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An outstanding professional gentleman

Wednesday, 1 August 2018  
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John Schofield, BVSc (Massey), 1950–2018


Tribute by Hon Pete Hodgson


Even as he would lean into the conversation – empathetically, attentively, cynically – you knew that at any moment John’s mind could dart off in any of a dozen directions. And then sometimes it did, proving the point with some startling or insightful remark.

Yet one could never describe him as mercurial; he was always too reliably on the other person’s wavelength for that adjective to fit. Maybe effervescent would be a better word, or restless, or even impetuous.

Certainly, he epitomised the oft-quoted man of many parts. His love of family was core, and the names of family members would pepper his conversations to demonstrate to others just where he was centred. And he went from there. He made and threw dozens of boomerangs, practised his golf swing with a tenacity bordering on obsession, kayaked, windsurfed and biked. He played the clarinet and Irish whistle.

In retirement, he decided to take up portraiture – because, “How hard can it be?”. Portrait after portrait flew off his easel. Some were decidedly works in progress (although that never troubled him), but some were jaw-dropping. At his funeral people spoke of him as a Rotarian, a volunteer for Presbyterian Support, a musical entertainer at a local resthome, a long-term mentor for an uncertain teenager. His default position was to be kind.

John’s commitment as a veterinarian eclipsed all other passions, even in retirement. He completed his degree in 1974, and by 1978, having married the love of his life, Lesley, and completed the obligatory few years in club practice in Wairarapa, he fetched up in Chicago, where he began his career as a laboratory animal veterinarian. During his 12 years there, he became a Diplomate of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine and had two children, Alex and Katie.

From 1991 until retirement in 2013, he was the veterinarian at the University of Otago – “an outstanding professional gentleman,” said a referee on his appointment. It was in those years that John made his mark throughout Australasia as a strong supporter of the ethical use of animals in research, as an advocate for laboratory animal welfare, and as a teacher of postgraduates and academics. As manager of the animal facility, Lesley was his vocational partner throughout.

For all his gentleness and impish grin, he was unforgiving of shortcuts and anything that offended his professionalism. The day before he died, at yet another animal welfare meeting, he thundered of an institution guilty of a minor transgression, “Do these bastards know that what they are doing is against the bloody law?”

Not that he was a stickler for the rules – it depended on whether the rules were up to the mark. If so, then they ought to be followed; if not, then his characteristic irreverence would be taken to the task of ridiculing them.And he knew what he was talking about. One commentator described John’s knowledge as encyclopaedic.

His papers were a fixture at conferences, especially those of the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching, where everyone got to meet him sooner or later – often, according to one wag, from the other side of the room. Ethical dilemmas were foisted on delegates, typically invented in preposterous settings, all the better to cause one to think. He was ever the teacher, ever seeking to improve.

And ever seeking to learn. Recently, MPI gave him the task of the five-yearly audit of animal experimentation undertaken at AgResearch. “I’m having a shit-hot time, and learning heaps,” he said on the eve of his death.

He died early one Wednesday morning, suddenly, from a stroke. It was a most terrible shock.

One person, describing the last she saw of John the evening before, said: “We were waiting for a taxi, when he walked past us on his way to the University Book Shop. ‘It’s just a block,’ he said, and he strode off up the road.” A perfect metaphor for John’s life: always reading the next book; always striding off somewhere.