Leonard John Wild was born at Oraki, Southland, on 28 October 1889, the son of Florence Muggleton and her husband, Herbert Arthur Wild, a teacher. He attended Southland Boys' High School, where he was inducted into science by Frederick Hilgendorf, later one of his scientific colleagues and friends, with whom he tramped and cycled in the back country. Wild graduated BA from the University of Otago in 1910. He gained a BSc in 1917 and an MA in 1921. Between 1912 and 1919 he published several geological papers and notes in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. He was also elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London.
Wild was appointed science master at Marlborough High School in 1911 and on 21 December that year married Doris Churton at All Saints Church, Invercargill. They were to have three sons and a daughter; Richard, their second son, became chief justice of New Zealand. In 1914–15 Wild was a science master at Wanganui Collegiate School, where, he later remarked, he ‘learned the possibilities and something of the art of harmonious school life'.
Through his publications Wild was establishing himself as an earth scientist, and in 1915 he was appointed lecturer in chemistry at Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln, where Hilgendorf was also a lecturer. His research interests had begun to shift to the application of scientific principles to soil management, and the practical bent of his mind is evident in his proposal, published in 1917, for a soil survey of New Zealand. Teaching at Lincoln imbued him with an educational mission that he pursued for the rest of his life: finding ways of applying scientific knowledge to the practical, down-to-earth business of agriculture. His Soils and manures in New Zealand, first published in 1919, was revised, expanded and substantially rewritten in five later editions, the last in 1960. This book summed up his approach as teacher and man of science. It was written for farmers, most of whom knew little science, so he kept technical terms to a minimum. Instead of laying down rules, he introduced 'important truths and general principles', leaving farmers to adapt these to local conditions.
The New Zealand Farmers' Union and other rural organisations had long been pressing for a much stronger national commitment to rural and agricultural education at all levels, and the Massey government was committed to doing something about it. The inclusion of a rural bias in the training of teachers was one objective, and Wild, a strong supporter of the rural cause, was appointed lecturer in science at Christchurch Training College in 1921.
A more important opportunity came his way the next year with the opening of Feilding Agricultural High School. The creation of agricultural high schools with boarding establishments for boys from country districts was another item on the agenda for the advance of rural education; the initial aim was to have one in each island and, in time, one for each province. Influential Feilding farmers spearheaded the cause for a local high school, and Wild was appointed its foundation headmaster.
Strongly supported by his school board and other community leaders, Wild created a type of high school that was new to New Zealand. High schools in other countries that based their teaching on an agricultural course were criticised for failing to strike a balance between the competing requirements of vocational and general education. However, in schools where agriculture was one of a number of courses, it almost invariably had a low status. Over the next 25 years Wild and his teaching colleagues demonstrated that a high school could be distinctively agricultural while at the same time provide a rich general education for all its students regardless of their course of study. The life of the school was firmly grounded in the annual cycle and daily experience of farming, and emphasised active participation by its pupils in school and community life with the aim of giving a generous, broadly based high school education.
In later years, when the success of his efforts was widely acclaimed, Wild acknowledged his debt to J. E. Strachan, whose earlier initiatives in rural education at Rangiora High School had inspired his own efforts. Rangiora and Feilding led the way in relating secondary school curricula to everyday life, and in the use of councils to introduce students to principles of democratic citizenship through participation in the internal government of their schools. At Feilding this included administering funds for the various clubs and meting out corporal and other forms of punishment. The post-war reform of secondary curricula initiated by the Thomas Report of 1944 owed much to the pioneering work of Strachan and Wild.
During Wild’s time at Feilding, the school farm went from strength to strength. The original 10 acres was increased to 240 and carried nearly all classes of livestock. It paid its own way and became the laboratory of the agriculture course, which was tied to the events and work requirements of the annual farming cycle. Animals bred and raised by students regularly won prizes at the Royal Show in open competition with those of the best farmers in the country. The school built a national and an international reputation. Students from all parts of the country competed for places in the hostel and its roll increased from 12 boys to 135 by the time Wild retired. Wild's board gave him leave of absence in 1926 to study educational methods in the United States. He was particularly impressed with the American young farmers' clubs, and on his return set up the first New Zealand club at the school, with membership open to old pupils and adults as well as pupils.
Wild applied his scientific training to his educational ideas: he observed how they were working, consulted the experience of others, and made changes where needed. The account he wrote of the school's experience of its school council was aptly named An experiment in self-government.
In 1937 Wild was awarded a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant to study the contribution that rural high schools were making to adult education and community development. Accompanied by his wife, he made an extended tour of educational institutions in Britain, Scandinavia, Canada and the United States. While abroad he wrote regular letters to the school; these were read out at morning assembly and later published by private subscription. The letters bring out Wild's deep love of English literature, the English countryside and the landmark buildings of English history.
Although this trip confirmed Wild's belief in the soundness of what had been achieved at Feilding Agricultural High School, the work of the village community colleges in Cambridgeshire spurred him to further action. His commitment to community education was shared by the minister of education, Peter Fraser. In February 1938 Fraser approved the establishment at Feilding Agricultural High School of New Zealand's first state-funded community centre in a country district as an experiment in further education. To direct the centre, Wild chose Crawford and Gwen Somerset, who had already made a reputation for their work in community development at Oxford, North Canterbury. The centre became the home for existing community activities, the stimulus for many more, and the Somersets soon earned their place in the pantheon of educational innovation. The early achievements of the centre were recorded by A. E. Campbell in The Feilding Community Centre (1945).
Wild was made an OBE in 1946 and retired at the end of the year. He then turned his energies to the further development of agricultural education and, more broadly, university education. He had been appointed to the Senate of the University of New Zealand in 1930, remained a member until its dissolution in 1961, and was pro–chancellor from 1949 to 1961. He chaired the senate research committee from 1946 to 1961, and was the first chairman of the University Grants Committee's research committee from 1960 to 1963. He was also a member of the Massey Agricultural College board of governors from 1947 to 1955. The University of New Zealand conferred on him an honorary DSc in 1957. Earlier, in 1952, he had been made a CBE. Wild was one of the architects of the autonomous universities that succeeded the University of New Zealand.
Throughout his career in education, Wild remained prominent in a number of agricultural societies. He was president of the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand between 1934 and 1945, and was made an honorary life member of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. He was also secretary of the New Zealand Red Poll Cattle Breeders’ Association for some years. In retirement he took various opportunities to record the history of rural and agricultural education in New Zealand. This was the theme of the inaugural Hilgendorf Memorial Lecture in 1946, and of the Macmillan Brown Lectures, delivered at Canterbury University College in 1952. The following year he published a biography of Sir James Wilson, the foundation president of the New Zealand Farmers' Union and an MP. Between 1956 and 1958 Wild chaired a consultative committee on agricultural education for the Department of Education. An indication of his standing is the number of topics he contributed to A. H. McLintock’s Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966): agricultural societies, agricultural education, agricultural universities, and university education. He also wrote book reviews for the New Zealand Listener. He was a foundation member of the Rotary Club of Feilding and president for six years of the drama club at the Feilding Community Centre.
Leonard Wild died at Wellington on 23 July 1970, survived by his wife and children. He had lived a well-rounded life, almost all of it in rural districts, and it was his conviction that it should be possible for all rural dwellers to lead such lives. As an agriculturalist he helped farmers to become better farmers by developing their understanding of scientific principles. As a teacher and headmaster he opened educational pathways that enabled rural people to lead lives that were personally fulfilling. His energy, determination, and qualities of leadership matched his vision: one of his pupils who also knew him as an adult called him a ‘perennial invigorator’.