by Zuanne Cameron
If you could roll back time at the University of Alberta campus, peeling away the years like a video in reverse,buildings would vanish, save for the original core of the University—Pembina, Athabasca and Assiniboia Halls, Corbett Hall, the original University Hospital, the old Arts Building, and the Power Plant, which housed the coalpowered steam boilers that heated the complex. Cars would dwindle in number and grow in size; the parking lots would disappear. So would the roads, leaving the old cinder road that connected the residences and wound behind "the horseshoe"—the loop of 10 houses, bordering Saskatchewan Drive, that used to house the University's deans and its president.
The landscape between the campus buildings would become spacious, lush with trees, an orchard, greenhouses, and experimental agricultural plots. The steady streams of students would gradually thin to a trickle, and professors would become distinguishable by the black gowns that they wore to class. You would also see some smaller figures, swinging in the branches of a broad willow, laughing and playing on their way to school, or stealing an apple or two from the orchard. These would be the sons and daughters of professors and deans, children who lived and grew up on campus, youngsters for whom the university campus was their backyard.
"It was a protected world," says Joyce McNair (Lister) '48 BSc(HEc), daughter of Reg Lister, campus caretaker. Joyce was born on campus in 1931 and originally lived with her family in a basement suite in Athabasca Hall. When she was two years old, the family relocated to #11, a house located just behind Athabasca Hall. The surrounding University area was largely undeveloped then, with only one or two houses on 116 Street and Edinboro Road. For the young children of the horseshoe, the University of Alberta was a haven and a playground.
Joyce and her elder sister Kay Davidson (Lister), '41BSc(HEc), remember playing with their friends in the quiet summers of the '30s. Hiking down to Whitemud Creek was a favourite activity, as was berry picking, either in the strawberry fields or for saskatoons in "the Pines," (the area that's now developed into Groat Road.) In winter the river slopes were great for tobogganing—if you were brave, you could bobsled off the top of the hill at 116th and Saskatchewan Drive and wind up somewhere on the Mayfair golf course. "I remember walking home from the skating rink in Garneau through campus in the moonlight," recalls Joyce. Indoors, as they played monopoly or with their dolls, the radio was often tuned to CKUA, at that time the campus radio station—its two towers were just south of Pembina Hall, where the current Students' Union Building now stands. The alternative listening choice was CBC, and as the war approached, BBC broadcasts would beam over. "I remember we'd hear the Big Ben chimes and then get the news from overseas," recalls Joyce.
In the 1930s, while the university students were taking classes, the children of the horseshoe were also on campus studying. Joyce fondly remembers walking or riding her bike through the fields with her friend, Elspeth Wallace, daughter of the University president of the day, on their way to school. "I remember in first grade the dogs would follow us to school and then walk us back," she says. Four times a day, they would walk or ride their bikes past the greenhouses and horticulture fields to Corbett Hall, which housed their school in the south wing and the Education Faculty in the north. It was common for teachers in training to observe or practice during classes.
Kay began classes in the Corbett Hall school in Grade 3, the first year it opened. "The teachers were excellent, and because they stayed a long time, they knew your whole family," she recalls. It was a place where "you minded your P's and Q's" and saluted the Union Jack. The Lord's Prayer was recited at the start and end of each day. Each grade had its own room, and class sizes were in the mid-20s. The school was shut down in 1940, as the University was used to accommodate soldiers during the Second World War.
John Weir, '56 BA, '57 LLB, whose father was the first dean of Law, lived in #9 from 1931 to 1940. "I was a small boy, only nine when I left," he recalls. Like the Lister daughters, Weir has fond memories of the landscape and his time at the Corbett Hall school. He recalls picking crabapples from an orchard backing on to the Listers' and mucking about in the sloughs in the fields. "They were fun," he says of those times.
Horses were a big part of the campus infrastructure, which was a delight for the young John. "The milk horse knew the route," he says. He remembers watching from his front porch, as the horse went along the horseshoe, stopping exactly two houses ahead to wait for the milkman to catch up. Everything was delivered by horse and wagon in those days—coal for the Power Plant, milk from Edmonton City Dairy, McGavin's bread, and ice from the Arctic Ice Company. In the winter, the ice was cut from the river and hauled up its banks by the horses. In winter months a horse-drawn wagon would dump hot cinders from the Power Plant on the snow to provide traction on the cinder road. Horses were used to drag big blades along pathways and roadways to clear ice and snow.
