OMCT Chairman John Dennison passes away

Kenneth John Dennison

(5 January 1948 - 14 April 2020)



The Irish Lodge’s post-Installation Sunday luncheons were always lively affairs with Mosgiel’s Railway Restaurant tables crowded with Irish Brethren, and guests from the English, Scottish and New Zealand Constitutions, all intermingled with their wives and partners.  For over an hour, one particular dining table had been a bouncy place of laughter and to and fro’ banter, with a swirling mix of separate and collective conversations on wildly varied topics, yet one throw-away comment was to seize the interest of all.  “Yes, I am a little tired today,” Ann Dennison admitted to fellow diner Bridget Wren.  “This weekend just seems to have been going on forever.  But it’s worse for John as he spent a large part of Friday night and Saturday morning at Dunedin Police station.”

With a mock accusatory stare at John Dennison, another tablemate mischievously asked him, “Oh dear, John.  Been ‘helping the Police with their enquiries’, again have we?”


R.W.Bro John Dennison JGW


A tireless Chairman for the OMCT, in December John Dennison presented delighted Phys. Ed. teacher Scarlett Rogers with a bursary cheque for $5,000 NZ dollars to assist Scarlett with the costs of her further education.



John Dennison laughed at the tease, “Many a true word spoken in jest, Brother Wren-Potter,” he said. “Actually, I was translating statements taken from two Russian sailors who were arrested after a brawl on Friday night.”

The table full of diners was immediately attentive.

“You can read … Russian?!” asked one amazed guest.

John looked almost embarrassed as he replied, “Oh, er, yes.”  Adding hurriedly, “But I wouldn’t ever say though that I could speak Russian fluently.”

As one, the astounded tablemates now glanced at each other and back to John Dennison with eyebrows raised.  She did not even break the bemused silence that had fallen upon the group when his wife, Ann, chipped in with, “Oh yes.  John is also fluent in German and French and is on the Department of Internal Affairs’ translation panel.”

There now occurred one of those frozen-in-time moments when one really HAS to have a photographer right there, right on-hand to capture the obviously boggled, open-mouthed expressions of the other six parties seated around the table.

You see, John Dennison was such a humble, modest and quiet sort of chap that casual friends simply would not have comprehended that he possessed such wonderful skills.  But if someone had told me in that moment that Brother Dennison was also an internationally renowned concert pianist – I would have believed them.


Behrmann’s learned volume ‘The Sepik and its Catchment Area’, was just one of more than 20 books that John Dennison translated from their original foreign language into English.
John was an accomplished linguist also in
Russian, French, Italian, Latin and Te Reo Māori!



Working only in his spare time, it took
John Dennison more than 5 years to translate
Dr. Hans Nevermann’s complex work, [the]
‘St. Matthias Gruppe’, from its original
German into the English language.


It was a mild, sunny day in Dunedin on Monday, 5th January 1948 when Kenneth John Dennison first entered the world.  He was named after his father, John Fraser Dennison, a long-time librarian at Otago University’s School of Dentistry; his mother being Alice Dennison (nee Berney), a local postmistress.  As a boy he was a studious young chap of above average intelligence who eventually gained entrance to Otago Boys’ High School where he enjoyed science subjects but also displayed a distinct aptitude for languages.  It was, however, at the University of Otago that he really blossomed, and it was here, initially studying the arts, where he began to hone his remarkable foreign language skills, graduating with a B.A. in 1969.

But John couldn’t leave the place alone.  Starting as a Laboratory Assistant in the University’s Department of Anatomy in 1973, he studied anatomical science, obtaining a B.Sc. in 1976, and persevered until he obtained his Master of Science degree, in this most challenging of subjects, in 1988.  The University obviously thought highly of him as he spent the rest of his working life there, teaching Anatomy and Structural Biology to generations of aspiring doctors and would-be surgeons.

If this career in itself wouldn’t rank as a life-well-lived, then the work that he undertook in bringing the science of anthropology to a wider audience and driving that science just a little further forward was awe inspiring.  He translated a ridiculous number of legal or scientific papers, medical journals, and books of huge learning importance to the anthropological community, from their original German (or French, or Russian) into English. 

There is only room to mention four of the books here and these are specific, in this case, to Papua New Guinea and the islands around.  Professor Walter Behrmann’s The Sepik [River] and its Catchment Area, Dr. Maximilian Krieger’s Neu Guinea, Dutch explorer Richard Parkinson’s Dreißig Jahre in der Südsee (30 Years in the South Seas) and Dr. Hans Nevermann’s St. Matthias Gruppe [of islands]


John Dennison [right] at the hand-over of one of his translated books on anthropology to the librarian of Kavieng Library, Papua New Guinea. John was accompanied by Prof. Glenn Summerhayes from Otago University.


