rugby in Taumarunui) and a strong believer in sport: he would coach children in any sport but soccer.

Both parents maintained strong family ties: there were frequent long trips to Auckland to see relatives scattered from Pukekohe to the North Shore. Brown says he can venture into any Auckland suburb and feel a sense of connection.

It was a completely different upbringing from that of his rival John Banks: the product of a career criminal father and an alcoholic mother.

Tom's chance to return to "the Big Smoke" came in 1964 when he was appointed first principal of Mayfield Primary, in the fledgling suburb of Otara on the edge of the city. Len finished his primary schooling there.

Otara was a planned suburb of state houses, catering for families pouring into rapidly industrialising south Auckland from rural areas, the inner city and the Pacific Islands. The population was multicultural.

Churches were still being built and community facilities were missing so schools became the focus of community life. Tom Brown launched a PTA and organised cultural events to bring communities together.

"Dad was the right guy to build the community - my community spirit comes from him, while Mum drummed into me my sense of fairness and loyalty," says Brown.

Although he has always been identified as a son of Otara, Brown's family lived there for only a couple of years before his parents cashed-up the family benefit to buy a home across the motorway in Allenby Rd, Papatoetoe. It would be the family seat for 39 years.

Papatoetoe was then known as "the Remuera of the south". Residents were houseproud and kept fine gardens. Children roamed the neighbourhood after school and on weekends, playing games on the wide street verges.

Tom Brown planted his vegie garden and grew fruit in the huge backyard.

Bottling days would draw chain-gangs of children to Allenby Rd to help preserve peaches, apples, plums and pears. Such experiences instilled in Brown a sense of "pride of place and pride in what you can achieve together.

That was part of the reason I went into local government - I was interested in contributing to that sense of pride."

His father became active in the Holy Cross Church and older sisters Sue and Jill joined the church youth group, taking part in fundraising or helping the elderly. Len joined in.

"My life was bottle drives and school fairs and Dad was always in the middle of it.

"I grew up in community meetings watching Dad. His style was quite collaborative which had a significant impact on the way I lead."

Tom Brown, now a sprightly 84-year-old, lives in Flat Bush and remains a powerful influence on his son. He keeps him grounded with reminders that, for all his achievements, he has yet to have a street named after him.

At Papatoetoe Intermediate - a nursery for Labour politicians including David Lange, Phil Goff, Mark Gosche and David Shearer - Brown's social conscience began to take root.

He remembers a social studies teacher, Wayne Reeves, who "encouraged us to think outside our own little world of Papatoetoe". It was 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The events "really opened my eyes to what was happening in the world".

Brown's community involvement was to flourish at De La Salle College from 1970-74. He found inspiring mentors in liberal principal Brother Colin Griffith and prominent educationalist Brother Pat Lynch, now chief executive of the Catholic Education Office in Wellington.

"Len was always able to offer a well-thought-out opinion," Lynch recalls. "Even as a 15 or 16-year-old he could wow a crowd.

"He had a great ability to use language and there were some really high-level discussions in class."

He was active in the school's Christian clubs and respectful of Catholic traditions but wasn't afraid to ask questions, says Lynch. "If he didn't agree he would question it but in a most engaging way."

"You could see leadership written all over him. I often said to him 'when are you going to enter Parliament?'.

"He showed his political side quite strongly, but he was always people-oriented."

Academically, he didn't shine, says old schoolfriend Peter Raos, but he was confident and vocal. Brown says he "had the smarts - but I wasn't one of God's great academics. I was all about sport and doing anything but study."

A halfback, he made the first XV and later played senior club rugby for Papatoetoe, Papakura and Counties Marist. Although short, he played basketball and virtually lived in the school gymnasium.

Brown and friends were compulsive organisers - school athletics days, swimming sports, engaging live bands for fundraising concerts in the school gym or church hall.

There was one brush with the law. Driving home from the airport one night where he and his mates had been watching planes, Brown overtook a fire engine.

"It didn't have it's lights on and wasn't going fast," Brown says. A couple of nights later came a knock at the door and he was charged with dangerous driving. He lost his licence for nine months. "Len wasn't a hoon or anything," says Raos. "He was a bit of a choirboy in some ways."

Brown passed three school certificate subjects - English, History and Geography, failing Maths and Science.

"I was interested, I just wasn't concentrating. It must have frustrated the hell out of my Dad. I was just interested in life." But he went on to gain University Entrance and pass Higher School Certificate.

"I needed a reason to apply myself. Unless I'm really into it I can just be part of a crowd and just get along.

"I didn't achieve anything like I could have."