Willis Thomas Goodwin (Bill) Airey was born in Auckland on 7 January 1897. His father, Walter Henry Airey, an inspector of schools, had died three months earlier, leaving a widow, Margaret Avon McDonald, and seven children. Henry's death was a serious blow for such a large family. Three friends helped his widow, and her last baby bore their names: Willis, Thomas and Goodwin. For the rest of her life Margaret Airey wore black and her children felt a strong obligation to look after her until her death in 1938.
The family rented a property in Remuera. Making ends meet was a struggle: all the children had part-time jobs. Bill cleaned their shoes. At Remuera School he won a Junior National Scholarship and in 1911 enrolled at Auckland Grammar School. There he gained seven first prizes in languages, mathematics and drawing. He was a talented draughtsman from an early age and also showed skill at rugby and cricket. In 1914 he won a Senior National Scholarship and went to Auckland University College, where he shone at English and Latin.
Airey enlisted for war service early in 1917 and entered camp in July. He sat his BA finals in khaki, gaining a Senior Scholarship in English. His service in the 1st Battalion Auckland Infantry Regiment in England, then France (from September 1918), was overshadowed by the news that his academically talented brother Frederick had been killed at the front.
Back in Auckland in May 1919, Airey re-entered university, graduating MA with second-class honours in English and Latin in 1920. The next year he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. He taught at Auckland Grammar from early 1920 until July 1921, when the university marked his departure for Oxford University with a substantial farewell function. At Merton College he read history, a subject he had not studied since Grammar. He was seeking to understand war, its causation, and the national and personal tragedies it could inflict.
Airey had developed into a tall, athletic man who loved walking – indeed, he never drove a car. Fair-haired and dark-eyed, he wore glasses for most of his life. His soft voice seemed to fit his sensitive, affectionate, even romantic nature. Besides an ease with words and a love of books, he had a passion for the outdoors. Whenever in the United Kingdom he walked the hills and valleys of Scotland.
At Oxford Airey won his colours at cricket and football; he participated in debates about the League of Nations, rushed his studies again, and graduated BA, once more with second-class honours, in 1923. A factor in his early return to New Zealand at the end of that year was Isobel Lilian Chadwick, whom he had met before leaving for Oxford. In 1924 he secured a lectureship in history and English at Christchurch Training College. The following year, on 19 August, he married Isobel at Havelock North. Throughout their marriage Isobel would loyally support Airey's various causes.
In Christchurch Airey established himself as an excellent teacher. Capable from an early age of original thought, he always grappled with large issues. For a time he was consumed by the Student Christian Movement, and sought to make Christian principles the basis for public conduct. He was active in the WEA, and with J. B. Condliffe founded the Christchurch branch of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand. Airey was soon writing newspaper columns on international relations. A small book, Onward? A study of the League of Nations and the principles of international co-operation, appeared in 1929. It warned against 'deifying’ the state, and advocated seeking instead through international co-operation to improve ties between countries. While Airey subsequently lost his Christian belief, his struggle for world peace occupied the rest of his life.
In 1929 he returned to Auckland to a lectureship in history at Auckland University College. The family eventually settled in Onehunga. Airey applied for chairs at all four New Zealand university colleges over the years, but remained in Auckland, where he was promoted to associate professor in 1947. He retained this status till retiring in 1961. At the university he enjoyed the company of many other staff, among them J. C. Beaglehole (whose dismissal he protested against in 1932), Julius Stone, R. P. Anschutz, Laurence Holt and Arthur Sewell.
Airey was publicly associated with the New Zealand Spanish Medical Aid Committee in the late 1930s. He was chairman in the 1940s of the leftist Progressive Book Society and at the same time continued his involvement with the WEA. He admired Russia’s evangelism for a new, post-capitalist society, despite Stalin's extraordinary behaviour during and after the Second World War. In 1939 he strongly opposed Hitler, but was wary of Britain's war aims. Then, when Germany invaded Russia in 1941 he supported the worldwide struggle against fascism.
The depression and the Second World War intensified his interest in Marxism. At an Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Shanghai in 1931 he met Chiang Kai-shek and Rewi Alley, whose biography Airey was to write in his retirement. He was a founder of the Society for Closer Relations with Russia and chaired the New Zealand Peace Council for many years. A four-week trip to the Soviet Union in 1952 intensified his belief that the Russians wanted peace, and that the Cold War was the creation of American capitalism. He learned to translate Russian, but did not join the Communist Party of New Zealand.
Airey's wider public role frightened conservatives, and led several to attack him in Parliament and in newspaper editorials. He wrote many articles for journals such as Tomorrow, Here & Now, Landfall, Political Science and the New Zealand Monthly Review. In 1950 he bitterly opposed New Zealand's involvement in the Korean War, which he regarded as a civil war, and he opposed joining SEATO in 1954. In a small pamphlet written in 1954, entitled New Zealand foreign policy related to New Zealand social development and current world trends, he saw in New Zealand's tightly controlled economy and strict labour laws evidence of fascist tendencies. Airey will, however, be remembered for his rewritings of J. B. Condliffe’s Short history of New Zealand, which first appeared in 1925. 'Condliffe and Airey’ went through nine editions and was used in most schools into the 1960s.
By the time he retired Airey was one of New Zealand's best-known historians, respected by students for his careful expression, a painstaking scholarship, and his 'humane and highly moral non-conformity’. In training many historians of the next generation, and supervising numerous theses, he was responsible for Auckland's prominence in New Zealand historical research. Airey taught his students to think independently and to question assumptions. His political views never obtruded in class. In 1963 he was the recipient of a Festschrift from 10 of his more illustrious students, including Keith Sinclair, Richard Shannon, Harry Hanham, Russell Stone and Robert Chapman. The history department’s library was named the Willis Airey Library in his honour.
After his retirement Bill and Isobel Airey built a small home in Torbay, Auckland. They travelled several times to China as Airey tried to come to grips with China's widening rift with the Soviet Union. On one of these trips he was diagnosed as having a blood disorder. He continued to teach a course on Russian history, but was increasingly sustained by blood transfusions. Bill Airey died in Auckland on 20 September 1968, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. After his death Neville Phillips, a historian at the University of Canterbury, wrote, 'Bill was the kind of man whom to meet was to like, he was so patently sincere, unpretentious and kind. After a while, he commanded not only liking but also respect, admiration and affection’.