Statement on behalf of SSGM at Hank’s Memorial Service

Notes from a speech by Dr Sinclair Dinnen given on behalf of The State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program (SSGM) at the Memorial Service for Professor Hank Nelson, University House, ANU on Friday 24th February, 2012.

Our sincere condolences to Jan, Michael and the Nelson family for their loss.

I’d like to say a few words of behalf of myself and colleagues at the State Society and Governance in Melanesia (SSGM) program here at the ANU, a program with which Hank was closely associated since it was first established in late 1996. During those years, Hank took on a variety of roles & contributed in many different ways. He provided an exceptional quality of academic & intellectual leadership; a commitment to the highest quality of scholarship; an unfashionable degree of collegiality and mentoring of junior colleagues; and, above all, he brought his unique qualities as a wonderful human being – whose generosity, good humour & incredible modesty, will be fondly remembered by all who knew him.

Hank’s modesty is, of course, legendary. Story sent to me by Bryant Allen:

“Hank once told me he spent the first 20 years in Coombs waiting for “them” to find out how stupid he was. His rural origins, his National Service and his school teaching had made him feel inferior to the great minds in Coombs. Over time of course that background stood him in great stead and led to his concern for the place of the common man in history and his basic and straight forward English expression.”

Hank’s contribution to PNG studies in particular & Pacific studies more generally was immense. I’ll leave it to others to discuss this in more detail. For those of us working to bridge the gap between academic research and the policy community he also brought much else:

  • As Chairman of SSGM, he appreciated the legitimacy and benefits of a relationship between the research and policy communities provided it was conducted in a manner that upheld the integrity of the research process. Likewise, he appreciated the value that scholars with long-term field experience could bring to the policy community;
  • In this endeavour, as with others, he led by example, contributing authoritatively to ongoing discussions in academic outlets, the media & policy forums particularly around contemporary developments in PNG;
  • His commentaries on PNG while often critical have always been balanced and grounded in deep knowledge, familiarity and affection for that country and its people. He was never afraid to say it as he saw it. Although he had taught and associated with the ‘Bully-Beef’ club while at the Administrative College – and clearly admired the aspirations of these young nationalist intellectuals – that didn’t blind him to – or prevent him criticising their foibles and subsequent ill-deeds, as demonstrated, for example, in his piece on the Defence Inquiry into the Moti Affair;
  • While well known for his empiricism and antipathy toward theory, he was more than happy to engage with global themes and broader debates, as in his critique of Paul Collier’s analysis of poverty amongst the ‘bottom billion’, or his response to Francis Fukuyama’s writings on state-building. As another colleague says, Hank was always on the lookout for small incidents that gave a window through which to look at wider trends, and that would reveal something about how political power worked in Melanesia.
  • Hank maintained his interests and writing until close to the end. He came for a final visit to SSGM late last year at a specially arranged morning tea. Though looking frail and clearly very ill, Hank came duly armed with a written speech. After congratulating the unit on its productivity to date, he duly reminded us that there was much more to be done and proceeded over the following 20 minutes to identify and discuss in great detail a range of topics – from corruption to compensation of landowners – that were crying out for further research. He finished his speech in true Hank-like style; “Thank you for the farewell. And for yet again allowing me to say what is for many of you the bleeding obvious.”

Thank you Hank from all at SSGM, we shall miss you enormously.

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