Professor Emeritus W.H. Oliver is one of New Zealand’s most subtle and skilled historians, being responsible as author and editor for three of the key works in New Zealand history over the latter part of the twentieth-century: The Story of New Zealand (1960), The Oxford History of New Zealand (1981), and Volume One of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1990). He has written a number of influential monographs, a well-received biography of James K. Baxter, and an autobiography that was praised for its elegance and insights. His recent commentaries on the Waitangi Tribunal and the nature of history have shown his continued engagement with scholarship and historical debate. He is, at the same time, a distinguished and recognised poet.
As University teacher, Professor Oliver was one of those responsible for establishing the academic credibility of New Zealand social history. He encouraged and trained a generation of postgraduate students, many of whom subsequently went on to academic positions themselves. As editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, he played a major role in raising the standing of biography as a genre in New Zealand, but also in setting up a research unit in which many postgraduates gained further skills and training, and a toehold into public history as well as academic positions. He has been a supervisor and examiner, a reviewer of published and unpublished books, and a fearless commentator on the state of the profession in New Zealand. Historians over more than one generation owe much to his blend of informed and persuasive guidance.
Professor Oliver’s career is distinguished by its length, quality and engagement with issues of fundamental importance to New Zealand society. Few could equal his breadth of achievement – as historian, editor, biographer, reviewer, poet and social commentator. His peers regard him as one of the ‘elders’ of New Zealand history, not just an ornament, but one of its most challenging leaders.