Larger-than-life professor who specialised in American history

JOHN SALMOND Academic and author 28-9-1937 - 30-6-2013


Academic and author

28-9-1937 - 30-6-2013

At the memorial service for Emeritus Professor John Alexander Salmond held at LaTrobe University, where he had served for 35 years, a recurring theme in the tributes was the sense that John not only embraced life but was himself slightly larger than life. He was certainly a physically large figure, often slightly unkempt, not noted for sartorial dressing, cheerful, even boisterous in manner, and fond of a congenial dinner table. But appearances are often misleading. In his professional life, John demonstrated an incisive mind, a prodigious memory, great gifts as a teacher and academic administrator, and an enviable academic publication record. In his personal life, he became the primary carer for his children after his marriage failed in the 1970s, and at the same time managed to welcome new staff and find time for an expanding circle of friends.

Born and educated in Dunedin, New Zealand, John received his BA from the University of Otago. He shared a Scottish family heritage with many others in Dunedin and was very proud of it. His father, the moderator of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, had a keen interest in social reform, and although John later rebelled against that faith, his lifelong commitment to social justice undoubtedly owed something to his Dunedin background. After university, he worked as a reporter and then became a sub-editor on the Otago Daily Times. He often attributed his capacity to write quickly and clearly to that early newspaper experience.

His entry into academia was quite fortuitous. He had completed an MA in New Zealand history while working for the newspaper when, by chance, he met an encouraging Duke University academic visiting Dunedin. He knew nothing about Duke but decided to apply for a fellowship for a PhD in American history, a field in which he had only recently taken an interest. It was a bold decision; at the time, he was married with two small children. Successful in his application, he arrived at Duke with his family for the academic year beginning September 1961. It marked a turning point.

Returning to New Zealand in early 1965 with his PhD in American history, he began teaching at Victoria University in Wellington. He was assigned to teach primarily British, European and New Zealand history, but he rapidly became dissatisfied with the extremely limited opportunities to teach his new area of expertise - American history was a very low priority in the curriculum.

However, a great expansion of Australian universities had opened opportunities and, in 1968, he moved with his family to the fledgling La Trobe University in Melbourne and was immediately put in charge of developing a range of courses in American history. He was a popular teacher and respected for his erudition. In 1970, he was appointed professor of American history. I first met John when we were both graduate students at Duke and, in 1969, I joined the La Trobe history department and taught American history with him for 34 years.

His administrative talents were quickly recognised and, over the years, he served variously as head of the history department, dean of the school of humanities, chair of the academic board, pro-vice-chancellor and acting vice-chancellor. He also served on the Victorian Fulbright selection committee, was president of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association, and was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

He was instrumental in developing a program at La Trobe that admitted able students who had not had the opportunity to complete high school. This pioneering "Early Leavers" scheme was subsequently incorporated into virtually all Australian universities.

However, John always remained at heart a scholar, and a highly productive one. His research focused on the 20th-century struggle for economic justice and civil rights in the impoverished American South. He published three biographies of southern white liberals who doggedly pursued those objectives in a region violently opposed to change, and two studies of spectacular but unsuccessful strikes involving the southern textile workers' union. In addition, he wrote two studies of the civil rights movement in the South. In all, he wrote nine history monographs, co-authored a general history of America, and co-edited four collections of essays relating to southern history.

John was no cloistered scholar. Although he retained his youthful interest in rugby and cricket, his sporting obsession in later life was AFL football in general and the Hawthorn club in particular. Widely read in history, he also had a broad interest in literature, particularly US literature, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the development of the film industry combined with a passion for contemporary movies. But, above all, John loved conversation and company. He had an infectious enthusiasm, an inclusive sociability and a great gift for friendship. Nothing pleased him more than sitting around a table with friends, eating and drinking and, above all, talking. He was a natural raconteur with a keen eye for the absurd in everyday behaviour that enabled him to transform many incidents into wonderful, if slightly embellished, anecdotes. Some were mischievous, a few scurrilous, but none were malicious. Most were hilarious, and often the joke was on him.

John was a generous individual, not without fault, but the kindest and most decent human being I have ever known.

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles