Geoffrey Bolton (1931-2015)

I met the late Geoffrey  Bolton, a distinguished scholar of Australian history, when I arrived at the University of Western Australia for what turned out to be a short spell as a research student. It quickly became apparent that he was the star of the History Department: he had read more books, spoke more thoughtfully and walked more quickly than anyone else. He had been appointed to a chair at a young age, and while the latter parts of the careers of those who enjoy early preferment can be times of disappointment Geoffrey went on to be a powerful influence for good in the lives of many people. It was only as a colleague years later that I became aware of the true measure of the man.

While sitting on appointment and promotion committees I read numerous references Geoffrey had written on behalf of applicants. Exquisitely crafted first drafts that were never revised, they canvassed the merits of applicants with insight and precision. I became aware that he had the ability to respond to apparent weaknesses in an applicant without alluding to such possible areas of difficulty and so accept that they existed. This was an astonishing skill I have never seen exercised by anyone else. He also occasionally dropped in for a chat, which sometimes turned to various colleagues. Only later did I become aware that he was gathering information and impressions that would feed into a picture he had of someone, already more complex than the one I had, to be used for that person’s benefit. He was a genuine enabler.

The last time I spoke with Geoffrey was while sitting next to him at a boring meeting in Sydney a few years ago. He pulled out a copy of a newspaper with a cryptic crossword which he set to solving, with a high degree of success, before his head began to droop in what seemed like sleep. But a few minutes later he was on his feet, asking a most incisive question. I later read a book review of his that had been published in the very same paper. The very last time I saw him was when the choir of King’s College was singing at the Perth Concert Hall last year. I had hoped to exchange a word with him, but there were others around him, whose lives he may have been able to change for the better just as he did mine and those of countless others. May his memory be eternal.

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