In 1940, the campus changed drastically as it took on its new role of training soldiers for the war. The RCAF took over Corbett Hall. At #9 on the horseshoe, the Weirs moved out—John's father died at age 46 from an illness aggravated by the heavy workload he took upon himself —and the 12-year-old Mary Warren Campbell, '49 BA, moved in with her family and lived there until 1950. Her father, Dr. P.S. Warren, taught geology. A vivid memory of hers is the Drill Hall. "Everybody had to do drills, even my older sister," she recalls. Mary made friends with Joyce and Elspeth, and while the girls were at school in Garneau, their fathers and mothers were pressed into duty for the war effort. Mary's father was head of the COTC and Reg Lister was made barrack warden, as the residences were filled with soldiers in training.
"There was a Red Cross sewing group at St. Stephen's College," recalls Mary. Using a battery of sewing machines on loan to the college, Mary's mother and other women in the community were kept busy sewing dressings for wounds and taking care of supplies at the Red Cross supply station—activity that provided a grim contrast to the idyllic life on campus grounds.
Always though, the children were under the watchful eye of Reg Lister. "I remember he had a cockney accent you could cut with a knife. He always knew everyone, and everything that was going on," recalls Mary, fondly. Joyce recalls her father always in and out, checking on things. "It was expected of him," she states matter-offactly.
By the '50s enrolment on campus was growing. Kay, Joyce, Mary and John were either finished their degrees or attending classes. Many of their classmates being trained for the post-war economy were from rural and out-of-town communities. Roads were built and Windsor Park was being developed. Times were changing, but Reg Lister still oversaw the residences and the grounds, the Power Plant still heated the University campus, the milk truck still delivered twice weekly, and children still lived in the houses of the horseshoe. A new generation of rapscallions-young baby boomers-played on the campus grounds and swung from its trees: the Stewarts were in #1 (the president's residence), the Van Vliets in #2, the Glydes in #4, the Hardys in #5, the Harles in #7, the Johns in #8, the Thorntons in #9, and the Whiddens in #10.
"It was protected and wonderful," recalls Elinor Bentley (Johns), '64 BA. "I think we moved in about 1953." (Mary's father, who became dean of Arts in 1952, later suceeded Andrew Stewart, serving as the University's president from 1959 to 1969.) "We used to run races around the horseshoe, and the Whidden boys would organize kick-the-can," Elinor recalls. She also remembers grand games of Annie-I-over, played over the flat roof that connected all of the 10 garages behind the horseshoe, and hide-andseek enjoyed until the sun went down and the children were called in for the night. "I don't think anyone ever locked their doors," she remembers. Kitten Van Vliet, and Janet Stewart were her particular friends and the trio never lacked for things to do. "Well, there was always tree climbing," says Elinor. "Behind my house was the most wonderful horse chestnut tree. It was beautiful for climbing, and stretched right up to my sister's bedroom balcony—so she could sneak out at night." Elinor recalls the girls would play house outside in the autumn by raking up the multitude of fallen coloured leaves into elaborate floor plans.
"And of course, there was garden raiding," she confesses. The University orchards and horticulture gardens proved easy pickings for savvy, opportunistic children, ever on the lookout for Louis the Campus Cop, who was infamous among this generation of children, or the inimitable Reg Lister, "My house backed onto the orchard, so I could case it out and tell the others when it was safe," recalls Maryetta Harper (Thornton), '60 BSc(HEc), whose father father, Harold R. Thornton, '22 BSc(Ag), was head of dairy science and bacteriology. She also confesses to spin-the-bottle, behind the Van Vliets' house. "It's the kissing I remember," she laughs.
"My father came here in 1945, and I was five years old," recalls Maury Van Vliet, '61 BSc, `64 LLB, whose father led the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation for many years. Portending things to come, the energetic youngster drove his mother "berserk" on the train trip through the mountains from B.C. to Alberta. He explored the train from engine to caboose. "She knew I was on it, she just didn't know where," he laughs. Once safely ensconced on campus in #2 in 1947, the younger Van Vliet lost no time in exploring the campus grounds inside and out. "I knew where all the steam tunnels were. At 30 below you could crawl down between the buildings and spend absolute minimum time outside.