Her husband told the Otago Daily Times that
John Dennison had “brought closure” to the
family of missing tramper, Irina Yun, when
John was able to identify remains, discovered
in 2009, as being those of Ms. Yun.

For a moment I would specifically like to concentrate on John’s translation of Hans Nevermann’s St. Matthias Group.  Bear in mind that this was merely one of many books translated by him, this tome consists of 242-pages, virtually all of which are liberally peppered with German language technical terminology.  Working only in his spare time, it took John more than five-years to finish!  Meanwhile, Professor Glenn Summerhayes describes how, for all of this work and the many projects before or after, John steadfastly refused any payment whatsoever for any translation work undertaken for Otago University, saying that he wanted “these stories to be readily available to scholars of the genre and the people of Papua New Guinea.”  John must have succeeded because the publishers, AMAZON, write of the book, St. Matthias Group, “It is a wonderful volume.  Dennison’s translation provides a vivid glimpse into the vegetation, geography, and the geology of this region.”

In 2014, Glenn Summerhayes took John to New Guinea where together they presented several different translated books to the Kavieng Library and to the University of Papua New Guinea.  Both organisations were understandably delighted to receive such seminal works and, in equal measure such benevolence, as being now in the English language, they opened wide a previously virtually closed door to a new generation of young minds and students of anthropology, and to New Guinean history and genealogy.  None of this ‘new’ learning would have been possible without John’s unwavering commitment, a fact not lost on Professor Summerhayes who said, “John was indeed gifted and of most generous heart.”

Yet there was another, possibly even deeper, aspect to John Dennison’s psyche; that of the dedicated Freemason.  Knowing John’s character, it will be unsurprising to learn that Freemasonry was yet another skill in which he excelled, reaching high rank within the Order. 

John was Initiated on 4 August 1969 into Lodge Otago Kilwinning No. 143 in the New Zealand Constitution.  His agile mind allowing him to progress swiftly through the various Offices and, in 1977, he became Master of 143.  When this Lodge was forced to amalgamate in 1988, John became a founder member of the United Lodge of Otago No. 448



John received his Grand Lodge rank in 1994 when he became Grand Steward, and four years later, he was appointed Grand Lecturer, a role in which, needless to say, he performed brilliantly, especially his unmatched explanation of the 3rd Degree Tracing Board.  His Masonic ritualistic skills were obvious, and he was eventually appointed District Grand Master [for the Masonic] Wickliffe District, serving New Zealand Freemasonry in this high office from 2011 until 2013, during which time he was a frequent visitor to many Masonic Lodges in the four constitutions across the country. 


Ranking among his many Masonic achievements, John was also the holder of the 30th Degree, a very high Office.  He had joined the Dunedin-based, Rose Croix, Chapter 23 on 21 September 1981 and was enthroned as MWS twice, in 2015 and again in 2017.  He was still serving this red Lodge in a leading role at the time of his death.

Flanked by Bros. Graeme Munro and Dr. Brian Coutts, John was front and centre during the negotiations that took place over the merger of The Otago Lakes and Wickliffe [Masonic] Districts during 2018/2019.  Indeed, 2019 became a very special year for John, because on 10 September, the New Zealand Grand Master, Mark Winger, personally presented John with his ‘50-year Badge’ within the portals of the Masonic Lodge he’d helped to create, The United Lodge of Otago No. 448.  Thus, 50 years of dedicated service to ‘the Craft’ [as Freemasonry is sometimes termed], was recognised and honoured.  Even for the steadfastly humble John Dennison, it was a very proud day indeed.

As we all know, all of the absolutely worst, cringe-making advertising commercials on television contain the line, “But wait! There’s MORE!”  In John Dennison’s case, however, the announcer would have to bellow, “But wait! It’s ENDLESS!

And with John, so it appears to be, because we also cannot overlook his superlative contribution to charity and benevolence. 

For many years an active member of the Wellington-based NZ Freemasons’ Charity, he was still serving on their management committee at the time of his death.  In 2017, for his years of service on their Board of Benevolence, he was awarded the ‘Almoner’s Badge’ in gold.

John was also an elected Trustee of the Otago Masonic Charitable Trust for more than 25 years, becoming this Trust’s Chairman in 2018, and was still in that Office on the day he died.  The By-Laws state that the Chairmanship now passes automatically to his friend and Deputy, Rt.W.Bro. Ross Hudson, who has taken the reins with a heavy heart.

