Taking their place in the world

Dunedin is a city at the bottom of the world. It is cold, wet, and lacks sunshine. For the most part, it has an aging population, excepting an annual injection of fresh blood and student allowances.

Granted, it is also home to Cadbury, Fisher & Paykel, and a manufacturing hub in Mosgiel. Generally speaking, though, it would be fair to say that in the University of Otago's 141 years, we have built this city and it has built us. In this Celebrity Issue of Critic, Georgie Fenwicke looks at some of the better-known characters the University shaped before sending them out to take their place in a world of fame, riches, and glory.
   The experimentalists
   When you first arrive in Dunedin you encounter two types of people: those who study law and those doing their health science year. What else would you study here when you consider some of the scientists Otago has shaped? Take Mazlan Othman as an example. Othman was born in Malaysia but attended Otago on a Colombo Plan scholarship, earning a BSc in Physics in 1975. She returned to complete a PhD in 1981 and interestingly was the first woman to do so in the University’s 110-year history. Othman is an astrophysicist and today is the director for the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. 
   Allan Wilson was also a student of science who left his homeland behind, this time in favour of American shores. A pioneer in the field of evolutionary change, Wilson did much of his work at the University of California, Berkeley, but not before he graduated with a BSc from Otago. It was he who coined the idea of the “molecular clock”, a method of dating the origins of the human species through genetic mutations from a common ancestor. After he died tragically early at the age of 56, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, such was his contribution to the understanding of human history. 
   John Eccles, a former Professor here at the University, also went on to win the Nobel Prize – one in Physiology and Medicine. After World War Two, Eccles worked as a Professor here before going on to teach at Australian National University in 1952. A neurophysiologist by trade, he discovered that synaptic transmission was primarily chemical rather than electrical. Pure genius. 
   One of Otago’s most fascinating science grads, however, was Sir Archie McIndoe, a doctor and pioneering plastic surgeon who worked for the Royal Air Force during World War Two. Over the course of the war he treated many young pilots who sustained severe burns and injuries in the Battle of Britain. He was one of the first to recognise that saline could be used for its healing properties, after noting the different healing rates of those pilots who came down in the sea and those who came down on land. In his later years, he founded the African Medical and Research Foundation, which is today Africa's leading health development organisation. He himself migrated to Tanzania and took over a farm near Kilimanjaro. 
   The jocks
   If we're dealing in stereotypes, the quintessential Otago student is a rugby-playing/-watching, Speight’s-drinking, stubbies- and jandals-toting bloke. He sleeps in, eats pies for breakfast and on days gone by, would have gone to Gardies for a quiet jug on a Sunday afternoon. But alas, times are a-changing. Skinny jeans and cardies have been imported from the North, football has become the new national sport, and the Octagon and Barheez is where it's at. For shame. What would Marc Ellis, Anton Oliver, and Josh Kronfeld say? 
   Celebrities on the field and off, sports players are the rough and tumble nexus of our national identity. Now a philosopher on all things environmental, Anton Oliver was once the go-to man of the forward pack in the All Blacks and the Highlanders. A member of the Highlanders dream team in the 1990s, Oliver positioned himself well for a career rugby after after completing a Bachelor of PE in 1999 and Commerce degree in 2002. In recent years he has become a critic of the proposition to build wind farms in Central Otago and began studying for Bachelor of Science in Biodiversity, Environment and Management at Oxford University in 2008. While in Dunedin, Oliver flatted with two fellow All Blacks, Tony Brown and Simon Maling. Notably, he co-owned and founded that most pleasant of eating establishments, Ombrellos, with Jeff Wilson. He went here himself, as did his wife Adine who went on to captain the Silver Ferns. 
   Other notable sporting names include Nathan Twaddle, Martin Snedden, and who can forget Marc Ellis? Ellis, the penultimate scarfinian and former Gardies figurehead, graduated in 1995 with a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing and Management. An All Black and Otago rep while at University, he switched to league in 1996 taking his place in the Warriors. Then in 1998, he set up a juice operation that was to become Charlie's. After he retired from professional sport in 2000, he worked full time as Charlie's Marketing Director. A role on Sports Café and an on-air partnership with fellow sports star Matthew Ridge has made Ellis one of the most famous men in the land and a constant in the women’s magazines and Sunday papers.
   The artistes
   With its patronage of the arts through the Burns and Hodgkins Fellowships, the University of Otago surrounds itself with a strong culture of creativity. Indeed, the Central Otago artist and photographer, Grahame Sydney, who graduated in 1970, was himself the Hodgkins fellow in 1978, although he describes his time at Otago as a rather lacklustre affair: “It wasn't a great University experience for me but that was my own stupid fault ... I was waiting to do something else.” He describes one of his most memorable lecturers, an English teacher: “Hal Smith, who was an American married to a prominent painter called Els Nordhoff here in Dunedin … Hal was fearless and unconventional ... He got into periodic difficulty with his seniors and I think was unappreciated really except for people like me and a lot of other students who thought he was rather inspiring.” 
   Sydney credits the Hodgkins Fellowship at Otago with establishing “the notion that you should support New Zealand artists.” Established in 1962 by the University of Otago Council, its aim was to give aid and encourage artists to advance their skills. As Sydney explains, “It showed what would happen if people were given a fulltime opportunity.” Past fellows include Derek Ball, Ralph Hotere, and Michael Smither, three figures who had a phenomenal effect on Sydney's decision to pursue a career as an artist – “They were very supportive, they didn't keep the door shut and say, ‘Piss off’, they said, ‘Come in and watch!’” 
