Vale: Hank Nelson (1937-2012)

by Professor Brij Lal, Acting Head, School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia and The Pacific, The Australian National University.

Emeritus Professor Hyland Neil (Hank) Nelson AM
[Learn about the Hank Nelson Memorial Endowment]

The community of Pacific scholars is mourning the death of Professor Hank Nelson. Hank was an institution at the ANU for nearly four decades. He was the world’s premier historian of Papua New Guinea, a gifted teacher of undergraduate and graduate students, a mentor to graduate students and research scholars alike, and a wonderful departmental citizen. At various times, he served as Associate Director of the then Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies and as Convenor of the Division of Pacific and Asian History. He filled all these and other roles with distinction and integrity. But above all, Hank was a scholar, a man with a golden pen. He invariably put aside his own work to read and comment on the work of others, improving them considerably in the process.

On a personal note, Hank was my closest colleague in the Coombs Building for over two decades. He introduced me to the nuances of Australian culture and to the culture of the Australian academy. He read much of what I wrote since the mid-1990s, corrected my prose and alerted me to stylistic infelicities.’Short sentences, mate, short sentences,’ he would say. ‘Write to be read rather than simply get ahead.’ Most important, he constantly urged me to keep at the forefront of my mind the reason why I was in the academy.

Hank will be missed. I know that I will not see the likes of him in my own lifetime. Hank, the boy from Boort, was a legend.

[read Hank’s farewell to PAH (24 August 2011)]

Tributes online:

This entry was posted in ANU PI, Profiles and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Vale: Hank Nelson (1937-2012)

  1. Vicki Luker says:

    Hank certainly did write to be read.

    On the day of his memorial service at University House, 24th February, my eye fell on a book that was jutting out on my bookshelf. I stood to push it back in, and saw it was Hank’s Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon. I’d forgotten I had it. Hank had given it to me in my office one day, and written his name inside the cover. I took the book with me to the service and that night I read it. In his own simple, eloquent prose, he delivered the words of so many ordinary men and women who had survived those unimaginable years. This was a gift of Hank’s life – to pass onto readers, listeners, viewers – the gifts of the lives of so many others.

    Of course I will treasure the book – and also the example of a man who saw the bigness in ordinary people.

  2. Chris Ballard says:

    Three Things

    “Three things” about Hank Nelson, because that’s how he would always open his interventions at seminars in the Coombs building, with the requisite number of fingers extending out over the table before him. A week after most seminars, as Hank wrote recently, few of us can remember more than two minutes of an hour’s presentation, but they remain a vitally important part of academic activity and of collegial interaction. So, three things that I remember about Hank at seminars.

    First, he asked the best questions. Like his writing, Hank’s questions were clear, concise and pointed – gently pointed but always probing, always seeking to get the best out of someone’s argument, to nudge them several steps further along in their enquiry.

    Second, he was attentive to an astonishing range of aspects and participants at a seminar, and would continue to reflect on his observations after the seminar: on questions asked (or not asked), responses given (or not) and the details of verbal and non-verbal interactions around the room. His distinctive tread down the corridor would be followed by a pause at the door, a light clearing of the throat, and then, ‘Three things about that seminar, Chris’…

    And lastly, no criticism or point of order passed unleavened by one of Hank’s self-deprecating asides, allowing the beneficiaries of his advice to sense themselves on an equal footing rather than the recipients of senior condescension. One of my favourites is his possibly apocryphal story about asking his wife, Jan, if she would be coming to hear him give a seminar. Her reported response? ‘No, I have heard you’.

  3. Ian Welch says:

    I shared some of Hank’s memories of teaching in Victoria but most of all, I appreciated his intrinsic decency and academic objectivity, two key qualities of an outstanding friend and supervisor. I was aware, as I guess many were, of his illness although not the specifics and I admired the way he simply got on with life and with his friendly help to others. I think Brij is, all too sadly, right that we will not see his like soon, if at all.

  4. Olive Vakaloloma Baloiloi says:

    I am a student who read and learnt a lot from Nelson, resourced historical happenings of PNG for my thesis. Thank you so much, learnt more about PNG while away from PNG.
    Condolences to Nelson family and thank you Prof.

  5. Morgan Tuimaleali'ifano says:

    With my back to the conversation, I heard some one saying, ‘You should’ve been thanked for ….’ Without looking, I recognised the clear unmistakeable voice conveying his appreciation to support staff in the Coombs building. That was I believe the last time I heard of Hank’s voice in the mid-1990s.
    I should’ve thanked Hank – for his ready generosity to a poor student needing a ride, advice and assurance during my ANU years.
    Thank you Hank, thank you very very much.
    Morgan Tuimaleali’ifano
    History Discipline, USP, Suva

  6. Ben Reilly says:

    “Don’t write a thesis. Write a book. Think of your readers, and write something that they will want to read. That’s the real way to be a successful scholar.” I have lost count of the number of times I have given this advice to PhD students, but they are Hank’s words, not mine. Best piece of advice I ever received, and just one of Hank’s many fine legacies. It’s hard to imagine Pacific studies and ANU without him.

  7. Tony Reid says:

    I left it too late to say my thanks to Hank. I was overseas at last year’s appreciation that Brij thoughtfully arranged, and in New Zealand for the memorial after his death. In between I went to see him in the Hospice, and mumbled some incoherent words to a Hank already too weak or drugged to hear them or recognise me. But I need to thank him:
    – for a collegial life in the Coombs corridor and the Department. He was one person that could be relied upon to speak his mind without a smidgeon of self-interest or rancour, and to do it with the lightest of touches.
    – for representing to me the best of the earthy ocker, who could always see the ludicrous side of any disaster or pretension. Hank was one of the few dinky-die Australians in the Department, anddespite his literary brilliance he had enough of the common touch to make up for the rest of us.
    – for the straight shooting that would help a colleague lift his game. I remember in an early stage of being HOD, I was congratulating myself getting through chairing one of my first meetings, when Hank took me aside and quietly said something like — “not bad, but you talked too much, mate.” Only from Hank would I have known that he really wished me well.
    – for the sense of solidarity he inspired, whether in dealing with a crisis or leading us into battle on the sports field. Taking on the library or the anthropologists, whether at cricket or basketball, would have been unthinkable without Hank’s calm leadership, tolerant of incompetence to a fault.
    – for being a mate, through it all.


  8. Frank Jackson says:

    I had not heard of Hank Nelson until yesterday, when I read a piece he wrote for a 2003 Australian War Memorial history conference on the air war in Europe. It provides a concise history of the development of the allied bombing strategy that concentrated, so awfully, on cities. It is also a heartfelt eulogy to the courage and qualities of the Australian airmen who had no role in developing that strategy but who played a big role in prosecuting it, with the odds of surviving the effort stacked, massively, against them. I am the son of a 460 Squadron navigator, and the namesake of his brother who was in the second last aircraft lost by 619 Squadron. Hank’s piece will be prominent in the material I will leave my children to help them comprehend what their grandfather, and great uncle, were part of. It is by far the clearest, most compassionate, call for their extraordinary effort to be properly recognised that I have read. I googled Hank after reading it in the hope I could send him a thank you.

Comments are closed.