Duncan McFadyen Rae was born at Glenham, Southland, on 2 June 1888, the son of Scottish parents Susan Ann McIntyre (née McFadyen) and her husband, William Rae, a shepherd, who was later a farmer. After attending Greenhills and Knapdale schools he worked on the family farm on the Awarua Plains. He continued his studies, cycling 10 miles each way to Invercargill Technical School to attend evening classes. His adult life was similarly marked by Caledonian determination. He became a pupil-teacher at East Gore School in 1905, and progressed rapidly to become a senior teacher at Invercargill Middle School by 1912, and first assistant at Invercargill South School in 1914. Tall and strong, distinguished at athletics, rowing and rugby, he was already known as a man of broad sympathies and cultural interests.
A member of the Volunteer Force from 1906, and the Territorial Force from 1911, Rae enlisted to serve in the First World War in September 1915. Prior to leaving New Zealand in March 1916 he was married in Invercargill on 24 January to Lilian Jane Rowe, a teacher. Rae served in France with the Otago Infantry Regiment; he was appointed lieutenant in October 1916 and granted the temporary rank of captain later that month. He was wounded in the battle of the Somme in 1916, and fought at Messines (Mesen) in 1917, where he was wounded again, spending some months in hospital. He was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry. Discharged in July 1918, he was an officer in the territorials from 1920 until 1929, when he transferred to the reserve of officers.
Having completed a BA as an extramural student of the University of Otago in 1914, Rae returned as a full-time student in 1919 and completed an MA with first-class honours in history. During that year, on 27 April, his wife Lilian died; they had had no children. After finishing his degree Rae became first assistant of Invercargill Middle School. In 1920 he was president of the Southland branch of the New Zealand Educational Institute, and in 1921 he became president of the Southland branch of the RSA. He was appointed head teacher of Riverton School in 1922 (the following year it became a district high school). On 23 August 1922 he married Kathleen Marjorie Tucker in Invercargill. The following year the Riverton Western Star published a series of articles he had written on the history of Wallace County, and these, together with his MA, earned him election as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Rae’s organisational skills ensured the success of a teachers’ summer school he conducted at Riverton in January 1923. He then took the lead in forming the New Zealand Teachers’ Summer School Society and presided over nine national summer schools during the next 10 years. The schools gave teachers the opportunity to meet and discuss various issues and topics other than those to do with methods of teaching.
Rae was appointed vice principal of Auckland Training College in 1924, and he was principal from September 1929 to 1946. These years were arguably the most eventful in the history of the college. The move to new accommodation at Epsom in 1926 entailed a decade of effort to turn unkempt volcanic environs into pleasant surroundings. The college was closed temporarily in 1934 as an economy measure, and during this period Rae used a Carnegie Corporation grant to study educational methods in the United States and Britain. With his enthusiasm, drive and skill as a public speaker, Duncan Rae was a valued member of the Auckland Headmasters’ Association and the Auckland branch of the NZEI. In 1933 he rescued the New Zealand Broadcasting Board’s proposal to broadcast educational programmes to Auckland schools from 1YA, and he and his training college colleagues broadcast the first Auckland-based programmes in March. Rae played an important part in the establishment of a museum education service at the Auckland Institute and Museum. He was one of the initiators of the New Education Fellowship Conference held in 1937, and the college was a focus of the Auckland meetings. He brought teachers and members of the public to the college through teachers’ refresher courses and through an annual series of winter lectures on educational topics.
The college was relocated at Auckland University College from 1941 to 1944 when the buildings were required for defence purposes. The war years brought anguish, with students and former students among the war dead and wounded; and there was the jubilation of victory, with servicemen–teachers back in the college for refresher courses and ex-servicemen training to be teachers. Rae managed the college with a sure hand, and during the war he was also commander of the Mount Eden and Mount Albert battalions of the Home Guard.
In 1930 he was elected to the General Council of Education, the national advisory body, and was a member until it was disbanded as an economy measure in 1933. He played an active part in the creation of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, and was a member of its council from its inception in 1934 until 1946. He was also a member of the Auckland University College Council (1937–61) and of the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1950–57 and 1960–61).
As a teacher Rae had kept his political views to himself, but he was recruited by the New Zealand National Party to contest the marginal Parnell seat at the 1946 general election. He won by 206 votes, and increased his majority in 1949 and again in 1951. In 1954 he won the new seat of Eden by eight votes and held it in 1957 against the swing that put the National government out of office.
Rae was of the liberal wing of the National Party, and his contributions to debate were temperate and constructive. In 1952 he introduced a private member’s bill that led to the Historic Places Act 1954. He spoke regularly on education, generally endorsing the Labour government’s intentions during his early years on the opposition benches, but he was uneasy at the pace of change. His main interest, however, was foreign affairs. He was a staunch supporter of international co-operation through the United Nations, and he took every opportunity to emphasise the growing importance to New Zealand of the countries of Asia and the South Pacific. He was uncomfortable with the National government’s passivity in United Nations debates on South Africa’s apartheid policies. On his retirement in 1960, Walter Nash, the prime minister, praised him as ‘one of our best informed’ members of Parliament on foreign affairs. He left politics highly respected by members on both sides of the House.
In May 1961 Rae became New Zealand’s first consul general to Indonesia, and then, when the post was upgraded to a legation, he served as chargé d’affaires, returning to Auckland in December 1963. That year he was made a CMG. He died suddenly in Auckland on 3 February 1964, survived by a son and a daughter; his wife had died in 1953.