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University Beginnings in Alberta

By R. K. Gordon

We were a small, light-hearted company, hardly more than a score of us; and all of us were young. We lived in a clearing in the poplar bush on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River. On the sloping sides of the great valley and on the flats below the coyotes barked and howled at night, but on top of the bank we taught mathematics and physics, Greek and history, English Literature, and biology. Along with some four hundred students and two red brick buildings, we were the University of Alberta; and we felt sure that the future belonged to us, not to the coyotes.

We looked across the river to the newly-finished building of the Provincial Government, which in its wisdom had brought us into being and from which came our very modest monthly cheques. Just below the Government building stood the rather forlorn remains of old Fort Edmonton, but they were not long allowed to cumber the landscape. The new, raw, bustling city was not interested in a reminder of its humble beginnings. The future was the thing, and of the dazzling glory of that future nobody was so mean-spirited as to entertain the slightest doubt.

The University was then (1913) a lusty youngster of five. It had begun life in a few rooms in a high school with four teachers and some thirty students. Those of our colleagues who had been there in the earliest years were always ready to tell us who had come later how they had borne the burden and heat of the day. They were a little jealous of their rank as old-timers and pioneers. It had been a very small and friendly world. Those days were gone. The University had sent out one class of young men and women with B.A. (Alberta) tacked on to their names. And now we had two buildings of our own and the crumbling foundations of a third, which was to have been the Arts Building if funds had not failed. We used to look sadly at those foundations and think how wonderful it would be to have a building set aside almost entirely for teaching. In the two buildings lived most of the staff and students. One corridor was occupied by women students. But the buildings were much more than residences. Lecture-rooms, laboratories, offices (from the President's lordly quarters down through the Dean's more modest accommodation to our tiny dens), kitchens, dining-room, library, gymnasium. Everything we had was in one or other of the two buildings.

Of the four hundred young Albertans who filled our lecture-rooms, some were not very young and very few were native Albertans. They had come from many places — from the Maritimes, from Ontario, from the middle Western States, from London, Yorkshire, Scotland. At the Spring Convocation, for many years, the President gave the numbers of home-grown students. It was long before they made a majority.

The staff was similarly varied in origin: Englishmen, Scots (one of whom had a strong interest in drama and a west-country accent which was triumphant even when he acted in one of Chekhov's plays), a Virginian, a Frenchman (who had served in the Zouaves, though the students preferred to believe he had been in the Foreign Legion), Nova Scotians (of course, the President was one of these), a Newfoundlander, a Bavarian, a fairly large sprinkling from Ontario. There were graduates of Harvard, McGill, Oxford, Toronto, London, Leipzig, Jena, Gottingen, Chicago and not a few other places. In tradition, outlook, training, prejudices, we were a very mixed lot and in no danger of undue uniformity in our ways and ideas. We could all sit at one good-sized table and we did so at the monthly meetings of the Faculty Club where there was high, prolonged and inconclusive discussion of great questions.

We were very lucky, and we knew it. The present was good, and we were sure the best was yet to be. The youth and stir and zest of the place are unforgettable but not easy to recapture in words. The west was young, and so were we; and we went on our way, never doubting that, if 1913 was rich in blessings, 1914 would be still more bountiful. War was something we never dreamed of; the skies were clear in Alberta, and we assumed that they were almost as clear elsewhere.

A backwoods university, far from great libraries and on the fringe of the world of learning, has its drawbacks. But, if we were far away from some things, we were near others. South and west of us was pretty much open country. Deer were sometimes seen a few hundred yards away from our buildings. One did not need to go far afield for prairie chicken and partridge in September. An hour's walk took us to White Mud Creek, where in winter we often cooked our Sunday dinner. Sometimes we hired a sleigh and drove north to the little French Canadian village of St. Albert in the valley of the Sturgeon, and had a chicken dinner at the hotel run by a French-Canadian called McNeill. But winter brought trials also. One member of the staff lived about two miles south of the University, and walked across the fields to his lectures. A pleasant beginning to the day in fall and spring, but on a January morning of thirty below zero with a whiff of wind from the north — and a whiff is more than enough in that temperature — he would arrive at his office not far from exhaustion after breaking trail through drifted snow; a harsh, unacademic prelude to a lecture on pastoral poetry or the novels of Samuel Richardson. One way and another it was easy for us not to spend all our time with books and lectures.

