Vale Bruce Kent

15 FEBRUARY 1932 – 28 SEPTEMBER 2018
29 November 2018

The passing of Dr Bruce Eric Kent is an occasion to remember a remarkable man, fine scholar and one of this University's most beloved teachers.

He was a scholar of Europe and then China, and his book, The Spoils of War - long in germination and heavy on the bookshelf - remains a key text for European economic and political history.

After representing Victoria as a Rhodes Scholar from 1955, Dr Kent returned to complete his PhD at ANU in 1962. He never left, teaching modern history for the next 35 years. He was a key figure in the golden age of the Department of History which, under the leadership of Professor Manning Clark, forged an unwavering commitment to intellectual excellence and secured an outstanding reputation. Upon his retirement, Dr Kent found a new home at the National Europe Centre and was based there until 2011. In short, he was inextricably linked to Canberra and ANU for more than 50 years.

Dr Kent was the finest teacher I ever had. He inspired generations of students, including several future historians. His knowledge, kindness and rigour shaped my intellectual life.

By 1969 he was already a fixture at the ANU, both as a dashing young lecturer and Deputy Warden of Bruce Hall. However, in an article in Woroni that year, his teaching style came in for considerable stick. "Moving around the room, inspecting the windows and ceilings together with one's own fingernails, fails to capture the attention of the educated," wrote the student critic. In that article, Kent earnestly promised 'more polish and speed in deliverance'. 

I can only imagine he had his tongue firmly in his cheek.  By the time I arrived, 10 years later, nothing had changed, thank God.  He was a teacher of infinite wisdom and impish wit. He was a great storyteller, an attentive reader, a dispassionate critic; he was the kind of man who makes you want to do better so as not to let him down.

If he spoke with patient deliberation, it fitted both his academic discipline and his temperament. Like Wittgenstein, he thought academics should salute each other with the words 'take your time'. His slow, careful approach to everything from the Tennis Court Oath to a joke, fooled us all into thinking that, like a turtle, he was going to live forever. Alas, no - he has been untimely ripped from us at the youthful age of 86.

But, in those early days when Canberra was so much smaller and the University therefore loomed correspondingly larger, Dr Kent was the indispensable man. He played violin in the back row of the seconds, in the early days of the Canberra Symphony. The main criterion for entry in those days, he once told me in his self-deprecating way, was a pulse and an instrument. But his musicianship had many other outlets. I remember one lecture involving an elaborate metaphor in which he compared the French revolution (1789) to the finale of Mozart's Jupiter symphony (1788). We ended up singing it in two-part harmony, for the dubious benefit of the educated. But to this day I cannot listen to it without recalling the sans culottes, the Bastille, and Bruce. If that's not teaching, I don't know what is.

At Oxford, he had played cricket and rugby with distinction. Back in Canberra, he was instrumental in founding the University rugby union club and indeed captained the ACT representative side, another tribute to his remarkable abilities. In the 1980s, he was a stalwart of the annual neighbourhood cricket match I used to organise way back then. I was in my 20s, he was in his 50s.

I distinctly remember him ambling up to the wicket, an old geezer lobbing down a harmless variety of leg spin. I thought to myself, 'here's a go' and had a good swipe at it but missed the ball abjectly and was comprehensively bowled. That was Bruce. There's many a student who has been deceived by his shambling demeanour into underestimating his steely purpose and forensic aim. If that's not teaching, I don't know what is.

Despite these many gifts, and a warmly generous spirit that imbued everything he did, it was another event that secured Dr Kent his place in Canberra's history - the long and courageous battle he fought to prevent the erection of what is now known as Telstra Tower, a small and now largely ignored episode of bureaucratic hubris. The Save Black Mountain campaign was led by some of the University's finest, many of whom now have buildings named after them: the Hancock Library, Fenner Hall and, of course, as careful readers must surely have guessed, Bruce Hall.

In his book on the history of Canberra, Sir Keith Hancock calls his chapter on the affair, Bruce Kent & Others. This was not only the name of the case against the government they famously won against all the odds in the ACT Supreme Court, but a fitting testimony to Bruce's role in it. He was really the engine room of the thing. Of course, although the government lost the battle, they won the war. They simply changed the laws and went ahead regardless. But the fight against the Awful Tower was a trial run, a miniature test case for a whole set of pioneering legal and community strategies that set the scene for the many environmental battles, both local and global, yet to come - and still to come. And Dr Kent was there, right at the start, his finger in that pie, too.

He was many things to many, many people: a legendary teacher, brilliant scholar, athlete, musician, activist and cyclist. In 1973 he was sent on secondment to become part of the University's first academic exchange with China. There he is in the image you see above - clearly more than a match for the bus he is overtaking - indomitable, gentle, courageous.

He had a heart as big, as compendious, as welcoming, as a bus. It gave out, eventually - but not before blessing us with his love and compassion and intelligence and a radical spirit for many lucky years. Dr Bruce Eric Kent was a great man of this University, and a great Canberran too.

Professor Desmond Manderson
Australian National University
Canberra