Obituary for Ross Alistair Gillanders

By John Lewis, Otago Daily Times | Posted: Monday October 22, 2018

(Old Boy 1951-55) , A lifelong passion for science, education.

Ross Alistair Gillanders (80) was philosophical and inquisitive, right to the end.

In one of his last writings before his death on September 7, the long-serving King’s High School science teacher said he would “rather like to live to know the answers to some, at least, of the questions about the universe, and life, and biochemistry and fundamental particles and so on”.

“Although I regret not living to know so many things, I am comforted by thoughts of the Big Bang, particles jumping in and out of existence between energy and material states, that I am merely a vehicle for transporting and keeping DNA on, and I realise that my existence – or non existence – can hardly count for too much.”

“The thought that these things should eventually be explicable, that the universe will be understood, is comforting to me.”

Mr Gillanders was born in Otago on November 13, 1937, to Alexander and Mary Elizabeth Gillanders (nee Garden). As a 2 year old, he was diagnosed with colitis and not expected to live. However, a prescribed diet of bananas and boiled water saw him outlast doctors’ predictions.

He was educated at Maori Hill Primary School and Otago Boys’ High School, where he displayed an early passion for science. He went onto graduate from the University of Otago with a Bachelor of Science degree. At the time, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his degree, so he completed a diploma of teaching in 1961 and started teaching science and mathematics at King’s High School in 1962.

Initially, he thought it would be a short term job until he worked out what career he really wanted. But nearly 20 years later after completing a diploma of farm forestry in his spare time, he still had not made up his mind.

By 1980 he had become the head of the science department at King’s High School, a position he held until 1994. During his career, Mr Gillanders became passionate about education - not just science education, but any activity involving young people. He was responsible for golf, rugby, cricket, the photographic club, lighting for school productions, publishing the school magazine, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme and school camps.

He also played a major part in community activities, particularly if they related to science.

Activities included being the Otago Science Fair committee convener/organiser (on and off between 1971 and 1994); school board of governors (1984 to 1988); School Certificate assistant examiner for science (on and off until 1994); Bursary assistant examiner for year 13 biology (up until 1992); Department of Education curriculum development groups member; New Zealand Science Teachers’ Association member; Otago Museum Discovery World Science advisor (1998); University of Otago institutional biological safety committee member (2000 to 2010); Maori Hill Charitable Trust member (2000 to 2018); and Ross Creek Charitable Trust member (2010 to 2018).

Like most teachers, he found it difficult to fully retire. He continued to volunteer for community organisations, including the local Scout Association, Amenities Society, Otago Museum Discovery World, Maori Hill Historical Committee, Ross Creek Reservoir Reserve and at the Otago Science Fair as a judge.

Family members described him as a great conversationalist who loved a robust discussion, a non-judgemental person, an economical man who lived simply and sustainably (he chose to walk rather than take the car, which helped him stay so fit), a consummate educator, and a lover of New Zealand’s great outdoors.

He was also known as a quiet man with a great sense of humour.

He himself said “When I die, I shall exist only in the minds of those who remember me. I will therefore continue to acquire qualities and abilities never possessed before, no doubt.”

Mr Gillanders died in Dunedin Hospital. He is survived by older sister Ngaio Brown, of Dunedin and younger sister Robin Howlett of Brisbane.