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The Future Was Ever His Concern

For those who were witness to the pioneering years of Alberta education, the name LaZerte calls forth diverse images: a school inspector arriving in a Model T Ford  a professor in a flowing gown striding through St. Joe's east wing  a bowler-hatted dean on the way to address a school group  an elder statesman of the profession boarding an airplane for meetings in Eastern Canada. 

While details would differ, the images would typically have LaZerte on the move, for he was not one to stand idly by when the future was waiting to be written. Had he been, he may have never left his native Ontario. And certainly he would not have left the security of his job as an Alberta school inspector to accept a junior position in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Alberta. But in 1924, nearing the age of 40 and with a wife and son to support (another two sons would follow), he did just that. The rest, as they say, is history.

When 24-year-old Milton Ezra Liezert (the spelling of the family surname was not standardized as "LaZerte" until later), having just graduated from the University of Toronto with a BSc in mathematics and physics, considered his future in 1909 he, no doubt, gave thought to teaching — in fact, in 1906 he had taught for a few months in the school he had himself attended at Dixon's Corners, near Iroquois, Ontario. He was disdainful of the Ontario system of teacher preparation, however, and after leaving the U of T he managed a woolen mill briefly before leaving for territory where the past left more room for the future.

In January 1910, LaZerte enroled in the Calgary Normal School. When he graduated four months later — this being the duration of the standard teacher preparation course — he was the last of his class to find employment. LaZerte, it seems, wasn't prepared to accept the $720 per-annum that was the usual salary at the time. Eventually, the town of Hardisty offered him $900 and he accepted. (As it turned out, although the salary was superior, the accommodations were decidedly not; to secure better quarters, LaZerte agreed to serve in the fire department and in return got to sleep in the back of the fire hall.)

LaZerte's rise in his new career was exceedingly rapid. After a year in Hardisty, he accepted the principalship of a high school in Claresholm. There, he caught the attention of the Department of Education, and in December 1913 he was made a provincial school inspector.

During his first year in that position, LaZerte travelled 5,820 kilometres by rail and another 3,970 by road, relying on a horse and buggy in summer, exchanging the buggy for a cutter in the winter. The following year, he covered the 20,000 square kilometres of his inspectorate, based in Bassano, with the help of a Model T Ford.

By 1924 LaZerte was a veteran and respected school inspector, having served in Macleod, Edmonton and Vegreville. (He had also enlisted during the First World War, taken summer studies at the University of Chicago, and married.) His decision to become a junior lecturer at the University must have appeared quixotic — only two other of the 18 men who were Alberta school inspectors in 1914 went on to other responsibilities (one simply becoming the first high school inspector).

In his 1978 book Gladly Would He Teach: A biography of Milton Ezra LaZerte, published by the ATA Educational Trust, John Chalmers speculates that LaZerte's career change was prompted by a desire to obtain the theoretical background that he (LaZerte) felt he lacked and by his deep commitment to the improvement of teaching and the betterment of education generally.

In the three-person Department of Philosophy and Psychology, LaZerte not only taught the education courses but juggled two graduate programs of his own. In May 1925 he received a Master of Arts in Education degree from the University of Alberta, conferred in absentia because LaZerte would have already been off to Chicago, where in 1927 he completed a PhD through summer work, his thesis entitled "A Study of the Methods Used by Elementary School Pupils in Solving Problems in Arithmetic."

When the School of Education was created in 1928, LaZerte was the logical choice to be its director, and when the School became a College he served it in the same capacity. And when the College became a Faculty in 1942, LaZerte was selected to be the first dean.

During the first years of his tenure as dean, the Faculty remained small, but following the Second World War, the government of Alberta closed its normal schools and turned all teacher education over to the University. For this, LaZerte had worked long and hard, but now no longer was he teacher to a few dozen students — he was a program administrator to hundreds. Writes Chalmers, "As an administrator, LaZerte was more remote, more formidable than he had been as a teacher. New students, when the met him for the first — and usually only — time, were likely to be daunted by his abrupt, almost gruff, manner and to miss the fleeting twinkle in his eye or straight-faced bits of humor that might lighten his discourse."

LaZerte's retirement as dean of education in 1950 (he was then 65) did not signal the end of a career, merely the close of a chapter. "LaZerte the Indestructible," as Chalmers refers to him, had plenty of ground to cover yet. In Gladly Would He Teach, Chalmers lists the "half-dozen more or less disparate careers" and some of the other involvements LaZerte undertook after his nominal retirement:

He was in succession special lecturer in education at the University of Alberta (still with the rank of professor), research director for the Canadian School Trustees' Association, dean of education at the University of Manitoba, commissioner on educational finance in Prince Edward Island, Edmonton alderman, and then school trustee for the Edmonton Public school system. On the side he was active in the founding of the Canadian College of Teachers, appeared on television, taught a summer session at the University of British Columbia, served on a conciliation committee in a teacher-school board dispute at Lethbridge, received an appointment to the Historical Sites and Monuments Board, was active in the Edmonton Branch of the United Nations Association of Canada (for example, chairing an educational seminar report), granted lengthy interviews to the magazines of Alberta teachers and Alberta trustees, and addressed the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.

Prior to his death in 1975, LaZerte was called upon to receive a wide variety of honors. These included fellowship in the Canadian Council of Teachers, the distinguished service award of the ATA Council on School Administration, honorary membership in the first graduating class from the Edmonton high school named for him, and an honorary degree conferred by the University in 1963.

The many awards recognized LaZerte's exceptional service to education — in particular his unflagging dedication to the advancement of professional standards in the field. This was a cause that he forwarded through numerous organizations, including the Education Society of Edmonton, the ATA, and the Canadian Teacherés Federation, each of which he served as president at some point. He was also chair of the Canadian Council of Educational Research for 11 years.

Chalmers closes Gladly Would He Teach, written shortly after LaZerte's death, with words that serve as a fitting eulogy to the Faculty of Education's first dean: "He was a man for all seasons: peace and war, economic prosperity and depression, educational progress and statis. But most of all, he was a man for the future. At the personal level, he enjoyed playing with and teaching his grandchildren — and grandchildren, after all, are perhaps an individual's best chance for immortality. At the professional level he propheted, warned, exhorted, planned, and built for a better tomorrow. To the end of the days the future was his ever present concern."

Published Autumn 1991.

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