Great though Edmonton has been as a place to live and work, it would have surprised me, I think, to encounter anyone back in the fall of 1951 who would have picked it, given a choice.
People had been born here, of course - at least that was the popular belief, though you could not prove it by the makeup of the University I was joining. Nearly everyone on faculty at the U of A was from someplace else.
Since then, needless to say, there have been some who have come back after trying it elsewhere, and even more who have chosen to stay put because of what the city and its people have to offer.
But in the early '50s, for someone from Vancouver via the University of Toronto, Edmonton was scarcely a household word. In fact, I had to look it up.
Even then my wife Bobbie and I had little to go on - a faint whiff of oil and gas somewhere north of the Calgary Stampede, a hint of far-out Social Credit doctrine, and more or less interesting claims about the vastness of the city's green space and its low pollen count. What it did have, however, indisputably, was a surprisingly large river valley, the serpentine entrails of the place, apparently; and most important of all, proximity to the Coast and 1,700 miles between it and the Toronto we could no longer stand.
Toronto the Good bore little resemblance then to the splendid metropolis it has since become, though it was one of North America's major centres of English literary studies, and the people I was to study under were superstars — Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, for instance. But the city had the spirit and ways of a small town, an unprogressive one at that. My senior professor there took delight in saying, "Toronto can boast a thousand churches — and often does."
We never looked back when we left it — and all the rest of the effete East we had never come to know. I had jumped at Alberta's $3,700 per annum for joining its seven-man department of English (now consisting of some 60 professors, men and women both, of course, 50 or more sessional lecturers, and a multitude of graduate teaching assistants).
The invitation came on the recommendation of Professor F.M. Salter, who had interviewed prospective candidates in Toronto and elsewhere some months before. He, it should be said, was a star in his own right, one among many already here at the University. Though Edmonton and Alberta, indeed anything west of Etobicoke, may have been Indian country for Torontonians, the University itself had a sound reputation, virtually guaranteed by its illustrious founder, Henry Marshall Tory, and given momentum by a nucleus of fine scholars who understood from the beginning the meaning of academic excellence.
Salter's key question during the interview was how would I teach a Keats poem about the colors in a stained glass window to kids who had never seen one. We thought him a bit odd, I must admit, though I now suspect he was trying to discover whether I was a smart-aleck grad-school type who was likely to sneer a lot.
He had nothing to fear from me. I sometimes felt at Toronto that I barely understood what my more sophisticated classmates were talking about; and quite the reverse of feeling — as a graduate assistant — superior to my students, many of whom were older vets, I would sometimes shake so much in class that on one occasion I never did get back on my nose the glasses I had taken off at the beginning of the hour. What is more, during my first year on staff, I twice had to find an excuse to cancel lectures because I could no longer keep up with the assignments I had given my students.
With coveted job in hand and firesale Hillman (probably the single worst car ever made to cope with Edmonton's winters: we took the battery in at night), it was Westward Ho! for my wife and me and newborn son as we headed for a place with oil, a river valley, weird politics and an absence, apparently, of stained glass windows - a country at the outer edge of most known things, except for a university environment that, as a student, I had already come to love during my seven years in it and would, as professor, happily stay with for at least another 33, pursuing from then until now the most civilized and rewarding of activities in the lively company of bright and stimulating people, at least half of whom were perfectly normal. (The other half included an absent-minded professor who, at a stop sign, got out of his car to assist a woman who had dropped her shopping bag and then hopped on a bus and went home.)
That lay ahead, of course. For the moment it was exciting enough to set out for Edmonton, by a route simply picked off the map and never used since — through Glacier National Park and then straight north forever until the Calgary Trail reached Edmonton and 87 Avenue, where a sharp left turn towards the University seemed indicated.
You should try that particular route through Strathcona sometime: there isn't one. But two hours later, though somewhat chastened by a road system that insisted, on the one hand, on keeping streets and avenues neatly separate while cheerfully ignoring, on the other, the disruptive effect on it of its river - and by now thoroughly conversant with back-street Edmonton, its sagging snow fences, clothes-lines, telephone poles and garbage tins, we made it to the University-owned semidetached house that was to be our home for a couple of years — two storeys complete with finished basement, fireplace and 10-foot by 20-foot garden plot right where the Education Building now stands, built at a cost (I am told) of $13,000 a unit.
At $56 per month, utilities included, this was prized accommodation, available only to staff with at least one child and preferably another on the way. The units were part of what, inevitably, was called "Rabbit Row", and just as inevitably, our ladies were known for their overblouses.
Close and abiding friendships were readily made. That was characteristic of Edmonton, I think, more than most places, probably for the reason that we had to rely on each other more than in larger centres, as we still do, for that matter, though the boom that was then about to begin has now carried our city to full maturity.
The major hotels had their dining rooms, of course, though we were rarely in them, but there were few good places to eat. The Ham Shack on the city's eastern rim was popular (now hard to recall why), and the cafeteria of the Macdonald Hotel catered to those of us who could afford not much more than a Mac and Movie, as we called it; but eating out was otherwise uncommon, except for picnics, of course, when we were all trying to survive our young families and the cabin fever they brought on. We worked at occupying them as best we could — at Whitemud, with its sleigh run down the hill from what is now Grandview; or Borden Park, where there was what must have been the saddest zoo in captivity; or the University Farm — a sure winner when the kids could stare at the experimental sheep with taps and windows in their sides.
Not that there was a shortage of things for adults to do: even then we had more theatre than any other place else our size; and at the back of Hurtig's Bookstore there were poetry readings open to the public (well, a tiny piece of it); and a "five-cent team in a million-dollar league" that answered our prayers by beating the East in '54.
The campus was alive with things to do: Studio Theatre, where Bob Orchard directed Henry Kreisel in Chekov while his infant son became famous for consuming a whole tube of contraceptive jelly; a Philosophical Society (so named) that attracted a good crowd to its wide-ranging program of talks by such faculty luminaries as William Rowan, who designed the Whooping Crane Stamp, and economist Hu Harries, who was even then trumpeting the virtues of real property; a Mixed Chorus conducted profanely by a Dick Eaton who was himself something of an institution; and (hard to believe now) a Men's Faculty Club that met once a month on Saturday night to hear learned papers.
It was even possible to say in those days that the place in Edmonton most fun to be on New Year's Eve was the faculty dance in Athabasca Hall. Liquor was officially banned from the campus, but custodian Reg Lister would rent us rooms in the residence to drink our way into the new year (and, one night, a windchill of 90 below). It was, incidentally, not until muchloved Fred McNally died and with him his Baptist opposition on the Board of Governors to booze that the rules were first relaxed (enough at any rate to allow a Faculty Club to be built on promise of a licence).
People from all over town angled for tickets to the ball — even including Mayor Hawrelak before one of his inaugurations was disrupted by three or four protestors from the University. On the whole, though, I think we were in those days less involved with the outside community than now, or at any rate less sensitive to what the city or provincial government thought of us.
We may at times be considered unresponsive to what others think; and of course it has almost always been the case where universities are concerned that some sort of strain will exist between town and gown. But back then, especially as enrolments began to go up, we were preoccupied with ourselves and utterly certain of the things we believed in. Academic arrogance had not yet been tempered either by a developed sense of social responsibility or the sobering effects of waning popularity.
We were young and energetic and growing mightily, like the city itself, and happily gave ourselves over to managing hordes of students, recruiting staff from all over the world, lobbying for additional buildings, developing new courses, new programs, new degrees. We were by the '60s at any rate, the Sputnik kids and riding high on the crest of the worldwide popularity that academe enjoyed.
Perhaps we had always been valued in Alberta. The University certainly appeared not to have anything to fear from Ernest Manning's government. Though we were from time to time accused of being a godless place (most often, as I recall, by Alfie Hooke), Manning himself never interfered. Though not university-educated, he nevertheless seemed to understand perfectly what a university was, its role in society, the particular contribution it is designed and called upon to make. We respected him greatly on campus.
One instance of his intellectual stature I recall in particular. As befits a university, we sheltered a few mavericks and intellectual hell raisers, of course — not so many genuine characters, perhaps, as in earlier times (the North American process of academic selection tended to weed them out), and certainly not the wild-eyed radicals of popular belief, but our share of angry young men who satisfied their egos by shouting at the Establishment whenever anyone would listen. A couple of them took on Manning for some reason I cannot now remember and challenged him to public debate on their own turf, here on campus.
To his great credit, Manning accepted the challenge, in a packed Convocation Hall where he proceeded to dismember them with his sharp wit and cogency. That could not happen in many places.
So Bible-belted though we may have been, I do not think we ever felt constrained except perhaps by Social Credit's ultra-conservative fiscal practices (as distinct from its theories). While UBC was building energetically on what turned out to be cheap borrowed money, the Alberta government paid for what it built as it went along, incidentally erecting through Public Works some of the dreariest buildings imaginable. The semantic relationship between "aesthetic" and "anaesthetic" was clearly demonstrated on more than one occasion.
Lambasting campus architecture was a favorite pastime of our more established social critics, ever alert to the failings of others. In fact, just after settling in, I was visited by a hard-sell political scientist flourishing a petition for me to sign condemning the University authorities for keeping Red China sympathizer James Endicott off the campus. It was, of course, Grant Davy in the early days of his career as resident debunker.
Three weeks into my first job, I refused to sign, on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me - and thereby earned, I think, his undying contempt, though he did compliment me on having the strength of my cowardice.
