Story: Tennent, William Blair

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Tennent, William Blair

1898–1976

Dentist, politician, educationalist

This biography was written by Dorothy Pilkington and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

William Blair Tennent (always known as Blair) was born at Greymouth on 4 December 1898. His parents were Elizabeth Blair and her husband, David Tennent, a clerk and later a timber merchant. After attending Greymouth District High School (where he was dux), Tennent graduated BDS from the University of Otago in 1922. In January that year he set up in practice as a dentist in Palmerston North. Later he served as an examiner of final year students at the Otago Dental School (1939–46) and was president of the New Zealand Dental Association (1946).

On 11 August 1925 Tennent married Ella Mavis Coombs in Palmerston North. Their five sons attended Terrace End School, where Tennent served on the school committee for 14 years, 10 of those as chairman. Later he served on the Palmerston North Boys’ High School board of governors. From 1939 to 1949 he was president of the Manawatu–Oroua School Committees Association, and from 1947 to 1957 he chaired the Wanganui Education Board. He was president of the Education Boards Association from 1951 to 1953.

Blair Tennent was active in many community groups, notably the Presbyterian church, the Freemasons, and Rotary International; he served as governor of Rotary District 52 and on world committees of the organisation in 1947–48. He was involved in Heritage, an organisation devoted to assisting the children of deceased servicemen; he served on the national executive and as Manawatu president. He became a trustee of the Manawatu Wairarapa Trustee Savings Bank, and was chairman of the Central Milk Council (later the New Zealand Milk Board) from 1952 to 1956.

Tennent’s first venture into politics was at local government level, serving from 1933 until 1941 on the Palmerston North City Council. In 1949 Tennent was elected as National Party member for Palmerston North. Defeated by the Labour candidate (Philip Skoglund) in 1954, Tennent returned to local politics and was elected mayor of Palmerston North in 1956. The next year he was elected MP for Manawatu, holding this seat until his retirement in 1966. Between 1957 and 1959 Tennent served as both mayor of Palmerston North and MP for the surrounding district, a dual role he later assessed as being a difficult but most interesting experience.

When the National Party swept to power in 1960, Tennent, with his wide experience in educational administration, was made minister of education, and he also became minister in charge of scientific and industrial research. He held these positions until 1963, when ill health forced him to relinquish cabinet responsibilities.

Tennent regarded education as ‘the greatest asset a country can have’. He had a long-standing interest in Massey Agricultural College and served on its council from 1951 to 1960. Once in Parliament, he actively promoted the development of tertiary educational facilities in his electorate – a policy which had a profoundly beneficial effect on the future growth and economic well-being of Palmerston North and the surrounding district. In 1953 Tennent successfully advocated Palmerston North rather than Wanganui as the best site for a proposed new teachers’ training college. With Geoffrey Peren, principal of Massey Agricultural College, Tennent arranged for the Wanganui Education Board to meet in Palmerston North and view a prospective site for the college. The strategy was successful and Palmerston North Teachers’ College opened in 1956.

During Tennent’s term as mayor of Palmerston North, Victoria University of Wellington began planning to establish an outpost. Tennent arranged for the Palmerston North City Council to offer a site in the suburb of Hokowhitu to the Department of Education. What he afterwards described as ‘a bit of a gamble’ worked, and the Palmerston North outpost of Victoria University was established in 1960. Tennent’s objective was always to gain autonomy for Massey Agricultural College, and it was a source of great satisfaction to him when, in 1963, during his term as minister of education, it absorbed the Victoria outpost. In 1964 he was the governor general’s appointee on the council of what was briefly called Massey University of Manawatu.

Nationally, Tennent’s three-year tenure of the education portfolio was marked by significant progress. Looking back over his career in 1970 he listed his most important contributions as the introduction of three-year training for primary school teachers, the system of annual presentation of a five-year building programme for universities, university student bursaries, and the subsidy system for the building of university halls of residence. He took a special interest in Maori education and actively supported the Maori Education Foundation during his term as minister.

During his final years in Parliament, Tennent was deputy chairman (1964) then chairman (1965) of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. After his retirement from national politics, he remained active in his local community. In 1967 he was appointed chancellor of Massey University, holding the position until 1970 when he resigned because of ill health. His services to politics and education were recognised in the New Year’s honours of 1973, when he was made a CBE.

William Blair Tennent died at his home in Palmerston North on 1 May 1976, survived by his wife and children. After his death Tennent was described as ‘a man who got things done. His approach was positive but never overbearing’. He is commemorated in Palmerston North by Blair Tennent Hall (a student hostel) and Tennent Drive.