Tributes flow for historian and poet Bill Oliver


Professor Emeritus Bill Oliver with Prime Minister Helen Clark in September 2008.


Massey University Professor Emeritus Bill Oliver, considered one of New Zealand's most influential historians as well as a poet, has died in Wellington, aged 90.

Born in Feilding in 1925, he graduated with a Master of Arts from the University of New Zealand (at Victoria) in 1951 then a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford in 1953. He lectured at Canterbury and Victoria from 1954-63 then became the foundation Professor of History at Massey for the next 20 years. At Massey he supervised and inspired a generation of significant academic historians such as Peter Gibbons, Tom Brooking, Charlotte Macdonald and Margaret Tennant.

He retired from Massey in 1983 and was appointed general editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, a role he held until 1990. Since 2007 the Massey University history programme has held a WH Oliver lecture in recognition of Professor Oliver’s contribution to the discipline. In 2013 the university established the WH Oliver Humanities Research Academy to promote and support Humanities research.

Founding director of the Oliver Academy Associate Professor Kerry Taylor, says, “As a poet, historian, biographer, public intellectual and former Dean of Humanities, Bill was the natural embodiment of the Massey humanities tradition. His writing was always directed at key social and political issues, both past and present. Work such as the Dictionary of Biography and with the Royal Commission on Social Policy was applied humanities at its finest.”

Professor Emeritus Glynnis Cropp, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Massey from 1987-97, says Professor Oliver was "an academic leader who had a formative influence on the humanities at Massey. He was highly respected for his outstanding contribution to New Zealand history; a person with a very pleasant and gentle nature and incisive mind."

Professor Emeritus Barrie Macdonald, a former Professor of History and head of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, says Professor Oliver was very supportive of staff as they built their careers, while continuing with his own research and publications. "Bill was very attuned to the politics of the institution and very effective at promoting History within and beyond the University. He was initially sceptical about extramural studies, but later became a strong advocate of distance education."

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