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An uninvited guest at the official opening of the Dental School, 4 March 1961. Minister of Education Blair Tennent is speaking, with University Chancellor Hubert Ryburn seated at left. Photograph courtesy of Peter Innes.

An uninvited guest at the official opening of the Dental School, 4 March 1961. Minister of Education Blair Tennent is speaking, with University Chancellor Hubert Ryburn seated at left. Photograph courtesy of Peter Innes (originally published in the ODT, 6 March 1961).

When Blair Tennent, Minister of Education, visited Dunedin to open the new Dental School building in 1961, he probably wasn’t especially surprised to receive a lively welcome from local students. Tennent was once an Otago student himself – he graduated in dentistry in 1922 – and a recent ten years on the council of Massey Agricultural College had no doubt kept him aware of student hi-jinks.

A group of about 150 students dressed as Arabs prostrated themselves on the ground before the ministerial car as it attempted to drive through the Octagon. They then carried a laughing Tennent shoulder high on a litter to the Dental School. The procession was led by a goat, which normally resided in a student flat. As the New Zealand Dental Journal wrote, its “well timed bleats later punctuated the formal addresses in a highly amusing manner.”

High spirits could perhaps be forgiven, for it was a great relief to dental staff and students to have new accommodation. The Dental School opened in 1907 in what is now the Staff Club, but moved to what is now the Marples Building (Zoology) in 1926. By the 1940s this was becoming cramped and John Walsh, Dean of Dentistry, began campaigning for a new building. After numerous delays due to competing demands for government funding, shortages of labour and materials, and changes of government, construction finally got underway in 1956. Problems with the foundations led to further delays, prompting use of a prefab school building to relieve congestion temporarily.

The building – renamed the Walsh Building in 2001 in honour of the former dean – has since undergone various renovations and extensions. It was designed in the Government Architect’s office by Ian Reynolds, supervised by Gordon Wilson, and is now recognised as an outstanding example of modernist architecture. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust registered it as a Category 1 historic building in 2005.

Tennent was not the first VIP visitor to the university to be greeted by livestock. In a famous 1934 incident at Knox College, Lord Bledisloe, then Governor General, encountered a pen of pigs just outside the grand front entrance. Bledisloe, known to be a pig fancier, took this in good part, inspecting the pigs and noting they were very good ones. Later, as the master led Lord and Lady Bledisloe downstairs from the college tower, the official party encountered another ‘Lord and Lady Bledisloe’ – two students dressed up for the occasion – coming up the stairs. A resident recalled that “the two Bledisloe pairs bowed at one another and passed on … I heard that old Bledisloe could hardly hold his laughter.”

Do you know of any other pranks involving distinguished visitors to Otago?

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