Alexander James Sutherland

1952 to 1956

Born in Matamata and attended Matamata College. Finest moment was playing and beating Te Awamutu College in the curtain raiser to the 1956 Waikato (who won) Springboks (who lost) match. Was Dux of the College in that year.  Although I grew up on a dairy farm it was always my ambition to be an engineer – whatever that was.


So it was off to the Auckland University College (as it was then) for Intermediate and on to Ardmore.  There it was Arved Raudkivi who most inspired me and thus I did an ME under his supervision. This involved building a wind/wave tunnel in the Fluids hanger in which to make measurements of the growth rate of waves under the influence of wind. The results were not startling and have been lost in the mists of time. However it did give me an appetite for further study and research.  On completion of the ME I accepted the rather grandly titled position of Temporary Assistant Junior Lecturer at Ardmore.  This was really just a fill in for six months before going to California to do my PhD and involved running the Fluids laboratory classes for Arved.


It was the Engineers Picnic in my third Pro year that stands out as a highlight of my time at Ardmore. I went to breakfast that morning (that was unusual in itself) and invited Judith Thomson who I had not met before to come to the picnic with me.  She accepted and thus began 46 wonderful years of life together.  One of her first labours of love was helping to analyse many rolls of film which recorded in analogue form the wave growth in my flume. We were married at Waiuku in May 1962. There are now three sons and seven grandchildren – two in California, three in Queensland and two in Christchurch.


In September 1962 we moved to Pasadena California where for 3.5 years I studied for and completed a PhD at Caltech.  The research component centred around the mechanisms involved in the initial motion of fine grains of sediment under the action of turbulent flows. It was pleasing that the mechanisms I proposed were subsequently picked up and further developed by others. Judith worked in a large Department store to help support us for two years until our first son, Peter, was born.  A nice touch from Caltech was the awarding to her of a PHT – Put Husband Through.


We had the pleasure of welcoming Jim and Hazel Lord to California and hosting them while they sought more permanent accommodation. We also met and visited with Bill Pickering the New Zealander who was head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at that time.  We kept in touch over the years and in 2003 I had the pleasure of delivering the oration during the ceremony at which the University of Canterbury awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering.


In May 1966 we moved to Palo Alto (just south of San Francisco) where I did a Post Doctoral year at Stanford University.  Once again I was researching wind generation of water waves. Stanford had just installed and commissioned a, then, state of the art wind/wave research facility. It was much larger than any other of its kind and well supported with instrumentation and technicians.  This was a great opportunity to obtain and analyse much more detailed data than could be measured elsewhere.  The data this time came in digital form with all the relevant statistics already calculated.  I did however have to transport many boxes of computer cards across campus on my bicycle and wait overnight while they were processed.


It was during our time in Palo Alto that our second son, Neil, was born.  We thus had two Americans in the family.  This did not stop us from visiting Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Oregon and Mexico with our small tent.  I remember camping in extreme heat in Death Valley and in the snow at Crater Lake in Oregon.


In 1967 I responded to an advertisement in NZ Engineering, to which the Stanford library subscribed, for a lectureship in Fluid Mechanics at the University of Canterbury.  The response came by telegram offering me the position which I accepted.  A prime reason for this was Frank Henderson was at Canterbury and I wanted to work with him.  He had just published his book “Open Channel Flow” which had been well received throughout the world. It is still an excellent text even if it does have a section giving hints for doing calculations on a slide rule.  The university paid our fares from San Francisco by boat to Auckland, by train to Wellington and ferry to Lyttelton.  It was quite a journey with our two little fellows.


Within 18 months of my arrival at UC Frank Henderson left and with him my principal reason for going there. However Judith and I enjoyed living in Christchurch and the university was a great place to work.  The School of Engineering was growing rapidly, a research culture was evolving and monies for research were easy to obtain.  These factors combined to make any decision about leaving so difficult that we chose not to make it. Thus by default I stayed in the university for 38 years.


I lectured in Fluid Mechanics at all levels and did research with graduate students into sediment transport of bed material in rivers comprising a range of grain sizes.  Some of the work on armouring of channels was used in the design of the hydro canals in the Mackenzie country.  Some other results were picked up by other researchers and built into numerical models of bed load transport.  I presented papers on our work at conferences in Italy, Canada, United States, India and the UK.


Our third son, Michael, was born in Christchurch.  He and his brothers all obtained university degrees in the 1980s, two in engineering with first class honours and one in dentistry.  They are all still working in these fields.


The 1980s were a difficult time for us. Judith and I both lost our parents, Judith a brother with cancer and my sister, a solo mother, was killed in a traffic accident.  As a consequence my then 9 year old niece, Sarah, came to live with us.  This abrupt change in family dynamics provided a real challenge.  The family really only stayed together by virtue of Judith’s astute management of us all.


At the university I quickly became involved with the administration by being the lecturers’ representative on the Professorial Board for three years and later their representative on the University Council for 11 years.  Other activities included work with the Association of University Teachers at local and national level.  In 1987 I became Dean of the School of Engineering serving in that role for 18 years until I retired from the university.  As Dean I was very involved in setting up the Centre for Advanced Engineering, acquiring a new building for Mechanical and Civil Engineering, establishing the Master of Engineering Management and the BE(Forestry) degree and ensuring the survival of the BE(Natural Resources) degree.


I particularly enjoyed my role as an auditor for the NZ Universities’ Academic Audit Unit. This involved chairing an audit of the University of Auckland, being a member of the panels that audited Otago University, Swinburne Institute of Technology in Melbourne and the second audit of Auckland.


My IPENZ activities included chairing the Canterbury Branch and serving on the Council for 12 years. I was a member of BE degree accreditation panels on a number of occasions and a member of the Competency Assessment Board as the CPEng was introduced. This all culminated in me becoming a Distinguished Fellow of IPENZ.


My interest in water and soil matters led to an elected position on the North Canterbury Catchment Board for 9 years the last three, until 1989 when the Board morphed into a Regional Council, as Chair of the Operations Committee. I continued to act as a resource consent commissioner for Regional Councils until 2005. Hearings in which I was involved in the decision making included the Tongariro Power Development, Mighty River Power’s dams on the Waikato, Telecom’s cable from Horowhenua to Nelson and McCraes’ Otago and Buller gold mines.


In January 2005 I left the university and became a Commissioner in the Environment Court. This has proved to be both stimulating and challenging. I have learnt a great deal about mussel farms, wind turbines, electricity transmission, the life and times of many flora and fauna, noise, groundwater, irrigation and landscape architecture. This appointment continues until January 2009 when it may be terminated or renewed.


Judith and I enjoyed family, camping holidays, tramping and tennis which played a large part in our lives. We played together in a First Mixed A Division team in the Canterbury competitions for some 15 years before I had a heart attack on the courts. This was 1990. My internal plumbing was re-jigged making me as good as new again. I still play tennis three times most weeks. Rotary has also been an important aspect of our lives. I was President of Riccarton Rotary in 1999 and Judith was President of the Women’s Section in 1987. Presently I have a District responsibility for international exchange students.


Judith was diagnosed with motor neuron disease early in 2005. This gradually overcame her and she died in September 2006. We had had a wonderful life together. I miss her so very much.


In 2005 I received a Queen’s birthday award being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Education and Engineering.