Life-long promise made to keep learning

University of Otago master’s of peace and conflict studies graduand Noel O’Malley prepares for...
University of Otago master’s of peace and conflict studies graduand Noel O’Malley prepares for today’s graduation procession. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Being a 76-year-old graduand, Noel O’Malley reckons there is a strong possibility he will start at the front of the University of Otago graduation parade today and finish at the back.

He said he was "mature — not elderly", but that was not why he would be a little slower than the other "20-something-year-old" graduands.

It was because he was still suffering the effects of a "sporting injury".

"I was playing tennis with my grandson before Christmas and I fell and broke my femur.

"So, I’m not going to be racing down the street, but I expect to be able to keep up.

"It will be quite fun with all the younger people."

Mr O’Malley will graduate with a master’s degree in peace and conflict studies — 49 years after he graduated with a law degree from Otago.

"I went farming with my older brothers in the 1960s, and then I had a life change and went off to university to study law in the early 1970s."

He loved university so much, he wanted to continue studying but, by the time he qualified as a lawyer, he and his wife had a small family.

So, he started practising law in Balclutha to provide for his family, with a promise to himself he would go back and do more study "at the other end of my life".

In 2021, he sold his Balclutha law firm O’Malley & Co — where he continues to consult part-time — and, true to his promise, he returned to the university.

"The whole peace and conflict studies — I didn’t even know the subject existed.

"I learnt about it by reading an article by Professor Richard Jackson during lockdown, which was on inequality in the world.

"I ended up contacting Richard and signing up for the paper.

"The subject matter is harrowing, of course, but the learning process was wonderful.

"It’s given me a more open approach to what’s going on around the world — an ability to analyse what’s really happened."

Despite being a 76-year-old in the middle of a mass of young people, he did not find his return to study intimidating.

"No-one called me grandpa.

"I was just accepted as being part of the group and there was no discrimination — it just wasn’t commented on at all."

In fact, working around young people had helped keep him young, he said.

"It’s kept me involved and kept my brain active.

"More than that, I think there’s a huge need for people as they’re going through their life, to confront the reality that they don’t know everything.

"The opinions that they have might be set in concrete and make them become who they are, but for the sake of humanity we have to be prepared to keep learning."

He recommended ongoing study to other "mature" people, to help keep them young.

"Here, we have a world-class facility at our university, with a huge range of areas of study, learning and inquiry going on, so anybody with an inquiring mind could easily find an area that they could delve into and learn about."

His family were very proud of his achievement and he was looking forward to spending today celebrating with them.

"If you can find something to make your family proud, that’s got to be about as good as you can get."

As for future studies, Mr O’Malley did not discount the idea of doing another masters or a PhD.

"I don’t think anything is out of the question."