Lifelong learner Gae Griffiths: still attending lectures at 81

Gae Griffiths tells Danelle Clayton that everyone has something about them that is truly outstanding.

Gae Griffiths
Gae Griffiths is still learning, through travel or lectures. Photo: Richard Ng

Gae Griffiths has just excused herself from the audience of a University of the Third Age lecture to chat down the phone about her prominent career in education.

The topic of the U3A lecture is dementia and nurturing the ageing mind, although 81-year-old Gae is sharp as a tack. The former headmistress of Epsom Girls Grammar School (1979 to 1988) is usually to be found in an Auckland retirement village, but today she is busy travelling the South Island, squeezing in a lecture and an interview.

Learning, travelling and discovering are all lifelong passions she pursues more than 30 years after retiring from her headmistress role.

“I have always tried to keep an open mind to new learnings and doings, and I believe that has paid off,” Gae says.

After teaching for around a decade here and in England, Gae (Master of Arts, 1970) moved into a career in secondary school teaching. She came to discover the best and worst of our education system as a school inspector and liaison officer with the then Department of Education.

In 1979, she was appointed headmistress of one of New Zealand’s largest girls’ schools, a chance to put into practice what she had learned.

Gae says she capitalised on the strengths of the well-established school and opened up opportunities for both staff and students to embrace change. Those involved with the school will recognise that the EGGS library is named in her honour (the Gae Griffiths Library), as is a prize for all-round excellence in Years 9, 10 and 11 (the Gae Griffiths Prize).

“There are more opportunities than ever to get involved in the arts, music, sport and community work. The school has become much more multicultural, which is excellent. It’s a super school and I’m very proud of its achievements.”

I have always tried to keep an open mind to new learnings and doings, and I believe that has paid off.

Gae Griffiths, retired educator and Golden Graduate University of Auckland

Challenged not to remain ‘a dinosaur’, after her time as headmistress, Gae joined the new Ministry of Education, just four days after it came into being in October 1989.

“It was the beginning of ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’, and that threw enormous challenges to the small team of us attempting to give helpful direction to the many confused principals and boards in that new environment,” she recalls. “It was a baptism of fire and in the end it had pluses and minuses. It has opened up a world of opportunities in our schools, but I think we can see certain communities have it much easier than others do.”

From 1989-2000, Gae served on the University of Auckland Council, (Pro-Chancellor 1992-1993), and was part of the original Alumni Association.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the University Council. One of the most satisfying things was to see academic personnel rising through the ranks from lecturers with real promise to professors of international renown.”

The Alumni Association helped to introduce the concepts of philanthropic funding and informal graduation celebrations to the University in the early 1990s.

“The big universities overseas had huge endowments and philanthropists ploughing money into them. We knew that was what universities in New Zealand had to do.

“We began with friend-raising rather than fundraising. A major spinoff from our early work was the establishment of graduation events on the lawn outside Old Government House. Such functions have gone from strength to strength.”

Around the same period, Gae was appointed to the National Health Committee and the Health Research Council and later volunteered with Citizens Advice Bureau. In 2001, she became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to education.

Her greatest privilege, she says, has always been working with young people.

“Today’s young people are extremely capable, interesting, challenging and lovely to work with. One thing I have learned and firmly believe is that everybody has something about them that is truly outstanding.”


Our Golden Graduates are those who graduated from the University of Auckland 50 or more years ago, along with graduates aged 70 and over.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2021 Ingenio magazine, the alumni publication of the University of Auckland.