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News > Giving back > Give with a living hand

Give with a living hand

John Oliver is a St Paul's Collegiate School Fellow, past parent, grandparent, and now member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to philanthropy.
John Oliver at the opening of the Lander Centre
John Oliver at the opening of the Lander Centre

From his instrumental roles in building healthcare facilities to his foresight on farming technology, John has always been a catalyst for change in the community. John recalls his creative mind caused him grief in his Latin classes at Southwell School and remembers Headmaster HG Sergel declaring, “I am sick of trying to teach you Latin, Oliver, come with me”. Then being led out to the headmaster’s vegetable garden where he learnt that in horticulture, Latin is used to name plants. This ignited a lifelong passion for agriculture, and he finally found a practical reason for learning Latin!

After finishing Form 2 (Year 8) at Southwell, John followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Whanganui Collegiate School. John says, “Collegiate was good for me, it taught me to think outside the box and be visionary, but I was a hopeless scholar!”

Once John graduated high school, he returned to the family farm and worked for the only employer he has ever had, his father. The Oliver connection with St Paul’s first began 40 years ago when the eldest son, Mark (Williams 1975-1979) enrolled at St Paul’s as a boarder in 1975. He was soon followed by Todd (Williams 1977-1979), William (Williams 1980-1984), and then Duncan (Williams 1984-1987). Sarah Oliver, John’s wife, had initially homeschooled the children and they discussed at great length which boarding school they would send their boys. St Paul’s was the obvious choice due to its close location to their family farm in Otorohanga.

John and Sarah immersed themselves as parents supporting the school and have since played an active and pivotal role in the long-term development of St Paul’s.

During the 1970s when the school was still relatively new, St Paul’s was desperate for new buildings. Chairman of the school, John Mortimer, approached John Oliver about a new venture asset he was wanting to progress, purchasing one thousand acres of land in Honikiwi, with the aim to plant it into forestry. John bought shares in the business and was later asked to join the board of trustees for the forestry development. Then, 30 years later, after being harvested and replanted, twice it was sold. This great foresight proved a huge fundraising success for St Paul’s and the much-needed buildings were built.

During his years as a current parent of St Paul’s, John noticed the school was full of farming families, yet agribusiness was not part of the curriculum. Becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of agriculture opportunities within education, sparked the perfect idea.

"I knew there had to be a better way to introduce farming students to academics, enabling them to further develop their family land."

John made an appointment to see then St Paul’s Headmaster, Grant Lander, to discuss the idea of teaching agriculture in the school curriculum.

“Do you think we can teach agribusiness as a subject Grant? If you have a classroom available, I will volunteer our land for off site visits,” said John.

Grant’s eyes rolled and John left his office feeling unsure of what he had suggested. A few days later John received a phone call from Grant, “I think you are onto something here!”

As John recalls, Grant took the idea and ran with it.

"Once Grant sees the big picture his drive and determination is unstoppable, his mana and personability make things happen."

A new building was planned on the edge of the school’s cricket field which would be devoted to teaching the agribusiness curriculum. John and Sarah were asked if they would support the build. After a lengthy discussion, John donated his first-ever large donation of $100,000. Grant asked John if he would like naming rights to the building, his reply, “let’s find others who can also support this initiative.”

With the support of well-known Waikato based agricultural innovators, Gallagher, the Gallagher Centre of Excellence was built and opened in 2016. Since then, agribusiness is now taught in over 100 schools across New Zealand. There are currently 3057 students learning agribusiness as part of the NCEA curriculum and the programme continues to gain strong interest with the primary sector. These industries are starting to see young graduates from the programme entering the workforce.

“It is providing the rural sector with well-qualified and capable young people.”

In 2019, John was shown the plans for the new Learning Hub (working title) to be built at St Paul’s. When Grant asked for John’s support a second time around, he didn’t hesitate and also agreed to the naming rights opportunity. In 2021, the Lander Centre was opened, and John and Sarah chose to use their opportunity for naming rights to credit Grant and Judith Lander for the service and commitment they gave St Paul’s over more than a decade.

Reflecting on the day he was asked to clean his nails and wash his hands for lunch as the Headmaster of Southwell, HG Sergel, would be joining them. He now understands the importance of this day. Five years after finishing Southwell, John discovered his grandmother had financed the school during the hard times of the great depression. Taken aback by learning of her generosity, John wanted to honour her legacy and began his own philanthropic journey.

After contemplating how he can help others, John has become a man on a mission, his motto is to give with a living hand and says to his friends “try it, you’ll like it”.

John has a range of projects he supports but says education and healthcare are the two best places to put your money. St Paul’s has been very fortunate to benefit from John and Sarah’s living legacy.

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