Professor Emeritus Godfrey Tanner Turns 80

Emeritus Professor Godfrey Tanner at the boat race Raymond Terrace 1968

ABC Newcastle (Newcastle)
Day Shift – 25/09/2007 – 02:10 PM
Presenter: Carol Duncan

Newcastle University Archivist Gionni Di Gravio discusses the life and legacy of Emeritus Professor Godfrey Tanner with a journey through the late Professor’s beautiful collection of rare books and manuscripts held in the University’s Cultural Collections in the Auchmuty Library. Gems include ‘Colloquial Albanian for Beginners’, ‘Beginning Hittite’ and ‘Teach Yourself Bike Repair’ as well as some of the more beautiful 16th and 17th works.

Interviewees: Gionni Di Gravio, Archivist, Newcastle University

Broadcast Notes

On 24 September 2007 the University of Newcastle’s much loved Professor Godfrey Tanner would have turned 80. We take this opportunity to remember and pay homage to him and his charming intellectual exuberance.

Lewis Cartoon of Godfrey in the Newcastle Herald

Godfrey Cartoon courtesy of Peter Lewis and The Newcastle Herald

Our University’s illustrious and much loved Professor of Classics Godfrey Tanner died on Wednesday night July 10th 2002 at 8:45pm. He was one of the University’s founding fathers and saw it as his duty to dedicate his life to its growth and evolution.

Godfrey Tanner was born in Brisbane in 1927, educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Melbourne University and Clare College, Cambridge. At Mebourne he graduated in 1949 with first-class honours in Classics, gaining the R.G. Wilson Scholarship and the Victorian Association’s Leeper Gold Medal, and the Higgins Poetry Prize. He was subsequently elected Wyzelaskie Scholar.

Proceeding to M.A. Degree in 1950, he was awarded the University of Melbourne’s Aitchison Travelling Scholarship and its Sydney Myer Travelling Scholarship in 1951.

In Cambrige he was elected Jebb Scholar of the University 1950-52 and later Honorary Scholar of Clare College when he graduated in 1952 with first-class honours in the second part of the Classical Tripos.

In 1952 he accepted an invitation to return to Melbourne University and lecture under Professor Scutt. Upon the latter’s retirement he took charge of the Comparative Philology course. He resigned from that University in 1955.

From 1957 to 1960 he then took up a post as Senior Classical Master at The King’s School Parramatta, where he was associated with an important production of the Sophoclean Tragedy reported in the London Press of 1958.

He arrived in Newcastle in November 1959. In February 1960 he succeeded Mr. J. Duhigg as Senior Lecturer-in-Charge of Classics at Newcastle University College. Without wasting any time on the 12th April 1961 he marched to the Town Hall along with 300 fellow protesters to call for an establishment of an autonomous University in Newcastle.

On the 10th May 1961 he officiated at the annual Newcastle University College regatta in Throsby Creek. He was there to award the cream horn and beer bottle trophies to winners of the boat race. But controversy struck when he began his speech. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, and was then hit by a flour bomb on the chin. “On this happy occassion,” he continued, and had another flour bomb emptied over his head. He eventually completed his speech, was cheered, then picked up by the students, who pretended to throw him into the creek, but chaired him away on their shoulders “looking somewhat like a Classical ghost, towards the College.”

In March 1963 he was appointed Associate Professor of Classics at Newcastle University College. On the 14th September 1964 he was appointed to the Chair of Latin, which carries with it the headship of the Department of Classical Studies at Newcastle University College.

He was a man of many facets being a member of Anglican Synod, a high church Anglican. He was also an activisit for the Hill Residents Action Group. He rode his bike to campus with academic robes and often wore t-shirts and shorts. He loved squash, athletics, rugby league and union, cricket umpiring and the rowing club, donating several thousand pounds to buy the University’s rowing club premises (The Boat Shed) at Raymond Terrace. He was the former President of the University’s Sports Union and Vice President of Australian Universities Sports Association.

He was the Australian Representative on the International Federation for Classical Studies. Elected President (in October 1992) of the Australian Society of Classical Studies. He was a monarchist, a card carrying member of the Liberal Party and yet during the Vietnam era offered his home as sanctuary to draft dodgers and campaigned during the early ’70s for gay rights.

He (offically) retired from the University of Newcastle on the 31st January 1993, but continued to teach since then, as well as being involved in Council, Student Scholarships funding and a whole host of University and Community activities.

Godfrey’s death came as a great shock to us. He was a great supporter of the Library’s Archives and the Rare Books. The two highpoints of Godfrey’s funeral were his good friend and colleague Dr Bernie Curran’s eulogy and the spontaneous applause at the departure of Godfrey’s coffin from Christ Church Cathedral.

I can remember our last conversations in the bar and on the 100 bus in the previous week. We were discussing and joking about what kind of monumental project he could announce to undertake (that he knew he would never complete), an autobiography (he glared), something grand…and possibly ridiculous. We spoke and argued about refugees, Aborigines, he held his wine, he spoke, he slept. I told Godfrey that he was an inspiration to many many people, and that it was a great shame there weren’t more like him walking the Campus.

At the last Booklovers meeting (on the 26th June, see pics below) that he attended in the backroom of Cooks Hill Books, everyone later commented how personal the proceedings had been, how everyone’s guard was down. We spoke of our books of inspiration and comfort. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now that there was a communion of souls occurring, and this was a final gift (of sorts) to Godfrey.

There’s a part of one’s body that is in tune with what is happening in the here and now, while our minds are concerned with past and future concerns. I felt this on the Monday, a very disoriented day, by Tuesday we heard the news. Shock. By Wednesday the publicity machine was in gear and things got very busy. Scanning through the photographs and newsclippings I started to laugh, this man had lived one hell of a life…and I only got as far as the first clipping book that ends with Autonomy! I saw Vlase the sculptur and suggested a bronze of Godfrey as Pan to be placed (hidden) in the grounds of the Don Morris Walk.

