Speech: Vale Dr Ronnie Harding


Many people will have known a teacher who lit a spark of passion in them or rekindled a flickering flame to its full burning potential. For me it was Dr Ronnie Harding. She played an instrumental role in feeding my hunger to learn more about nature and in nourishing my ability to protect it. We often had discussions about the climate crisis and how big, bold changes were needed to tackle it.

Ronnie passed away peacefully on Saturday 18 June. She will be missed sorely by so many friends, loved ones, colleagues and students. Ronnie touched the lives and the hearts of whoever she met, and I include my husband, my children and my mother in that list. She had the incredible ability to be genuinely interested in others. People like Ronnie don't come around often—perhaps even just once in your lifetime.

Dr Ronnie Harding was a teacher extraordinaire, my lecturer, my colleague, my mentor and my dearest friend. We wrote a book together with another colleague, exploring the complexities and contestations of environmental decision-making. At a difficult period in my life, she reached out and convinced me to play table tennis with her every week. She went about her brilliant teaching and research, and her environmentalism and caring for people, in an unassuming, matter-of-fact way, never making a big deal of the positive, life-changing impact she was having on so many.

Above all, Ronnie was an incredible environmentalist—a pioneer in environmental education. Ronnie was the founding member of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW, where I got my dream job, teaching the outstanding Master of Environmental Management program which she'd started. It was a world-first interdisciplinary program on the environment and sustainability.

Right before I delivered my first lecture, I remember my heart was beating fast and my hands were sweaty with apprehension. I wanted to be a good teacher, but I was really nervous about not knowing answers to questions a student might ask me or not meeting their expectations. Ronnie came to my office to wish me luck. Seeing my anxiety, she stopped to have a chat, and gave me some advice that I have carried with me ever since—advice on being true to myself; on being honest and not pretending to know everything; on not being afraid to be challenged; and, above all, on valuing the knowledge others have. 'They just want to have a yarn, really,' she said. When I was feeling a similar nervousness on my first day in the New South Wales parliament, I remembered Ronnie's wisdom on being true to myself. And I do that every single day.

Ronnie's talents and interests were never-ending. She had an arts degree from the University of Sydney; and a science degree, first-class honours, and a PhD in marsupial reproductive biology from UNSW. She was an intellectual, and very skilled in the sporting field. She excelled in hurdling and long jump, as well as tennis and golf. During her student days, she restored and repaired chairs. Later, she refurbished an old fisherman's cottage. Ronnie's love for travel was well known, and I would never tire of hearing about her adventures around the world—in India, Singapore, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, South America and Europe, to name a few. She found the time and the energy to dedicate to so many other roles, including being an Assistant Commissioner for the New South Wales Natural Resources Commission, a trustee of the Australian Museum, a board member of the Environmental Defenders Office, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, a member of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council, and so many more.

I feel so honoured to have known Ronnie for a few decades. I know that hundreds of her master's students and colleagues feel the same, and here are some of their words: 'What a legend she was. She was my mentor and my inspiration.' 'She opened my eyes to the fact engineering is not just a bunch of formulas to stop bridges falling over.' 'What a giant in her field.' 'She also made me laugh so often with her fierce honesty about how she saw the world.'

There is absolutely no doubt that the work Ronnie did in her lifetime is going to live on in her many and dear students, colleagues and friends, and I will be one of those honouring her memory in my life and my work. Vale, 'Ronnie' Ronald Harding.