In 1998, John was elected Chairman of the University of Otago Freemasons’ Scholarships Selection Committee, this group is responsible for dispensing yearly scholarships to qualifying students from any of New Zealand’s eight universities.  John dutifully served out his statutory five-year term of Office until V.W.Bro. Dr. Brian Coutts automatically took over in 2004.

On Tuesday, 22 February 2011 a catastrophe struck the South Island of New Zealand that would change the landscape of the Canterbury region forever when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake flattened a large swathe of the beautiful city of Christchurch.  The calamity occurred at lunchtime when office workers were coming and going, and the streets were filled shoppers and tourists.  185 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured, some seriously.  In the days that followed this awful event the government’s authorities and the NZ Civil Defence contacted John Dennison and put him ‘on standby.’  As a forensic scientist his mission, when requested to do so, would be to travel to Christchurch with his team, and assist with the identification of the bodies of the victims. 

I spoke with John only a month after the seismic disaster, whereupon he told me that in the end his services had not been called upon, but that he had packed his bags, got himself organised, and had steeled himself for the grim job ahead.  As many victims had been crushed beyond visual recognition, I personally cannot envisage a more gruesome task to undertake but, not one to shirk his duty, John was ready to go.  So here again, we discover the depth of the man, and we see his courage.

John was a committed Christian.  A former licenced lay reader of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Green Island, he also became a representative on the Diocesan Synod, and a Parish nominator of St. Mary’s Anglican parish of Mornington in Dunedin, the church in which he married Ann.

In a way, John and Ann met almost by accident as Ann suddenly found herself with a spare admission ticket for the BNZ Debate.  A friend thought that an intellectual debate would be just the sort of event that John Dennison would like to attend, and so he was asked along.  The date was 13 September 1986.  A whirlwind romance ensued, and the pair got secretly engaged, announcing this event to the surprised parents at Christmas the same year.  They married in Ann’s chosen church, St. Mary’s Anglican on Saturday, 27 June 1987, and their much-loved daughter, Sarah was born 11 months later. 

Ann and John were married for almost 33-years, and his beloved Ann is frequently credited in the preface of many of his books as being his patient, persevering, unpaid, proof-reader and spell checker, for much of that time!

John Dennison and I always got on well; he was an easy guy to “get-on-well” with.  One could drown in his intellect, yet he appeared to enjoy my eccentric, facetious sense of humour, and I didn’t let him down when, a couple of years ago, we were chatting away and I waggishly asked him if he was still translating Police arrest statements for drunken, ever so slightly murderous, Russian sailors?

“No, I’m not doing that anymore,” he replied.

“And why’s that?” I asked him.  “Don’t you like massive Slavic seamen with the visage of Rasputin and the social graces of Ivan The Terrible, threatening to rip your arms off and reinsert them in other parts of your anatomy?”

He shook his head and laughed at my deliberately daft question.  (John considered me to be “a hopeless case” – and I enjoyed that.)  The answer he gave, however, was serious when he said, “Actually, I wasn’t intimidated by their threats.  What I found REALLY offensive was their atrocious bad manners and appallingly foul language.  That’s why I stopped.”

I expected a humorous repost, and so was a little taken aback by his answer, but then again, maybe I wasn’t.  John Dennison wore his heart on his sleeve and simply had a different take on life than the rest of us mere mortals.  Threats of violence?  Poof, so what?  But to be sworn at.  To be insulted – No!  In John’s mind, a line had been crossed, and that was definitely not acceptable.

A few days before John died, Professor Glenn Summerhayes telephoned him with the news that the grateful nation of Papua New Guinea had awarded him a special honour, John was to become an ‘Officer of the Order of Logohu, Papua New Guinea’ for his services toward that country’s ancient anthropological history and to their children’s future learning.  Unsurprisingly John was delighted, yet typically humble, telling Glenn that he really didn’t believe that he had “done much to deserve it.”

John didn’t live to receive his medal, but there are many in that far away nation that believe fervently that John Dennison truly did deserve this honour for all of his tireless, freely gifted, hard work on their behalf, and for the furtherance of education in Papua New Guinea and also the University of Otago.  It is certain that there will be many in that country that will share in our sorrow at the passing of this most exceptional human being.

Kenneth John Dennison might not have been a man of physically large stature, but he was gigantic in his love for those dear to him, for his beloved Otago and for his fellow man.  He leaves us with a legacy that literally will “go down in the annals of history.”


He roimata ua, he roimata tangata
Haere atu rā e te rangatira, e John, okioki mai rā.

Both rain and tears are shed over those who have died
Farewell John, rest in peace.

John Wren-Potter

April 2020



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