The chief inspirer of hopes and dreams, the eager encourager of great expectations, the incorrigible believer in progress was the President, Henry Marshall Tory. A strange mixture of idealist and politician, he was a good man to build up a university in a community which had just said good bye to its pioneer days. He could rouse the indifferent and win over the sceptics. He made the people aware that they had a university and convinced them that it was worth spending money on. He did not, I think, much like sitting at his desk. He was not an office man. He liked to go out and look at what was going on. The place was still small enough for him to have a finger in every pie. One would see him hurrying across the campus, coat-tails flying — Presidents wore morning coats forty years ago - sturdy, solid, energetic and with an eye out for anything and everybody. He would talk to the workmen and leave them laughing, have a word with the foreman, poke his nose into the kitchen and try to persuade the dietitian, who was quite as good a fighter as he was, that the new and expensive bit of equipment she had asked for was not immediately necessary, and then, perhaps, he would dash across the river and seek to convince the Premier that a cut in the university estimates would mean black disaster. Nobody could make dollars go farther than Dr. Tory. Whatever mistakes he made and what man in his position could avoid them? — he certainly never made the mistake of overpaying the staff. But, though at one time or another and for one reason or another we were all critical of him, we were also proud to be his men. He had not the caution or patience of a scholar; and, after he had become a university President, he had not the time. Nor was he really a good speaker. His language lacked distinction, and he could not resist reckless and questionable generalizations. We learned to distrust sentences which began with the ringing declaration: 'I can say without fear of successful contradiction . . . ' And yet he imposed himself on an audience. His drive and warmth and the rich humanity in him more than made up for all defects. Where he spoke really well was at his own fireside, recalling his boyhood days in Nova Scotia, or giving his comments, humorous, shrewd, and racy, on men and women. I do not suppose he had the faintest idea that his informal speech was richer and better — better in every way — than his performances on the platform.

His wise and warm-hearted ally was Mrs. Tory. She welcomed newcomers to the staff; and especially was she friend and counsellor to new staff-wives, many of whom had come from Eastern Canada or England. She knew all the university children; and childless herself, she took the most affectionate interest in each year's babies. She did more than any other person, more even than the President himself, to draw us into an unforced, happy unity.

There was an energetic Department of Extension presided over by Albert Edward Ottewell, a man of great size and warm geniality, full of common sense, kindness, and humour, who knew every corner of the Province and won friends for the University wherever he went. To small communities all over Alberta his Department shipped boxes of books which gave pleasure and sustenance to thousands of people through the long, isolating winter. From time to time all of us served the Department, and at its bidding went forth to offer our wares. One might go and deliver a single discourse at, say, Red Deer or Calgary, and so on, but there was also the grand tour; that was the great adventure. You gave seven or eight lectures and were away about ten days. Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Macleod were the three largest places on the itinerary; and at them you were expected to face your audience in the full splendour of dress shirt and dinner jacket. The custom was to make one shirt do. At Macleod, on its final appearance, it retained, like Milton's Satan, some of its original brightness; but we relied on the hall being dimly lit.

Our audiences were easy to please and extraordinarily large. Many of the small places had no theatre, and these were pre-radio days. Even the young were willing to risk an hour. At one place I had supper at the parson's. Just before we were to go to the lecture-hall a young couple came in to be married. When they had been made man and wife, we went off to the hall — and the newly-married pair, after some hesitation, came with us. Nothing was to interfere with the earnest pursuit of culture.

But, if there was a dance on the night of the lecture, the young at any rate did not hesitate. They knew where their pleasure lay. But there might be only one hall. At Nanton, south of Calgary, I arrived at the lecture-hall one night and found only the chairman. He and I talked and looked at empty seats till well after the time set for the lecture. Then he explained that there was to be a dance in the hall at half-past nine. It looked as though people were saving themselves for that and had decided to let culture go hang. I told him what an admirable idea that was. But his dancing days were long over, and he was strong for culture. We were to have a lecture. The eager dancers trooped in only to find the barrier of a lecture between them and their fun. I have faced more enthusiastic audiences, and kept them from their waltzing as short a time as I could.

