Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 13, No. 23. September 28, 1950
Sir Thomas Hunter's Retirement is the . . . — End of an Epoch
Sir Thomas Hunter's Retirement is the . . .
End of an Epoch
The generations of students in a University, though intermingled, succeed one another so rapidly that it is hard for the latest come to understand the enthusiasms, the agitations, the points of reference even of their oldest contemporaries. It is impossible (and no doubt this is just as well) to absorb at one breath the whole feeling and tradition of a place. Persons are points of reference, part of a feeling and persons pass from the scene: they pass however long, and devoted, and distinguished, their appearance has been. So Hunter retires from the Principalship.
It is curious to think that to next year's fresher, he will be but a name. Someone else will address next year's freshers, someone else will plan and negotiate, someone else will sign the documents of state, advise, reprove and urge. Executives will expostulate with someone else. No doubt, for a great many of our students, it will be merely a change. But for others of us it is, if the old and rather tired phrase can be admitted, the end of an epoch. What shall we call it—the Age of Hunter?
Put down badly, this career may not look so impressive. Many men have started as lecturers and become professors and principals and vice-chancellors. The historian and the biographer are quite used to the phenomenon. But put it in the context of Victoria College and the University, of Wellington and New Zealand, consider the scope of forty-seven years in our twentieth century world, from 1904 to 1950, and study the impact of the personality on the time and the place, and you get a fairer measure. In the widest sense one realises, Hunter has been one of the main driving forces behind education in our country in our time; he has not been merely a mechanic tinkering away with the insides of the University of New Zealand, swearing at times moderately. His capacity has been enormous.
Von Zeidlitz said to me once, when the college was much smaller than it is now: "You know, Hunter's wasted in this country. He could have run any university anywhere." It was true in a way; Von would have agreed that it wasn't the whole truth. Hunter could have run Cambridge or Harvard or London: and yet we need, we must have, men of his calibre in New Zealand or we become quite futile. He has been one of our main bulwarks against futility. Bulwarks?—no that's not quite the right metaphor, there's too much of passive solidarity about it, and Hunter has been anything but passive. We may have taken shelter behind him, but that was because he was in front, very dexterous with a sword, very agile on his feet—beautiful footwork indeed—very much the leader to battle and the in-fighter too. Yet it would be wrong to think of him as the swordsman merely, a sort of reckless D'Artagnan taking on the multitudes, and his struggle has never been a subaltern's war; he has had generalship, not merely a clever wrist, strategy as well as tactics. To watch the transaction by which a somewhat dubious idea has beneath Hunter's fostering care, become triumphant fact has always been rewarding for the spectator: indeed if you know what is happening, it is both rewarding and entertaining. The history of the College, and of the University, is studded with memorials of Hunter erected in this way. Few of them, however, bear his name. There are sane people, of course, whom the strategy of indirect approach has tended to exasperate.
I am taking a good deal for granted as I write of Hunter, for I have written of him before and anyone can look up his career. It is the personality of the man that fascinates me. As our College and our University take shape, with larger and larger organisation, more and more teachers, more and more complicated apparatus of subjects and timetables and examinations and research, it may become difficult to get that personality into the right focus. We have not outgrown the utility of minds like Hunter's—we never shall; but we must consider, rightly to weigh his worth, the nature of his period, the Epoch to which his retirement is the End.
When he came to Victoria, the Professor did everything but examine; he was no specialist, but an all-purpose man, he ran his department single-handed, and things being as they were, he was a member of the student body as well. Hunter with his extremely lively and practical mind, inquisitive though no researcher in the modern sense, not much of a writer though with a great analytical and critical mind, was born at once to live in that environment and to change it. The old university had to be changed. The process of change is still going on and we are lucky that Hunter was there to get on with the job. He has never been a man to let things stay put; he has never even let his face stay put—at least I have never been able to pursue those mobile features into immobility and it is perhaps the greatest tribute to Eve Page's portrait of him to remark that the face changes as you look at it.
These paragraphs, when I read them through, don't seem to say anything. They start off something and let it drop. I can't cope with the multiplicity of the man that I have known for thirty years. I was a student of his, so he's partly responsible for me. But I can't be responsible for him. Perhaps I have to be, however. After all, like all the rest of us—students and teachers—I have been part of the college and we cannot separate the College and Hunter: there has been a process of action and reaction. We have not merely agreed with him and been led by him: we have argued with him, deplored him, sometimes cursed him. It has sometimes been, I fancy, hard for the latterday student in the College's latterday largeness, with Sir Thomas Hunter the Principal rather remote in the Administration Block, to understand him. If this is so, it is the penalty a man pays for building something great. To seize the essential Hunter perhaps isn't easy anyway; no human being is quite easy to understand. But there are three things at least that stand out. Hunter has first always been disinterested; he has never worked for the greater glory of Tommy Hunter. He has always had a hold on reality. "These damn fellows messing around with regulations!" he has been heard to say with scorn. "They don't seem to realise they're playing with people's lives." He has always made teaching and administration a mode of friendship.
We tried, a few years ago, to signify our own feeling for him in the volume of essays the College published to celebrate his seventieth birthday, "The University and the Community." There isn't much more one can say. But it may not be too much to say, or too sentimental, as we bid farewell both to the first age of the College and to almost the last survivor of it among us, who wrought with Kirk and Lady Easterfield and was a rock to Von Zeidlitz in time of trouble, that we think of him not with exasperation and admiration only, but with affection.
J. C. Beaglehole.