"The problem was every once in a while you would run into Mr. Lister, who, to me at seven or eight, seemed huge, like a block of granite, with a gruff raspy voice. He was always chasing us kids out of places we weren't supposed to be," chuckles the junior Van Vliet, whose friends called him M.G.
"It was such a happy time," recalls Van Vliet. "Like all kids, we roamed in packs of at least three or four," he says. They were always exploring, trampling through experimental agriculture plots, sneaking into the residences, and generally being children. They'd run through the residences—racing through Athabasca, across through Assiniboia, and, from there, sprinting home down the cinder path, safe from the clutches of Louis the Campus Cop. "Louis struck terror into the hearts of everybody on campus," recalls Van Vliet. "He did his job well, and he was serious about it," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
"There was a serenity about campus too," recalls Van Vliet. "Peter Whidden ['62 BA, '66 MD] and I would go off looking for birds' nests, and right where the parking lot for the Faculty Club is now we made some terrific finds: song sparrow, Baltimore oriole, and even a catbird's nest."
A favourite pastime of all the baby boomers was the fire escape attached to the outside of St. Stephen's. "To us it was obviously a giant slide," chuckles Van Vliet. "We would be hollering away in there and the sound would reverberate." "We had no consideration for the students or whether it was exam time," recalls Elinor Bentley. "The students would wait for just the right moment, and then all of a sudden they would throw buckets of water down the slide and out the other end. Whoosh! would fall out three or four kids, soaking wet," laughs Van Vliet.
Maryetta remembers the slide well—and also the terror when every once in a while they were caught by the ever-vigilant Louis the Campus Cop. In retrospect, she suspects that although his threats of "reporting" the kids were frighteng at the time, he really had his hands tied. "I mean there would always be one of the Stewart kids, whose father was the president of the University; myself; Leah Baker, whose father was the dean of Education, one of the Van Vliets..." [Leah Baker's father, H.S. Baker, served as dean of the Faculty of Education at the U of A's Calgary campus.]
Van Vliet became very close to his father's students; to him they were like big brothers. "I'd come home from school and go straight to the gym and stay until my dad went home." The Drill Hall had been converted to a gymnasium after the war and lifted from its site where University Hall (originally the Students' Union Building) now sits to the corner of 87 Avenue and 114 Street. Across the avenue was Varsity Rink. "I knew Bill Price ['49 BSc(Eng), Matt Baldwin ['51 BSc(Eng) and Al Oeming '49 BSc, '55 MSc, '72 LLD (Honorary)] when they were students," recalls Van Vliet. "I used to travel with the basketball team as a kid—I was the water boy, I sat on the bench, and I was the guy with the towels," he recalls.
The campus children were curious and part of the woodwork. Where the students and professors went, so went they. "We used to cut through the Med Building and look at the pickled babies in jars and stuff," recalls Maryetta Harper. She remembers well the row of lockers in the farmer Medical Sciences basement that used to intrigue her and her friends on their edifying shortcut through the halls of academia to school.
Almost all of the children who grew up on the horseshoe also attended university. "It was an unstated expectation," recalls Kay Davidson. "There was never any question about whether you would go, just where you would go," recalls Van Vlict.
For children growing up, the intellectual atmosphere was a consistent undertone. The children were always passing by students on their way to and from school. While they rarely socialized with the students, often the children would be conscripted as helpers at faculty functions. "There would be a big punch and everybody smoked like crazy in those days," remembers Van Vliet. "We'd wander around with trays of goodies," he says, recalling some rather esoteric conversation. "They weren't discussing the Oilers." he chuckles. Van Vliet, the Lister daughters, Mary Warren-Campbell, Elinor Bentley, and John Weir all attended the University of Alberta.
"I have such an incredible sense of belonging," says Van Vliet, speaking about the University. This is echoed by the other children who grew up on the horseshoe. They return to campus with fondness, but with mixed feelings. The tree-climbing Elinor Bentley misses the wide-open spaces of her childhood. "I don't recognize very much now and it feels so squeezed." Still, many of the horseshoe children have kept their ties to the University active, and Davidson, Bentley, and Van Vliet have all served on Alumni Council. The University is special to them. "I was part of it for a lifetime," says Bentley. "It feels like coming home," says Van Vliet.
Published Autumn 2000.