Historian Russell Stone, aged 100: still writing
6 November 2023
At 100, Russell Stone is still writing every day. The trailblazing historian reflects on his work, talking to Professor Linda Bryder.
Emeritus Professor Russell Stone has given us a call because there are a few bits he wants to clarify in this Golden Graduate article.
This would be unremarkable, but for the fact it’s not every day you chat on the phone to a centenarian.
Russell turned 100 in April, 35 years after retiring from the University of Auckland. He’d joined the staff in 1964, after some years as a secondary school teacher.
His association with the University began as a student in 1941 and extended over 80 years. He gave his last formal lecture in the History Department in 2018.
The following year, I invited Russell to give the opening lecture at the first symposium of the Auckland History Initiative, in the School of Humanities. It’s a programme to inspire young scholars to focus not only on New Zealand history but also local history.
Russell’s interest in Auckland history began shortly after his MA (Hons) in 1949, although at that time interest in local history wasn’t fashionable and little of an academic nature had been written about the city itself.
“That’s why being appointed to the History Department gave me great satisfaction,” says Russell. “It gave me a chance to add to the story of Auckland’s past.”
Today… there’s a lively interest in Auckland’s past and its social and commercial heritage.
Russell’s history teaching over the years, however, was mainly concerned with modern Britain, Germany and international relations, not New Zealand. Yet the history of Auckland continued to dominate his research.
“I always found it a bit odd, given the settlement’s early pre-eminence as the colony’s political capital and its emergence in the years since as New Zealand’s commercial capital, that there was a distinct lack of interest in the city’s past.”
But that has changed, and Russell’s 12 books and numerous articles on various aspects of Auckland’s history have contributed to the revival. In the 2002 New Year Honours, he became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to historical research.
“Today, in both the community and the University itself, there’s a lively interest in Auckland’s past and its social and commercial heritage,” Russell says.
His work on local history put him ahead of his time. His important 2001 book, From Tamaki-Makau-Rau to Auckland, draws on local Māori oral histories, archaeological evidence and early missionary diaries and histories. It’s a comprehensive account from the first settlement about 800 years ago to 1840.
More recently, he updated his two-volume biography of influential Aucklander Sir John Logan Campbell, providing an account in Campbell’s own words drawn from his correspondence, reminiscences and his 1881 memoir, Poenamo.
Russell’s autobiographical account, As It Was: Growing Up in Grey Lynn And Ponsonby Between the Wars (2017) also became a springboard to cover Auckland’s social history of that time.
I continue to write private reminiscences for my family. And every day since I retired, I have written a one-page entry in my diary.
He is a generous scholar. In 2020, during a break between lockdowns, I invited Russell to give a lecture by Zoom. You might think Zoom was a step too far for a 97-year-old, but he duly arrived at my house with his notes. Yet they remained in his satchel for the inspiring two-hour lecture – plus question-and-answer session on all aspects of Auckland’s history – social, economic, political and environmental. The students were in awe.
So, how does such a dedicated historian spend his time at the age of 100, and what’s his recipe for longevity?
“I’m kept busy by running my own home,” he says. “In any time left, I read and write.
“At least half of what I read is fiction and half of that is escapist. I continue to write private reminiscences for my family. And every day since I retired, I have written a one-page entry in my diary.
“But I know of no elixir of life. I attribute my survival mainly to chance and to my genetic inheritance. My father died at 84; my mother at 103.
“Although I’m not sporty, I’ve always kept fit and try to keep on the move each day.”
This profile appears in Ingenio, Spring 2023.
Golden Graduates are those who graduated from the University of Auckland 50 or more years ago, along with graduates aged 70 or over.