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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Packard, Willam Percival (Bill) (1925–2009)

by Bruce Kent

Bill [William Percival] Packard, Rhodes Scholar, Warden and philanthropist, who has died at the age of 83, will be fondly remembered in Canberra for the decades he so cheerfully devoted to administering Bruce Hall, the Australian National University’s pioneering mixed student residence, for his teaching and for his unremitting off-campus work on behalf of the needy, disabled and infirm, and the dying.

Born at Palmerston North, New Zealand, Bill was the second son of Arthur White Packard, a journalist on The Taranaki Herald and The Christchurch Post, and Tui Frances McKay, who died when he was a child. The blend of academic and people skills which marked him out from fifty applicants for the Wardenship of Bruce Hall stemmed in great part from his membership of the ‘tramping’ community, which roamed, climbed and nurtured the spectacular and challenging New Zealand landscape. His feeling for the local environment was clearly a major spur to his First Class MA in Geography at Canterbury University College, which paved the way for a Rhodes Scholarship and doctoral research at Oxford on soil erosion in Canterbury Province.

Bill’s burgeoning career as a biogeographer suffered a temporary setback in 1950 when his Oxford supervisor allowed him to join a Royal Geographical Society and London Alpine Club expedition to the Nepal Himalayas, partly as a mountaineer and partly to study land use and soil erosion. His climbing prowess was acknowledged by H. W. Tilman, the expedition leader, who recorded that Bill only failed to conquer the expedition’s major objective, the 7,525 metres Annapurna IV, because he ran out of partners. Yet this success was overshadowed when he contracted poliomyelitis after descending to do his research in lowlands Nepal.

Although his prolonged rehabilitation in England put paid to Bill’s doctorate, his subsequent lectureships at University College, London, and the University of Canterbury, where he was noted for his rapport with undergraduates, indicate that his academic career had not suffered too much. Nor was his involvement in land conservation curtailed, to judge from his foundation membership of the Mount Cook National Park Board from 1955-1960.

Bill’s focus, nevertheless, gradually shifted over the next decade from land care to student welfare. This reflected, in the first instance, his irrepressible philanthropy (in the pre-commercial sense of liking, relating to and helping people), which his friend ‘super tramper’ Ed Hillary pinpointed as his ‘greatest strength’. His reorientation may also have been influenced by his near-death experience in Nepal: he was to return eight times to the Himalayas where his survival had depended on the Sherpas who piggybacked and stretchered him over the long trek to medical evacuation. It must also have been underpinned by Geraldine (Gerry) Ulrich, his attractive, gracious and capable fellow Canterbury student, who had followed him to England, assisted his slow recovery, married him, mothered his children and helped him in the late 1950s to balance his full-time teaching and research career with reorganising and civilising Rolleston House, a cluster of Canterbury University student dormitories.

There was a superficial confluence between Bill’s increasingly pastoral bent and the ANU’s grand vision of its first undergraduate hall of residence, designed to attract students not only from its regional ‘parish’, bounded by Wollongong, Cooma, Albury and Wagga Wagga, but also from the rest of Australia through its elite National Undergraduate and Oriental (later Asian) Studies Scholarship programmes. The early character of Bruce Hall had been determined, well before Bill’s appointment in 1960, by its architecture, which emulated University House and the ‘Oxbridge’ colleges of older Australian universities, with their formal dining halls, high tables and senior common rooms presided over by a virtually full-time administrative and quasi-parental head. The case for such a top-down institution was, if anything, reinforced in the minds of some nervous ANU administrators by the circumstance that Bruce Hall was to be Australia’s first mixed-sex student residence.

Bill, whose affection for Oxford was demonstrated by his Secretaryship of the Association of Rhodes Scholars in Australia in the 1980s, was delighted to graft some of the ‘food and fellowship’ ritual of the University’s preferred residential model on to an initially bemused student body.

Yet his sensitivity to underlying student needs prompted him to use his study leave to investigate state-of-the-art accommodation in the newer northern hemisphere universities and to keep abreast with local trends through stints as President of the Heads of Australian Colleges and Halls of Residence. Some vital fruits of these reconnaissances were the provision of wheelchair access and the ‘scrambling’ of the originally cloistered women’s block in the cause of sexual de-segregation. These changes, along with the gradually diminishing role of the senior common room (but not of the Packard High Table, which remains a platform for debate on current affairs), were important milestones in the Hall’s development into the functional, congenial and socially aware community that it is today.

Despite his virtually full-time involvement in administering Bruce Hall and planning other residences, Bill helped to teach an introductory course in Geography pending the arrival of a foundation professor in the discipline in 1963. In his capacity as Part-Time Lecturer, he continued until his retirement in 1987 to offer courses on world physical geography and biogeography, including a prescient unit on Environmental Hazards. He also gave rein to his bizarre taste in clothing and his primaeval urge to cook by leading and feeding students on numerous field work expeditions. Yet he freely acknowledged to his peers that the academic research of his earlier years had tapered to gathering teaching materials from the regions he visited on study leave.

None of these multifarious commitments cooled Bill’s passion for tramping, travel and land conservation. He made Bruce Hall the hub of ‘Inward Bound’, a daunting student-organised nocturnal bush-walking contest in the Brindabellas. At a more elevated level, he was mentor to the first generation of Australian Himalayan mountaineers for such ventures as the ANU Mountaineering Club’s 1978 ascent of an Indian peak, Dunagiri (7,066 metres). And he balanced his personal thirst for travel, which propelled him to every continent including Antarctica, with his leading role in local conservationist groups at Aranda in the ACT and Guerilla Bay on the New South Wales south coast.

From the time of his retirement, which was fittingly marked by an OAM for his services to the University, Bill plunged into an array of good works which he had already foreshadowed by mobilising Bruce Hall students to deliver meals on wheels at the weekends and serving on the Board of the then ANU Credit Union. He deployed his well-honed organisational and people skills as board member and treasurer of the Northside Community Service, first at Corroboree Park, Ainslie, and then at Dickson, where he helped to establish and run the Majura Community Centre; and thereafter he remained a volunteer, transporting the elderly to Corroboree Park once a week and cooking and hosting their magnificent midwinter and Christmas feasts. The main focus of his endeavours in his later years was to be the ACT Palliative Care Society which he served unstintingly until days before he himself succumbed to cancer.

Sociable to the end, Bill died at home surrounded by his family, friends and dogs. The overflow gathering in the Great Hall of University House to celebrate his well-rounded life of scholarship and good works bore testimony to the respect and affection with which he is regarded within the Australian National University and the wider Canberra community.

Gerry, the love of Bill’s life, died far too early in 1992. He is survived by his siblings, Richard Quapelle Packard, Margaret Grenfell and John Arthur Packard, and by his children, Bruce, Hugh, Paul, Ralph and Felicity, their spouses and 16 grandchildren, all of whom do him and Gerry proud. Bill was also an honoured member of the ANU Emeritus Faculty.

Original publication

Citation details

Bruce Kent, 'Packard, Willam Percival (Bill) (1925–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/packard-willam-percival-bill-27128/text34674, accessed 1 December 2021.

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