Emeritus professor recalls last 100 years

Looking forward to catching up with good friends again. Photo supplied.
Looking forward to catching up with good friends again. Photo supplied.
If someone relates an unlikely story about a draught horse being let loose in the heart of the University of Otago campus to eat the lawn and graze on the shrubs, it is all true.

John Mackie was there.

It was the early 1930s and Mr Mackie, later long-serving professor at the university's surveying school, was a young mining student.

He had persuaded the owner of the Dunedin pie cart to bring his horse-drawn caravan to the university and provide the supper for a rifle club dance being held in Allen Hall.

While guests dined on sausage, mash, pea, pie and pud, Old Dobbin was left to his own devices.

When Mr Mackie went to check on him, he found dance guests queuing to ride him around the quadrangle and the horse enjoying the attention.

It might have happened almost 80 years ago, but Emeritus Prof Mackie, who turned 100 yesterday, recalls that incident and others from his student days as though it was yesterday.

"We students had a lot of fun."

With a roll, in those days, of only about 1200 students, many of them medical students, Prof Mackie said students got to know each other well.

Miners - as the 25 students in the School of Mines were known - were a close-knit group, he said.

After he graduated, Prof Mackie worked in Malaya and fought with the Malayan Volunteer Forces during World War 2, spending three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

He returned to Otago in 1947 as a lecturer in surveying at the School of Mines, marrying his late wife, Sue, the same year.

When the school was closed in 1963 and the National School of Surveying was established, Prof Mackie became the foundation head of school.

Prof Mackie, who has lived in Nelson since he retired in 1975, celebrated his birthday yesterday with his son Andrew, daughter Marguerite, only grandchild, Michelle, and other family and friends.

In two weeks' time, he will party all over again, in Nelson with about 40 surveyors, geologists, miners, former students and their partners from New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and the United States.

They will present their colleague and mentor with a "festschrift" (a book comprising academic papers and personal memories), as well as a copy of an oral history interview with him compiled for the university last year by oral historian Helen Frizzell.

Prof Mackie said he was looking forward to catching up with good friends again, most of whom had also attended his 90th birthday.

"I imagine we will do what all people do when they get together - do a lot of remembering.

"We will find plenty to talk about."

Prof Mackie is in good health and his memory has not faded.

He can recall names, dates and incidents with complete clarity, something which he said surprised others but not himself.

"People say I have an amazing memory, but I don't know about that. I don't cultivate it. It just comes."

His autobiography, Captain Jack Surveyor and Engineer, which he wrote when in his mid-80s as a memoir for his family, was published three years ago.

In it, he recalls in detail his chilling experiences as a prisoner of war in the notorious Changi Prison and the Batu Lintang camp in Borneo, describing the guards as "arrogant", "sadistic" and "sub-human".

It was "an unpleasant time altogether", he said this week.

The guards were quick-tempered and punishments ranged from a hard slap across the face and severe beatings to beheadings with a samurai sword.

Prof Mackie said his worst beating was administered by a guard who mistakenly thought he was talking to another prisoner.

He was hit repeatedly over the head and shoulders with a heavy piece of wood and was left "black and blue all over and with black eyes for a while".

"I've still got a couple of dents on my head."

He said he did not let his time as a prisoner of war, during which his weight dropped to 41kg, overwhelm him later.

"I didn't let it get to me... I'm not embittered towards the Japanese. They were soldiers and so were we. Later on, I had good friends who were Japanese."

But he said prisoners of war could not help but be affected by their experiences.

"Once you have been a POW, there is not much people can throw at you that you can't deal with."

allison.rudd@odt.co.nz