The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1945
Harry Borrer Kirk
"What tribute can we render unto you
Who gave the riches of your scholar—lore,
The wisdom more to be desired than gold,
Poured out in liberal measure from your store
Of knowledge, and to eyes of youth unrolled
The map of life anew.
What sheaf of all your sowing shall we bring
As offering before your honoured chair?
Though thin our votive wreath from hands else bare
Know this our hearts are full, remembering."
The retirement of Professor Kirk at the end of last year removes from Victoria University College one who, during a term of forty-two years rendered great and lasting service in the very important formative period. He brought with him, when he joined the staff in 1903, besides his sound knowledge, an enthusiasm which has never flagged. He brought, in addition a personality which, because of its kindness, its humour and its wisdom, was beloved far beyond the walls of the biology class rooms.
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It is very difficult to describe the flavour and quality of men, and to be certain one gives the true impression. It would be easy, I think, for his old friends and students to think first of the sense of fun, the wit and humour, the stories picked up in odd places from the "Roadless North" to Stewart Island. It was quite fatal to tempt him with a "that-reminds-me" series. The man would stop at nothing. Yet this would be a mistake. I think the quality first to be noted was directness, sincerity, the true instinct and the power of going straight to the heart of things. On one occasion in the early days of the College the students were called together to take a rebuke for some untoward happening. There was a good deal of talk and possibly some feeling that the case had been stated too strongly. Then came Professor Kirk. He said, as he always did in a crisis, the thing which was in his heart. It came by some wholesome instinct, heart and head in unison. The head was a good one— the heart of gold. The last word ad been said. Nor have I a more lasting impression of him than that of grave and punctilious courtesy, a courtesy which enriched the young and delighted the old.
I think it was de Morgan in "Joseph Vance" who remarked that some men are old when they totter out of the cradle and some are young when they totter into the grave. The old Professor, well in the eighties, has a heart as young as a boy's. He is still full of fun though perhaps the impending loss of sight and the fear of being a trouble to others may have brought seriousness more to the surface. That serious side, which was never absent, does not belong to the shallow and frivolous. Such cannot stay the distance. To Harry Borrer Kirk life has always had meaning, and the study of biology was only the study of life from its beginnings.page 12
It was thought by some in 1903 that some years of service among the Native Schools might be a disqualification for the Professoriate. The truth behind that criticism was a danger to be faced, but the Council was either very wise or very lucky. If this School Inspector had lost some touch with the academic side he had established very full communion with our common humanity. I have never felt concerning him that he was an erudite "scholar" as indeed he was. It is the kindness, the simplicity (so akin to greatness), the gentleness of spirit and understanding, the mellow humanity which spring to mind instantly at the thought of "Prof." Kirk. I cannot think of him as an old man.
For forty-three years he has toiled for Victoria University College and for her sons and daughters, always as a student, a teacher, and a friend. To build up his Department was his not unworthy ambition, and its building and its equipment are his lasting monument. Like all great teachers he is a great man. He left his mark on five decades, he established a tradition. He helped against many difficulties to make Victoria University College a home of true scholarship, a sanctuary of kindness and comradeship, a temple of wisdom.
With the War in 1914 came the chance of proving that Science, and Biology in particular, belonged to the business of practical life. By dealing with the fly menace he greatly diminished the incidence of disease in the Military Camps. Many stories are told of his adventures—how, why and to what effect he refused a Captain's Commission and even a military decoration—stories all in character. The students of today will no doubt deplore that a Professor of the University should have taken advantage of the freedom of the camps to wander aimlessly but guilefully across the horse lines in full view of the famous "Blazer" for the express purpose of testing the legendary eloquence of that great linguistic artist. It was, however, not "Blazer's" day. "It was rather disappointing," reported our Professor, "I have occasionally heard better efforts in the very far North."
Sometimes, forty years ago, late on Saturday or Sunday night, we would see his light burning and sprinkle his window with handfulls of the little pebbles which have not yet entirely disappeared from the College precincts. He would let us in, tell us stories of old times and we would take Counsel concerning extravaganzas and the General meetings. It was at such times that we tested his quality, his quiet humour, his mellow and unassuming wisdom. I am hoping at the Jubilee of 1949 to walk up the hill with John Rankine Brown, with Sir Thomas Easterfield, Tommy Hunter and old Von, but it will go hard if Harry Borrer Kirk is not there among the faithful.page break page break
Professor J. Rankine Browne