By Thursday, after the VC, media people and public relations had obtained their Godfrey files, scanned photographs and potted histories, I shutdown the computer and went to the bus stop and there it hit me. No more would I hear that distinctive shuffling, with the “Ah my boy” ready for the late evening’s conversation prior to the arrival of the Newcastle 100. I then felt a small hole in the heart, a loss.

Gionni Di Gravio

Eulogy for R.G. Tanner
by Dr Bernie Curran

Godfrey Tanner’s Interview on Students and Sustainability July 2001

Transcript of Interview With Godfrey Tanner

Students and Sustainability June 2001

My verbal interactions with Godfrey were always entertaining although few and far between. What I enjoyed most was his ability to take any question and produce what appeared a well thought out reply even in spontaneous situations.

Transcribed from a video interview with Godfrey: Tanner at The University of Newcastle during the annual Students and Sustainability conference held in Newcastle in July 2001



Yes, now…

Interviewer: What are your thoughts on the conference of Students and Sustainability?

Godfrey: Well unfortunately of course I’ve had with other things to see my doctors, after my stroke, this week. You know I do that regularly. I’ve had no chance to hear any of the conversations going on. It is an important issue, I think we should think about the future of the world in general, it’s no use us thinking about what looks comfortable for the moment. Now I am a little concerned at the attitude of Canberra and Washington and Tokyo to the Kyoto agreement. Clearly there’s a real risk if we go on polluting the Earth the way we are doing now we’ll have a drought area permanently west of the Blue Mountains and Australia will be a country with a fairly well-watered sea coast and a terribly dry interior which is going to mean all sorts of problems because we’ve sold the whole sea coast to developers for tourism, not for farming. So that’s one worry I think we have.

The question of our water supply here is also shocking and other countries in the world, too. I think water will be the most important matter in the next fifty years regarding human survival everywhere. The Middle East of course, the Jordan’s been pumped dry, virtually. The rivers in Turkistan were pumped dry by the Soviet and the Aral sea was partly a sand pit; this kind of thing has been going on and I think more will keep on going on if it suits big business in the short run.

So I think its very important to see the difference between what we would call ‘profitability’ and ‘sustainability’. Profit concerns the lifetimes of those who do the business, as far as I can see, it doesn’t concern the attitudes of the people who are really going to suffer from the effects later, the next generation.

So I think we’ve got a great duty to look at the proper usage, also, of agriculture. I do not like the genetic modification of crops, it causes all sorts of problems already, it will cause a lot more. But of course Monsanto and the other great companies rule the world now and globalisation will sure as hell keep on ruling the world. And I think globalisation is going to very be disastrous for long-term sustainability. On the other hand people will tell you if we don’t do it we’ll get no trade and things will be bad, we’ll be poorer and poorer, I don’t know.

I think we have a sham view of how rich we are now in the world.

Interviewer: And so what do you think the individual can do at a grass roots level to…

Godfrey: I think you can try to vote for people and groups that think a change is desirable in this policy. I think you can try to make what use of the media is possible. All of those are possible things to do. I don’t think its much use running around with bombs and guns. That’s generally counterproductive, I think.

Interviewer: And could you just briefly state your name?

Godfrey: Oh yes, Godfrey: Tanner…

Interviewer: And your position?

Godfrey: Oh former head of the department of classics in the University of Newcastle. I still teach Indian Sanskrit here.


Godfrey Tanner – The Man, The Bar
Video by Steven Dodds

2 thoughts on “Professor Emeritus Godfrey Tanner Turns 80

  1. I met Professor Tanner as a young school boy (6th form) in 1976. He gave a talk on the study of the Classics at an Open Day I attended at the University of Newcastle, and although I had been previously toying with the idea of studying Greek, after hearing this amazing man, I was sold!
    I had the privilege of reading Greek (and Pure Mathematics) at Newcastle University under Professor Tanner and obtained a first in both subjects.
    While I now teach Pure Mathematics, I also do some teaching of Greek. The promised pleasure of the study of classics which Godrey made to us has proven to be true! I have been reading Greek now for many years and what a wonderful pleasure it has been.
    As a working class boy, I was extremely indebted to Godfrey for his unstinting encouragement, his incredible intellect and insight and for the genuine affection he had for all his students. He opened my eyes and my mind to the love of learning and I will always love this man very dearly for what he gave me.

    I remain somewhat unhappy with some of the public comments about Professor Tanner. He was openly gay and made no bones about the fact.
    He left Melbourne, as he once told me, since the Professor there `did not like buggers!’ Godfrey could easily have held Chairs in some of the best Universities in Australia and overseas, but was blighted by homophobic prejudice. This was, however, a great boon for Newcastle (and personally for myself.)

    By pretending otherwise, we do not arrive at the true picture of this man. He did suffer for his sexuality, but was able to rise above the prejudice he experienced. Ignoring such things only allows them to happen again.

    Let us remember Godfrey as a great, kind and seriously impressive human being and also as one who achieved remarkable things when denied even greater honours. Vale Godfrey.

  2. Within seconds of beginning this public broadcast the switchboards began to light up with people ringing in recounting their stories of Godfrey. It was amazing. As a University academic it would be difficult to find a more loved and respected (dare I say revered) individual across the region. If there was homophobic prejudice, (and I don’t doubt there was), it wasn’t about that day. For me, a person’s sexuality is a personal thing, and it’s up to them whether they speak about it or not. Still, it was a knife edge experience for the presenter, because even now Godfrey elicits an unpredictable chaos around him, that leaves an indelible mark on people. He touched so many people in a very genuine way.

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