Nelson’s Farewell to PAH

Speech delivered by Prof. Emeritus Hank Nelson on an occasion to celebrate his remarkable contribution to the Division of Pacific and Asian Studies in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the ANU (24 August 2011)

In my 100 years at PAH no doubt there many things of great insight said about me. I
savoured two. I will start with one. It was said without maliciousness. It was just an
observation. We were leaving a barbeque or an occasion such as this when I heard one
of my colleagues say: ‘You know this is the first departmental barbeque I have been
to when Hank has not made a speech.’

Struth! I thought, there is a warning to shut up.
If you see a microphone or lecturn, walk on by.

Some of you will have heard me say things when there have been just three or four
present, and I have been in confessional mood. One of those confessions has been
about the administrative staff who were almost constant through most of the years
when I was head of department or division.

They were Marion Weeks on the floor below, Dorothy Mclntosh, Jude Shanahan,
Oanh Collins, Julie Gordon, and Jenny Terrell (who transformed into Vicki Luker) on
the top floor. They have different and complementary skills. I soon learnt that the less
I did the more smoothly the department ran. My laziness triumphed over my humility.
I chaired meetings, sat on committees, and graciously stood aside from the detail of
running the department. I less graciously accepted praise for the running of the
department.

I cannot say much about Marion’s work as I did not often see her operating. But I can
say that the doctoral students on the first floor were given excellent pastoral care and,
beyond that, Marion gave aid and advice on formatting, printing and editing theses. In
retrospect, she earned an honorary PhD.

I said I would tell another story of accidental enlightenment. I was an on
appointments committee. And I heard someone ask one of my fellows on the
committee how it went- after we had retired for a private chat. And the reply was:
‘Hank Nelson was a bastard. And the role came easily to him!’

I mentioned complementary skills. That stood out with Julie, Oanh, Jude and Dorothy.
In a history department of about 70, plus partners, there was always someone having
or fathering babies, having a significant birthday, publishing a book, being promoted,
leaving or arriving, gaining a PhD, going to hospital …. there was a constant flow of
notices of congratulations and commiserations. Sometimes I had not heard of the
event before I learnt that Julie had bought the flowers and was arranging for the card
to be signed. Thanks Julie for taking on those essential and never-ending tasks.
Among many other duties, Julie accepted being our cheerful hospitality staff member.

Oanh was always early at her desk and I would sometimes bring in some typing for
her to do. I would say to her: ‘There was no hurry. Just attach it to an email when it’s
finished.’ Then I would race down the corridor to see if I could beat it to my desk.
Often I failed. Oanh and Jude were both always ready to accept a task and both were
fast on the keyboard. After I had been to Japan I thought of them as the Shinkansens
of the keyboards. Both had other skills- particularly in formatting. Jude designed
several of the best books to come out of the department. It was her knowledge
of computing that meant we eventually lost her. Thanks to the flying Shinkansens
of the keyboards.

Jenny Terrell, and now Vicky, have produced the Journal of Pacific History. It began
in 1966 and this is the 46th volume. The published volumes stretch a metre on my
bookshelves. They are a great statement of high scholarship, alongside the highest
standards of editing and meeting deadlines.

There are others who do their jobs well: Maxine McArthur, for example; and I want to
bring special attention to the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau which serves us and the
widespread community of Pacific scholars in an efficient and practical way. Thanks to
Ewan Maidment and others- and especially those who went before such as Bob
Langdon.

Dorothy: Brij has already made the significant remark: ‘She was our boss.’ She never
raised her voice, never looked under stress, never demanded deference. Sometimes I
would be at home and Dorothy would ring to explain that there was a visitor claiming
to have an appointment or that there was a meeting about to begin. There was no
reprimand in her voice. My reply was always the same: ‘Right, I will be there in ten
or twelve minutes’. This had happened so often we both knew the time. When I
arrived the visitor would be calmly sitting in the Records Room or Dorothy would
have gathered the papers she thought I needed for the meeting. Dorothy understood
about accounts and procedures beyond my hazy knowledge. I acknowledge my
dependence on her. She has, this morning, revealed an eloquence in public speaking.
She has kept that well-hidden- otherwise we would have called on that skill. So
thank you to Dorothy for so much accomplished in the past and for the generous
words today.

I have not spoken about my fellow academics. One reason is that we get public
recognition: even Professor Emeritus and Doctor of Philosophy are added to our
undistinguished monikers; and our names are on the spines of books. But three
colleagues I do want to mention- David because we arrived here together and he has
just spoken well in undeserved praise of me; and Gavan McCormack, my other twin.
We were born on the same day in Victoria- a fact that did not escape
Dorothy’s keen eye. And to Brij Lal to whom we are indebted for organising much of
this occasion. With Brij, I enjoyed many conversations in this tea room about two
important topics: cricket and good prose.

Earlier, there was a familiar voice coming from behind me. I did not recognise it. But
he too was both an organiser (well, he failed on the scones and cream) and a slightly
better than incoherent speaker. Bill too deserves our gratitude for this occasion.

Thank you all for coming.
Hank Nelson

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