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The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

Sir Alexander Howat Johnstone

Sir Alexander Howat Johnstone

The Story of a University may be read in minute books and Parliamentary papers, but these give only the framework. Behind the bare facts stand the lives and the ideals, the gropings and the strivings, the victories and defeats of a multitude of men and women each of whom has contributed something to the sum total of her greatness. It sometimes happens that, from the multitude, by virtue of some special aptitude, some special gift of nature or training, there is given to an individual the power to inspire in others a greater sense of dignity and purpose. Such a one was Alexander Howat Johnstone. To him was given the power of logical thinking; the power of clothing and expressing thought in eloquent, trenchant and moving speech; the power which rises from elevation of thought when it comes from ripe knowledge and an inner sincerity.

Johnstone came to Victoria College in the year 1900, in the second year of her foundation, and he graduated B.A. in 1903 and LL.B. in 1905. During his five years as a student he earned his living as a cadet in the Government Life Insurance Department, so that his days were strenuous indeed. Nevertheless it is significant that, in his progress, the cultural degree in Arts preceded the professional one in Law. In later life, as a member of the New Zealand University Senate, as Vice-President of the Auckland University Board, and on other boards and committees, the educational claims of the Classics were never overlooked nor undervalued. To him the University was more than an Institute of Technology.

In the year 1900 the corporate life of the College was just beginning to stir, and in June, 1902. the first number of The Spike, the great organ of undergraduate page 36 life and spirit, came into being. The Spike was able in its first number to chronicle the formation of a "Students' Society to which all the athletic and social clubs are affiliated." The first fruits were the Hockey and Tennis Clubs and the Debating Society. A committee was set up to deal with the constitution of a "University Tournament," and a new and wider interest was introduced into University life. Johnstone entered into the life and spirit of the new time. He took his part in the founding of the Debating Society, and we find him joining the fight in that famous meeting which established our colours as green and gold"—the meeting at which "Jonhstone tried to stem the tide, and Prouse raised up his voice." His chief enthuisasm, however, was for Rugby football, and he was a member of the committee of 1902 "to foster the formation of a Football Club." He played in the first game; he served on the first committee; he was one of the first Life Members, and, after the lapse of fifty-four years, his active and subscribing interest in the club ended only with his death. It was at football and debating that we first came to know the calibre and quality of the man.

"Here's a health to our latest B.A.,
In his gig-lamps of gold he looks happy the day.
Long in the lower jaw, heart of the truest core,
At football and law he is making his way."

Capping Song

Our interest here is not in the details of a great career, but in arriving at a just estimate of the man we knew and loved"—especially in relation to the College. After his death statesmen and lawyers vied with one another in praising one who had served his country so ably and so well. Dr. James Williams. Principal of the College, one who worked as a student under Sir Alexander, himself wrote a tribute worthy of his old master. There was indeed in the master a noble pride in the profession of law as part of the administration of justice, and this just pride Sir Alexander was able to communicate to the pupil. There was in his whole attitude and approach to legal problems, a noble scrupulousness and devotion to truth not unworthy of the best in the Scots and English tradition. There was no question of trick or bluff in the armoury of this advocate. He bent all his ability to the task of making his words cogent and forceful, but it was always to the essential that his mind was directed. The element of greatness in advocacy lies very much in the capacity to sort out the essential with speed and directness, and the capacity to master facts and to deploy them to meet the exact issue was part of Sir Alexander's equipment. The process of briefing him was illuminating. He grasped the facts. examined them, especially those against him, quite objectively, and applied the law. He saw the worst and would not be taken by surprise. His great success in the Courts was the result of care in preparation and a capacity for seeing both sides from the beginning. He knew that Judges and juries have a hostile reaction to unfairness and exaggeration"—and he preferred understatement. The Judges perforce knew him; they knew that he did not bluff; they knew that his judgment carried authority; and they listened, as they used to listen to C. P. Skerrett when he practised at the bar.

It was characteristic of Sir Alexander that he was courteous even at his most forceful and trenchant, but it is fair to say that he could be devastating if he deemed it warranted. In one judicial proceeding a Senior Counsel is said to have page 37 remarked: "I have never before heard such a denunciation in a Court of Law." Rooted iniquity met short shrift at his hands. In general his power of saying the right thing coupled with his passion for justice claimed the full respect, if not the approval, of the opposition.

Though he had wandered far afield, when on the 5th day of May, 1934, the student body sought a graduate to present to the College the portraits of the four Foundation Professors, the choice fell upon Alexander Howat Johnstone. In The Spike of 1934 there is printed, with the poem of Seaforth Mackenzie, a verbatim report of that speech. No one who attended at the Library on that occasion is likely to forget it. Its distinction and dignity, is eloquence and sincerity gave it a special significance, and that significance was enhanced by the fact that the occasion marked the end of an epoch, an epoch which opened with "the fair beginning of a time" and ended with the passing of the first Professors.

I have not dealt with the many and varied services rendered by Sir Alexander to the University and to the State, services which, at his hands, have enriched our corporate life. At the outbreak of the war of 1914 and again in 1939, he threw the whole of his energies into recruiting and national service. He served, in addition, on an Aliens Tribunal, and upon the Special Tribunal for the appeals of Conscientious Objectors. We may well believe that his generous, wise and humane outlook was a constant source of strength to the Court of Appeal.

The final gesture of Sir Alexander to education came with his will, in which he left the residue of his estate for scholarships available to students of Law.

Perhaps I may conclude with a quotation from Thomas Carlyle given in the speech to which I have already referred. It is characteristic of the Carlyle in whom Sir Alexander delighted, both in its rugged wisdom, its robust directness and in the grave cadences of the biblical prose he so much admired: "Two men," says Carlyle, "I honour, and no third. First the toilworn craftsman, who with earth-made implement laboriously conquers the earth and makes her man's. A second I honour, and still more highly, him who is seen working for the spiritually indispensable, not daily bread, but the bread of life. These two in all their degrees I honour. All else is chaff and dust, which let the wind blow whither it listeth."

F. A. de la Mare