Ivon Vernon Wilson was born at Dunedin on 27 November 1885, the son of Elizabeth Christiana Baker and her husband, James Wilson, a brewer. After attending Southland Boys’ High School (1900–1902), he was apprenticed to Invercargill dental surgeon A. E. Smith. Ivon became a registered dentist in 1909 and by 1911 had his own practice in Featherston. On 10 April 1917 he married Mona Moore in St Paul’s Cathedral Church, Wellington. They were to have two daughters and a son. Wilson continued to work in Featherston until about 1924, when he established a practice in Wellington.
Automobiles were one of his early enthusiasms and in 1912 he bought his first car. In response to the frustrations of the pioneer New Zealand motorist – poor roads, unbridged streams, and no sign-posts – Wilson helped to found the Wairarapa Automobile Association, becoming its secretary. For several years motorists had been complaining about the cost of insuring their vehicles and in 1915 the Wairarapa association set up the first mutual motor insurance company in New Zealand, with Wilson as secretary-manager. On moving to the capital he joined the Wellington Automobile Club and served on its executive from 1924 to 1934. In 1927 he helped form the North Island Motor Union Mutual Insurance Company.
Wilson moved back to Invercargill in 1934 to become a partner in the dental practice of his mentor, A. E. Smith. Two years later he was elected to the executive of the Automobile Association (Southland) and served as president from 1945 to 1951, a period in which the organisation was closely involved with the development of the Te Anau – Milford Sound road. When this was officially opened in 1953 the association took over the upgrading of former works camps at Milford and Cascade Creek and established a new motor camp at Te Anau. In 1958 Wilson started developing a park on 32 acres of land adjacent to this camp. He collected many of the over 5,000 trees that were planted, often driving long distances to get what he wanted. The park was later named after him.
Wilson joined the Southland Progress League and was president for 10 years from 1954. It was a period of spectacular growth in the area: the port of Bluff and Invercargill airport were upgraded, freezing works and fertiliser works were built, and the government decided in 1963 to build an underground hydroelectric plant at Manapouri to supply an aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point. Ivon Wilson was noted for his efficiency as chairman; meetings always started on time and he did not hesitate to interrupt a speaker who wandered from the point. He was described as a ‘kindly despot’ and his robust style did not always please, but it got results. He retired as president in 1964 and in that year was made an OBE.
Wilson became actively involved in many other local organisations. He served as president of the South Island Motor Union and of the Invercargill beautifying and operatic societies. He was associated with the Jellicoe Sea Scout Group, the Royal Overseas League, and the vestry of All Saints’ Anglican Church.
An enthusiastic environmentalist, he objected to exotic trees and shrubs being planted around the hotel at Milford Sound (in a national park) and drew attention to damage done to forests by deer, suggesting (rather unhappily) that North American mountain lions should be introduced to keep the numbers down. Wilson maintained a large and productive vegetable garden; he imported herbs from overseas and actively promoted the use of compost.
Wilson was a colourful character and the press found him always good for a quote. He was often asked for his opinion, which he would give without fear or favour. On one occasion he invited a journalist to his surgery and showed him a tiny dental plate. It had been created, he said, to help a baby with a malformation of the mouth which prevented it from sucking. Thinking this was a world first, the reporter hastened to publish the sensational news. The next day he realised he had been hoaxed, but the story developed a life of its own, appearing in overseas journals (including Time magazine).
Ivon Wilson was an enthusiast who devoted himself unreservedly to any task he undertook. He had the ability to inspire others and involve them in his projects. His genial yet determined character made him well known and well liked. He died at Invercargill on 8 May 1974, survived by his wife and children.