Obituary — Terry Sturm

Terry Sturm (1941-2009)

Terry Sturm, a major figure in the literary culture of New Zealand for more than a quarter of a century, died in June in Auckland after a long and characteristically tenacious battle with cancer. He would have been 68 in July. Born in Auckland, Terry was educated at Auckland Grammar School and the University of Auckland. In 1962 he completed his Masters degree with First Class Honours in English, taking the Fowlds Memorial Prize for the best student in the Faculty of Arts. Following the award of a New Zealand Postgraduate Scholarship, he undertook postgraduate research at Trinity College, Cambridge and then at the University of Leeds, where he completed his PhD. It was during this time that he married his first wife, Helen, and began the family that meant so much to him.

In 1967 he was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Sydney, where he achieved rapid promotion, rising to the rank of associate-professor in 1978, before being appointed to a chair in his old department in 1980. In Auckland he served no fewer than three terms as head of English (1984-6, 1989, 1996-8), steering the department through frequently choppy waters, ushering through major curriculum reforms, dealing with the consequences of the university’s managerial revolution, and handling the lynch-mob furore sparked by the Mervyn Thompson affair.  Terry’s fearless defence of humane values must often have infuriated those whose views differed from his own. He was prominent in numerous university, faculty, and review committees, was appointed Associate-Dean (Research) from 2001-3, and became a member of the University Runanga (which he chaired from time to time) until his retirement in 2006. Terry’s involvement in the runanga was a reflection of his intense, but entirely unselfconscious pride in the Maori side of his heritage (Ngati Rakaipaka and Ngati Kahungunu).

In his quiet, unassuming way, Terry Sturm was a model of the public intellectual, serving on a number of important national bodies. Most importantly, he chaired both the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee and its successor, the Literature Committee of the Arts Council of New Zealand (1982-92). He was awarded the CBE for his services to New Zealand literature in 1990, and became a foundation fellow of the newly established New Zealand Academy of the Humanities in 2007.

Terry was a pioneer in the study of popular fiction, including editions of Frank S Anthony’s Me and Gus stories and the writing of largely forgotten romance writers such as Essie Summers and Edith Lyttleton (G B Lancaster) – work that culminated in his definitive account of Lyttleton’s novels, An Unsettled Spirit (2003). But his publications in the field of popular fiction constituted only a small part of his extensive list of books and articles. He edited the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991), and the New Zealand section of Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English (1994). He also edited several volumes of Louis Johnson’s poetry, culminating in a Selected Poems (2000), before turning his attention to the work of Allen Curnow, who had taught him at Auckland, and whose poetry he deeply admired. In 2005 Terry published a rich selection of Curnow’s satiric verse, Whim Wham’s New Zealand; and at the time of his death he had already prepared a working text of the Collected Poems which he intended to publish after finishing the poet’s biography. It was typical of Terry’s extraordinary commitment that – despite the heartbreaking theft of the computer on which his work was stored – he continued to work on the Curnow project throughout his illness, completing the full draft only weeks before his death.

Terry Sturm will be sorely missed by the many friends, colleagues and students whose love and respect he earned. At work, his shamelessly smoke-filled room was always open (to anyone willing to brave its atrocious fumes) for sympathetic, level-headed, and canny advice – invariably brightened by his wry humour and lit by his wonderfully foxy grin. Though he rather prided himself on his capacity for grumpiness – especially where matters of principle were involved – Terry was unstinting in the warmth of his friendship and in his kindness to staff and students alike. His loss will be even more painfully felt by his family – by his devoted wife Linda, by his step-daughter Imogen, by the sons of his first marriage, Jonathan, Mark, and Tim, and by his adored grandsons, Max, Louis, Jack, and Ben.

We are all the poorer for his leaving, and the richer for what he left.

Michael Neill


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