We could not, of course, be unaffected by what was going on in the city; and I suppose we were caught up in civic politics, for instance, as much as anyone — the idiocy or otherwise of the traffic circles; flouridation (ex-President Newton actively fought against it); encroachment by the Royal Glenora Club on our park land; the fall from grace of a mayor in whom we had all taken great pride.
And there was also of course an outside world that impinged on us in 1951: Churchill was elected Prime minister again; Libya came into being; General MacArthur was fired by Truman; the Rosenbergs were found guilty; McCarthy called General Marshall a communist agent; Catcher in the Rye and The Caine Mutiny were published; commercial color television began, and so did "I Love Lucy"; The African Queen was on at the movies; Billy Budd had its premiere at Covent Garden; Mickey Mantle joined the Yankees; and the Maple Leafs were winning the Stanley Cup.
But through these past 30-odd years it is the University that has, predictably, been at the centre of my particular universe, ever since that first autumn. With the graduation of the last large group of 400 veterans, our enrolment in 1951 stood at 3,200, served by 230 full-time staff (now including me), on a budget of $3.2 million. Peter Lougheed was student president; our first PhD student was on his way through; Murray McDonald, Jack Taylor and H.G. Glyde were among our leading painters; hats and gloves were still worn at teas given by the Faculty Women's Club; evening refreshment — to the confusion of newcomers — was called "lunch"; the University ran CKUA, or at any rate had responsibility for a number of its programs, including a horror called "Champs or Chumps" that pitted staff against students; and popular among us was a drink called "Belgravia Punch" (equal parts Ginger Ale, apple juice, sherry and rye).
(Much of my time seemed to be spent avoiding the office of my then Dean Walter Johns by going the long way 'round so as to escape his invariable enquiry about the state of my unfinished PhD dissertation — well-intentioned but unnerving to a guilty conscience.)
Construction had just begun on the new Engineering Building and the huge Biological Sciences complex, but West Garneau had yet to be expropriated and buried under Fine Arts and the Humanities Centre; Tubby Gerhart's Tuck Shop still served the corner-store needs of our community (he incidentally was one of the few in Manning's cabinet with a degree — in Pharmacy, I think); and President Andrew Stewart was solemnly pronouncing that the optimum size for the University was 6,300 students.
The Ring Houses, occupied by our senior administrators, yet stood in quiet dignity on the edge of the campus, beyond which the hillside fell away to a gravel pit and golf course without Groat Road approaches to scar its face.
So very close were we to the valley in fact that it was possible one Christmastide for a newly-arrived lecturer and his wife in search of a Christmas Tree to go out into the country (they thought), be overtaken by failing light, but locate at practically the last moment before dark a beautiful spruce of just the right proportions. They proceeded to cut it down (as a policeman might put it) only to discover, to their horror, that it carried a brass plaque identifying the occasion when the chancellor of the University had planted it just west of the President's residence. The tree still lies there for all I know.
In this setting, classes began and with them — for this rookie — a teaching orgy that would end 20 years later in the University administration. I gloried in the classroom, dreamt each summer about getting back to it, even though I would emerge from each new encounter bathed in sweat from the sheer exertion of holding onto a class while trying to shape it with ideas and intellectual experiences from English literature.
Some rounds I won; others I lost, including one in particular that I count among my treasures: a freshman essay on Shakespeare's play Othello that ought to be enshrined somewhere as an endangered species.
Julius Shakespeare's novel Orthello, written in the Victorian era, tells the story of how this Moor marries Desdemonia, a high-class super supple white girl and how this villian Iago breaks it up.
At the beginning Iago starts throwing doubt on how long the elopement can last.
When this wedge has been inserted in Orthello's mind and the fish has been hooked, ]ago feeds fuel to the fire by bringing up Desdemonia's cheating: she had lied to Orthella, deceived her father, and slept with Cassius. But worst of all she had given away his hanky.
Orthello swallowed everything Iago told him -- hook line and sinker (up to a point). Superstition, which was a common belief in the Victorian Period, had a bearing upon the situation.
So did Cassius:
Like all other men he had one prominent weakness -- he could not drink
- Orthello fired Cassius as his flag-bearer
- Laid Desdemonia on a bed and smothered her
- Smote a circumcised dog
- And stabbed himself with heavy heart. In this way Shakespeare succeeds in giving us a great interest in humanity as such.
I really would not have missed that for all the writing competence in the world; nor for that matter any of the things that will make leaving this place difficult.
It's been good to know you. I would have added "So long" except for a fuss over its usage at the University of Oregon some years ago, when a new president chided his staff for employing "So long" instead of "Good bye", which means "God Be With You". His colleagues, always agreeable, could thereafter be heard saying, whenever appropriate, "So long, for Chrissakes." Perhaps it should be left at that.
These "Memories" are the text of an address which Dr. Baldwin, who recently completed his term as the University's vice-president (academic), made to the Friends of the University of Alberta at their annual dinner in May.
Published Autumn 1984.