The attitude which takes a university and book-learning for granted was not common in the Province. Such things were regarded seriously, even solemnly, not accepted casually. The chairmen at extension lectures were anything but light-hearted about their duties. It fell to my lot to give the first extension lecture in a little town east of Edmonton. We met in a church, and there were two parsons on hand to do things properly. They prayed for me and my lecture both before and after. But if, after the lecture, you met a parent whose son or daughter was in one of your classes and doing well, then you ceased to smile at all this solemnity. Many of these men and women had had very little schooling them-selves, and to them it was a great thing that their boy or girl was at college. Nothing connected with that wonderful world to which their children had gone was to be treated lightly. A year or two later you might meet some of these parents again, at the tea-party after Convocation. That was their unforgettable day. They had watched their sons and daughters kneel before the Chancellor and receive a degree. The glory of the occasion shone on their faces.

What the audiences got out of the extension lectures is hard to say, but travelling about the Province was certainly instructive for lecturers. You went back to your classroom with some knowledge of the homes and communities your students came from. If you had any humility at all, these journeys were an excellent cure for what William Cobbett called 'college insolence.'

At last the Arts Building was finished. It was formally opened in the fall of 1915 with a special convocation of impressive length and with so many speeches that the last three were mercifully cancelled. Honorary degrees were bestowed. A gilt key, made of wood, was presented on a cushion by the Chairman of the Board to the Chancellor, as a sign that the building was now open.

On all of these proceedings the Chancellor, Mr. Justice Stuart, was able to impose some dignity. His severe yet humorous face, his composure and utter simplicity of manner and speech offset the gaucheries and the abundance of second-rate oratory.

Two other occasions on which he presided are clear in my memory. One was at the Convocation in the spring of 1916. The Alberta Company of the Western Universities' Battalion (196th) about to go overseas, filled a large part of the hall. One speaker said he hoped they would kill many Huns and all return safely. Such a word sounded deplorable even in war-time. I mention them only for the sake of contrast. Judge Stuart's turn came to say something. He rose and stood silent, looking gravely at the rows of boys and men in khaki. At last he spoke. 'I wish you Godspeed.' That was all.

The other occasion was in 1919. The University was giving an honorary degree to the Prince of Wales. 'Now,' said the Chancellor, 'Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.' Then followed a long pause, long even for Stuart, who had the courage to be silent when he felt like it. Finally he smiled at the Prince. 'Your Royal Highness,' he said without embarrassment, 'I am afraid I have forgotten my speech.' From his pocket he drew out a manuscript and read what he had to say. An admirable speech it was, and it lost nothing by the little stumble at the beginning.

With the opening of the Arts Building great vacant spaces were left in the residences. The offices of the President, the Registrar, the Bursar, and the members of staff were transferred to the Arts Building. So, too, were the University Library and the Extension Library, and numerous lecture-rooms and laboratories. The residences became really residences, but there were not enough students to fill them. For war had come and our numbers had melted away. Many of the staff also had disappeared. The newly-appointed Dean of Medicine arrived in the summer of 1914, but was off before term opened. Our Frenchman was in France that fateful summer, and remained there for five years. The physicists and engineers were, of course, among the first to go. And not only were the ranks of students and teaching staff thinned, but the janitors, nearly all of them Englishmen or Scots, downed their floor-polishers and mops and were away to the army or navy.

The men students who remained were busy training in the C.O.T.C. So, too, were the staff, including Dr. Tory; when he could escape from his office and become a private for an hour or two. But he was a difficult private. He was much given to talking in the ranks. To silence him firmly but tactfully was a problem for a junior lecturer in charge of the squad. One ineffective method was to come down hard on the man to whom Private Tory was talking. The innocent man was aggrieved, and the offender seemed unaware of what all the fuss was about. One cold day we were drilling indoors. We were suddenly startled by hearing Dr. Tory order the officer in charge to close the door.

But, if Dr. Tory was an unsatisfactory private, he turned out to be a skilful knitter. He had learned the art during an illness in his boyhood, and now he taught the ladies of the campus, who were all busy with socks for overseas, how to turn a heel. The Librarian, Frank Bowers, was equally skilful and, having more leisure, produced over a hundred pairs.

And then came the autumn of 1919. Never had the place been so bustling and crowded. No more empty rooms in the residences. There was the usual crop of youngsters fresh from high school; but there were also the returned men who had gone away three or four years earlier as fresh-faced boys and had been learning much about themselves and the world without the aid of lectures. Old colleagues reappeared. Dr. Tory, who had been busy in England starting and running his Khaki University, was back again, ready for new problems. There were new colleagues too, and presently new buildings and new faculties. The place was growing up. The old days when everybody knew everybody else were gone or going. But it was a good place still.

Published Spring 1952.

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