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By R. K. Gordon
These memories of Assiniboia Hall are very scrappy and incomplete. They do not begin to give a full picture of all that went on in the place in the early years. Somebody should supplement them by an account of student life at that time in Assiniboia and Athabasca. E. P. Galbraith, now a newspaper editor in Red Deer, could do it. There were no good rows in Assiniboia in the old days that he did not have a finger (or a large hand) in. I invite him to confess.
Assiniboia Hall was first occupied in September, 1912. When I first knew it (1913), it was half the University, the other half being Athabasca. The President, the Registrar, the Bursar all had their offices in the central part of the building. There, too, were the Library and the Extension Department. On the second and third floors of the central part were flats for married members of the staff. Messrs. Allan, MacEachran, Sonet, Ottewell, Morrison, Sheldon, Elliott, Killam, Fairley, and many others have all washed dishes there. The south wing of the building was lecture rooms and laboratories. Students lived in the north wing, except in the corridor on the ground floor, which was reserved for unmarried men on the staff.
This staff-corridor was not at all times an abode of scholarly peace. From a room at the east end came long-drawn, mournful strains from C. A. Robb's clarinet. In a neighboring room, A. L. Burt, of the History Department, had found space for a piano by shoving his chest of drawers into the cupboard. He was a masterful player with a preference for a resounding marche militaire. To its soul-animating thunders Douglas Killam, who was going to be married in the spring of 1914, rehearsed a triumphant wedding-march down the corridor, after which he would dance the Turkey in the Straw. We also had a melancholy German in the corridor. He was a sentimental Bavarian and used to weep over French novels. One of his idols was Mary, Queen of Scots, and he used to declaim one of her speeches in Schiller's play, Maria Stuart with the utmost fire and passion.
"Der Thron von Engladn ist durch einen Bastard entweiht": That is the way the speech began. It was often interrupted by Killam suddenly rushing in armed with a knife. He flourished the weapon wildly, plunged it (very convincingly) into his own chest, and fell prostrate with a desperate cry. His stabbing business had, of course, nothing whatever to do with Maria Stuart. What our German colleague thought of it I have no idea: but he seemed to enjoy the scene and almost to believe, each time, that Killam had really done for himself.
Douglas Killam was the centre of all the fun and nonsense. I wish I had the skill to draw his portrait. He is eternally young in the memories of half a dozen of us, though it is over 20 years since he was drowned. He had more zest for life than any other man I have known.
The opening of the Arts Building in 1915 (celebrated by a special convocation of such heroic length that the last three speeches had to be cancelled) made great changes in Assiniboia Hall. Before then there was no very distinct line between the administrative side of things, the academic, and the domestic. They were all going on in the same building. The young Bowers girls, daughters of Frank Bowers, the first University Librarian, would wander up and down the fire escape at the back of Assiniboia, look in at a lecture through the window and wave a friendly hand. Now, with the coming of the Arts Building, Assiniboia became a residence and nothing but a residence. The President, Bursar, Registrar, the Library, the labs. and lecture rooms, the Extension Department all moved out. They left behind them a largely empty building. It is strange in this crowded session (1946-47), when students are living in every nook and cranny, to remember that about 30 years ago we had rooms going a-begging. This state of things was not merely because of the Arts Building but also because of heavy enlistment. For a while nurses lived in the north wing; and in 1916 the Alberta Company of the Western Universities' Battalion (196th) moved into the south wing. Mr. Burgess, then Professor of Architecture, joined up as a private; and, so the story goes, thinking he might as well get used at once to hard lying, he scorned his bed and lay on the floor.
The leaving of the 196th for overseas reminds one of two occasions and two speeches. The boys in the Company pretty well filled Convocation Hall in the spring of 1916 (we still had a friendly domestic convocation in those days in our own place and had not yet migrated to McDougall Church). They had come partly to see their captain, H. J. MacLeod (of the Physics Department) go up for his M.Sc. One speaker, addressing the troops, said he hoped they would kill a lot of Huns and would all come back safe. I mention this speech only as a contrast to what followed. The Chancellor, Judge Stuart, stood up. He looked in silence at the khaki rows with the grave kindly face which you can see in Varley's portrait of him in the Senate Chamber. He was in no hurry to speak. At last he said: "I wish you God speed," and sat down.
The other occasion was a staff dinner in honour of those of its members who were going overseas. There were the speeches one would expect on such an occasion. Dr. Tory, the President, naturally enough, expressed some regret that men with long training in special branches of learning were giving their energy to military tasks which could be as well done by others. Each of the men going away spoke briefly. What Mr. Burgess said, when his turn came, is, to me, unforgettable. His voice was very quiet. He said he did not share Dr. Tory's view. Nothing and nobody was too precious to be thrown into the struggle. "The walls of the New Jerusalem, we are told, are made of jasper and all manner of precious stones; but the walls of civilization are made of something far more precious - the bodies and lives of men and women."
The girls followed the soldiers. When the 196th moved out of Assiniboia, the Red Deer Ladies' College moved in. They were no quieter than the army; they filled the air with the sound of piano-practicing. I do not remember when the school moved out - about the end of 1916, I think.
After the war, Assiniboia became once more a student residence; and such it continued to be until the RCAF took it over in 1941. Now (1946) the Air Force has gone, the barbed wire fence is down; and Assiniboia Hall, which has withstood the drums and tramplings of two armed invasions and the racketing of many generations of undergraduates, looks pretty much as it did 30 odd years ago.
Published October 1946.