Sholto Kairakau Black was born in Opotiki on 13 January 1902, the seventh child and youngest son of John Black, a farmer at nearby Otara, and his wife, Polly Matuakore (Pare Pikake) Delamere, who was also known as Mary. He grew up in a family of 12 children, two of whom were adopted, and belonged to Te Whanau-a-Apanui and Te Whakatohea through his mother. She was a loving and capable woman who tempered her husband’s stern, Victorian attitudes. Brought up in the Ringatu and Anglican faiths, from an early age Sholto was marked by a sense of duty to his family and a desire to study and develop his intellect. He would remind his younger siblings of their parents’ expectations and required standards of behaviour.
Sholto attended Otara School and Gisborne High School, where he did well academically and in sport, especially rugby. He enjoyed history, English and drama, and his mother, who took a tremendous interest in her youngest son, encouraged him in his studies. While at home he worked with his brothers cutting scrub and clearing the land, but he wanted a different life and at night would often read with a torch.
In 1921, after matriculating from high school, Black went to Auckland University College. During his time there he boarded with Tipi Tainui Ropiha (later the first Maori under-secretary for Maori Affairs) and his wife, Rhoda. Black’s belief in social equity and his love of philosophy, history and English flourished. He joined the university debating team, and his success earned him a gold medal for oratory. He also became a rugby blue and played for New Zealand Universities. He graduated MA in 1927 in English and economics.
The early years of Black’s teaching career were spent at Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland. From there he went to Timaru Boys’ High School, where he stayed for 10 years. The headmaster, William Thomas, was delighted with his talented new teacher. On 22 December 1932, in Timaru, Black married Nancy Elizabeth Kerr, a journalist and the eldest daughter of Charles Eustace Kerr, a retired farmer and the chairman of directors of the Timaru Herald. Thomas became the godfather of their first child. At the time of their second daughter’s birth in 1939, Black was in Australia seeking a job at Haileybury College in Brighton Beach, Melbourne. Nancy joined him soon after.
As assistant master at Haileybury for three years, and as principal for about 10, Black had the difficult time of the Second World War to cope with, as well as a small emerging school with few resources. He did an enormous amount of work for very little pay. Black believed the college should provide a cultural environment and a form of teaching that nurtured Christian beliefs. In his view, in addition to fostering scholarship, schools should encourage humility, humour, kindness, forbearance, helpfulness, trust and loyalty. After the war he unsuccessfully proposed to remove the cadet corps and encourage more art, music and drama. In the holidays he filled the school boarding house with expatriate New Zealanders. By the time ill health and overwork caused him to retire in 1953, the college had an excellent reputation.
The following year saw the family in Auckland, where Black joined the staff of Henderson High School as a relieving teacher. He was soon approached by Sir David Henry, the managing director of New Zealand Forest Products, to consider a move to the fast-growing timber town of Tokoroa. He accepted the position of director of community services for the company, and used his managerial and social skills to co-ordinate housing for the forestry workers. He served on the initial Tokoroa High School Board of Governors, was a member of the Tokoroa town committee, chaired the library committee and was a Rotarian. He was an active member of the Freemasons and was on the Anglican church vestry. Henry utilised Black for public speaking, and he was often called upon to address various clubs and institutions.
Black abhorred discrimination and refused to associate with a club in Tokoroa that practised it. He was an early supporter of the aims of the Maori Education Foundation, but on 2 April 1962 stated on national radio that while a key factor in Maori progress, the foundation was not the whole answer. In his view, the solution lay in New Zealanders addressing the paternalism towards Maori that existed not only in education, but in all aspects of society, and in allowing Maori to take an active part in the country’s decision-making processes.
Black enjoyed skiing and tennis, but his favourite recreations were trout fishing and gardening. When the pressure of work necessitated a break, he could be found fishing at either Mokai, Atiamuri or at Ngongataha near Rotorua. He was an advocate for replanting native trees, and was an early environmentalist.
An outstanding scholar, Sholto Black was an optimistic, caring, religious man with a strong sense of social justice, who dedicated his life to the well-being of others. He died at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, on 23 February 1963 at the age of 61, survived by his wife and two children.