   Bill Manhire, now the director of Creative Writing at Victoria University, also attended Otago in the 1960s. Also an English major, he has a little more to say about the department than Sydney: “Alan Horsman and Margaret Dalziel were the formidable powers at the top of the department. Margaret Dalziel was rumoured to be both a lesbian and to have had an affair with Karl Popper, which was all very exciting.” Like Sydney, he also highlights the importance of the Fellowships offered by Otago: “Maybe even more important was the presence of the Burns and Hodgkins Fellows. People like Hone Tuwhare and Ralph Hotere were key friends for me.” 
   Both Sydney and Manhire lived at home during their study, Manhire “in the Crown Hotel in Rattray Street where [his] father was the publican.” When asked what he thought of the recent closure of Gardies and the possibility of The Cook shutting down, Manhire said that he was not too concerned about Gardies, but that he would “be upset to see The Cook go. It was a real fixture for most of us. I even remember counselling (or maybe consoling) Hone Tuwhare over many jugs of beer one long evening when he thought he'd got a nun pregnant.” 
   The loudmouths
   The University of Otago has produced some pretty outspoken characters in its time, and not just of the sporting variety. Student politics in Dunedin have always involved quite a loud and boisterous crowd, and who knows what Harriet Geoghegan will go on to achieve given her predecessors. 
   Active politicians among the Otago alum include Bill English, David Cunliffe (pitted to be next Labour leader and former resident of Carrington), and Michael Laws. In his heyday, Bill was the President of the Selwyn student association, an appointment which no doubt fuelled his enthusiasm for powerful positions. Today, he runs the country's finances as the National Party's Minister of Finance and John Key's second in command. It's good to know that he is putting his Bachelor of Commerce to good use. By contrast Laws, who attended Arana, has recently announced that he will not seek re-election as the Mayor of Whanganui – the ‘h’ apparently proving to be the final straw. Rumour has it he is not giving up the goat entirely, however, with suggestions that he will position himself as Winston Peters' deputy at the next election. He would give Rodney a run for his money at least. 
   You might also be surprised to know that three of our Governor Generals attended this prestigious institution. Sir Anand Satyanand actually went to Aquinas, believe it or not. However, after lucking out in the first health science year (and his choice of Hall), he returned to his hometown of Auckland to complete a Law degree at the university there. This career move turned out to be a good idea, as Sir Anand went on to become a district court judge and ultimately take over from another Otago grad, Dame Silvia Cartwright, as the Governor General. Dame Silvia, who graduated with an LLB in 1967, was a notable High Court Judge before entering into Queen's service, indeed she was the first woman to serve in the position. In 2006, she took up a position as a trial judge on the United Nations Tribunal investigating war crimes in Cambodia. Additionally, Lord Arthur Porritt, also an ex-Selwynite, was the eleventh Governor General of New Zealand and physician to the Queen. He began studying medicine in 1920 at Otago before going onto Oxford to continue his studies. In between he found time to represent New Zealand in the 1924 Paris Olympics, winning a bronze in the 100-metre sprint. 
   The ellipsis brigade
   I was unsure where to slot Chris Laidlaw into this article. He has done so much: All Black, Rhodes Scholar, Wellington Regional Councillor, High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, journalist, author. You try to put that in a box. Laidlaw studied History at Otago, and has many fond memories of the place. Indeed, he thought it necessary to mention that for all those people who claim to have been the founders of the mixed flatting tradition, he has the strongest. “In 1962-3,” he says, “I went mixed flatting. It seemed a rather good idea, I had lots of contacts with butchers and people who sold fish, and the girls I was flatting with were all seriously into cooking. So what better combination could you imagine?” 
   He describes Dunedin in the sixties as “just as anarchic as it is now, [but] it was a lot more laissez-faire. I mean the city actively encouraged the students to get out on the streets and have a good time.” As well as balancing his studies with an international rugby career, he also held the prestigious position of the Director of Amenities during Capping. “This was … an appointment of the capping committee which gave the incumbent full control over all of the alcohol that was obtained, largely beer, in fact, exclusively beer from Speight's.” Asked whether any of the kegs fell off the truck on the way back, Laidlaw admits, “Most of them went to the Student Union, but one or two would mysteriously find their way back to our flat.” Laidlaw went on to read history and play rugby at Oxford, but when asked which University he preferred, replies, “I think Otago. Oxford is not an easy place to adjust to; you have got to adjust to it ... Otago is much more free-wheeling.” 
   Other graduates have followed a similar journalistic tradition. Jim Morar, who was also with the National Programme and star of Mucking In, once haunted the Critic offices as Editor, as did the political commentator Chris Trotter. Even TV3's Samantha Hayes worked for Radio One. 
   The money-makers
   While the University has been operating for 141 years and is the oldest tertiary education institution in the country, teaching in accountancy and business only began in 1912. Since then a number of key business people have graduated from Otago and gone on to contribute large sums to our GDP. Indeed, Australasia's richest man, Graeme Hart, completed an MBA in 1988 by outlining his strategy for his then small business, the Rank Group. These days he is trying to corner the packaging market by both horizontally and vertically integrating operations across the industry. 
   If you have heard of Icebreaker (and no, it is not the drink that comes out of a keg), chances are you have heard of Jeremy Moon. Founder of the woollen clothing company, Moon had completed a Bachelor, Diploma, and Master’s of Commerce by the time he finally finished studying in 1994. Now he runs a multi-national corporation that supplies New Zealand merino to stores the world over. Notably, Icebreaker is also hiring, so if you are in the job market check out the careers page for positions in France, Switzerland, the USA, and Canada. 
   Dunedin may be cold, wet, and miserable but it has played home to some pretty interesting people in its time. Don't get me wrong, I loathe the current advertising campaign as much as the next person – apparently, Otago can take the goth out of you. But this place does build a resilience of body and mind, a strength that will at the very least put you in good stead for winters to come. 

Posted 11:56pm Monday 9th August 2010 by Georgie Fenwicke.