A legacy of love found at university

Victoria University of Wellington has always been a special place for our new Vice-Chancellor Professor Nic Smith—his parents, Ian Smith and Lydia Stannard, found love right here on campus, in the halls of the Science buildings. They are delighted that he is now leading their alma mater.

four people wearing formal clothes, two women and two men
L-R: Lydia Smith, Ian Smith, Nic Smith, and Rachel Smith
“Nic was always very good at making connections—he would see something and immediately make a link with it to something else,” says Lydia. “And boy, he could talk,” says Ian, reflecting on Nic’s early years.

“We weren’t surprised when he became Vice-Chancellor, as he’s been interested in academic leadership and the wider importance of universities for quite a long time—right from back when he was a lecturer at the University of Auckland,” says Ian.

When Nic was appointed Vice-Chancellor, it brought to mind the couple’s early years at the University.

Ian was a resident at Weir House for his first year, while his parents were in New Caledonia for his father’s job as Secretary General of the South Pacific Commission—his father, Thomas Richard Smith, later lectured in Political Science at the University. Lydia came to the University in 1964 from the Wairarapa, living easily off her bursary and “one pound from dad each week when he came to Wellington for work”.

Both completed Bachelor degrees in Science—Lydia in botany and zoology, with a geology and chemistry paper; and Ian completed Honours in geology, zoology, and chemistry, with a bit of botany.

Ian, being a couple of years ahead of Lydia, was a demonstrator when Lydia was doing stage one geology.

Both look back on their education as being of the highest quality, with their lecturers teaching from cutting-edge research. Ian recalls learning continental drift theory—the precursor to plate tectonics―despite Professor Bob Clark disagreeing with the theory. And Lydia recalls learning about genetics, using microscopes to view slides showing meiosis and mitosis.

When they moved together to Canberra after marrying in 1967, Lydia immediately came up against structural sexism when applying for a job. “I went proudly to ANU (Australian National University) with my BSc and they said ‘because you’re a woman, and you’re married, there’s no job here for you’. So I spent a few years getting qualified as a librarian, which meant I wasn’t applying my degree as I had wanted to, and in the way Ian was able to immediately.”

Meanwhile, Ian was asked by Professor Clark at the end of his Honours degree what he’d like to do. “I said, well, I’d quite like to work in a volcano observatory. Bob said, ‘OK, I’ll fix it for you’. A month later I got an offer to work as a volcanologist in Papua New Guinea.”

Ian was then offered a junior lecturer role at ANU while he was studying towards his PhD in geology, beginning in 1970, the year that Nic was born. In 1976, they moved with their young family to Toronto, where Ian worked as a post doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto for three years.

Lydia was again unable to work in Toronto—this time due to her ‘visitor’ visa status—so when Ian was offered a job at the University of Auckland, she was happy to move back to settle in New Zealand although she says, “I had a wonderful experience running women’s groups at the YWCA in Toronto”.

“When we came to Auckland, after this experience, I chose to study for an MA in Education—and then spent 18 years at Auckland University of Technology teaching communication studies.”

Ian joined the University of Auckland as a lecturer in 1980, and is still associated with that university, continuing to publish on volcanism—including a recent paper about the 2022 Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai Eruption, which destroyed the new island he had been studying since it emerged from the previous eruption in 2014.

While they were settled in Auckland, Ian took sabbaticals from the University, which saw the family move around a bit, and gave Nic a well-travelled education.

boy with dark blond hair and tortisehell glasses“Nic started school in Canberra, then he was at primary school in Toronto along with his sister,” says Ian. “Then when we came back to New Zealand, we lived in Parnell, where Nic and Meg went to primary school. Nic went on to Auckland Grammar because that was the local school.”

During Ian’s sabbatical Nic went to a junior high school in Canberra, before they moved for a time to Alberqueque, New Mexico. There, he went to high school, joining a group of gifted students who were doing university-level subjects in their sixth form (year 12).

“I’m sure that stimulated him,” says Ian. Lydia adds, “He was always conscientious at school. And very serious at doing things like sport—he did tennis and soccer.”

“Then he got into running marathons, and he did an Iron Man Triathalon when he was 19,” says Ian.

“That was a bit OTT—but he kept us sweet by doing some gardening for us, so that we agreed to feed and accommodate him,” laughs Lydia. By this stage, Nic was at the University of Auckland studying his undergraduate B.Eng degree.

“He would come away on field trips with me, but he was quite clear he didn’t want to be a geologist,” says Ian.

“When he did his PhD on mathematically mapping bloodflow through the heart, I said to him we should collaborate, because with your mathematical basis, and my geological knowledge, we can describe the passage of magma through the earth and the origin of volcanoes,” says Ian. “He was interested but it was clear it was ‘maybe later. Maybe a lot later.’”

Maybe after a few years here at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.