January 18, 2008

Henry Marshall Tory: portrait of an unrepentant dreamer

by Geoff McMaster
September 1909: Alberta Premier Alexander Rutherford at the reins and U of A President Henry Marshall Tory on the plough break ground for the university’s Arts Building.
September 1909: Alberta Premier Alexander Rutherford at the reins
and U of A President Henry Marshall Tory on the plough break ground
for the university’s Arts Building.

In today's culture, the word "visionary" has become one of those cheap, overused platitudes attached to almost every corporate head or self-help guru. But in the case of Henry Marshall Tory, there is simply no other way to describe the man.

What he envisioned for the University of Alberta was genuinely against all odds. In fact, you really couldn't blame those who thought he was a dreamer, a little out of touch with reality. At the dawn of the 20th century, Alberta was the poorest and least populated of the western provinces. There was nothing here but a lot of bush, mosquitoes and bracing cold.

Who in their right mind would leave the comfort of an academic position in the East to chase a dream on a barren frontier?

And yet under Tory, "the U of A sets out right from the start to be a major university," said historian Rod Macleod. "They want to be up there with the best on the's one of a number of prairie universities that get founded at about the same time, but what sets the University of Alberta apart is its ambition - more so than Saskatchewan, Manitoba or even UBC."

Tory has everything to do with inspiring that ambition. In fact, according to Macleod, the man who constantly lamented that there was "so little time, so little time" now stands as a giant of Canadian education history, "probably the most important figure in the history of higher education in Canada in the first half of the 20th century." As Macleod writes in his book, All True Things: A History of the University of Alberta, 1908 - 2008, "in many important respects, the University of Alberta remains Dr. Tory's university a century later."

Tory was born and raised in Nova Scotia, where he taught in rural schools before heading off to study mathematics and physics at McGill University. The record shows that he was a good student "but not the college book worm type," writes R.W. Boyle. Strongly influenced by his Methodist family background, Tory went on to study theology, become ordained and preach for two years before returning to his study of mathematics and becoming a McGill professor.

Eventually serving as a kind of ambassador for McGill, Tory would scout out locations for branch junior colleges, one of which would one day become the University of British Columbia. It was in this capacity that Tory met Alberta's first premier, Alexander Cameron Rutherford, not long after the province was born in 1905.

Both men passionately agreed that their new university would be radically different, "a people's institution" dedicated to building the new province.

"The people demand that knowledge shall not be the concern of scholars alone," said Tory in his first convocation speech. "The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal."

This was not just a lofty pronouncement; Tory and his staff immediately took to the road, often by horse and wagon, delivering lectures in remote areas of the province.

Rutherford and Tory were also agreed on something else progressive for their time. They insisted on not only the admission of women, but their equal treatment, in keeping with "the spirit of a new century." The University Act of 1906 makes it absolutely clear: "No woman shall by reason of her sex be deprived of any advantage or privilege accorded to male students of the university."

What is perhaps most surprising about Tory's agenda, however, is that, despite his strong Methodist leanings, he felt his university had to be free of religious influence. In fact, he resigned his ministerial position after critics attacked him for supporting McGill's B.C. college as a state- run school.

"He had no objections to religion, certainly, and in fact goes out of his way to allow the Catholic Church to open St. Joseph's in the 1920s," Macleod said of the college, which remains a part of the university to this day. But to advance free intellectual inquiry, Tory saw the need for a clear separation between university education and religion.

"Tory's a physicist by training and discipline, and in the early 20th century there are some fairly disturbing things going on from a traditional, religious point of view, with Einstein and relativity and so on." Tory would not allow the exploration of this brave new world, and the pursuit of "whatsoever things are true," to be hampered by religious constraints.

Nor would Tory's ambition be hampered by naysayers. Ignoring more cautious advice, he pushed for a medical school right off the mark, despite the fact there was no hospital in Strathcona (the town in which the U of A was established, later annexed by Edmonton) at the time, and that medical training was enormously expensive.

"Tory was a builder, and in some ways would seem to be over-reaching when he set out all these plans," said historian Doug Owram. A medical faculty "was tremendously ambitious - medicine was expensive, requiring hospital support, and there was no hospital. But his genius was in saying, 'We will have it - we're not going to wait because we're too small and let somebody else do it'."

Once the University Act was passed, Tory quickly swung into action, hiring the first four members of his new faculty: Edmund Kemper Broadus (English), William Hardy Alexander (classics), William Muir Edwards (mathematics and civil engineering) and L.H. Alexander (modern languages).

Broadus once described his first meeting with Tory at Harvard: "It sounded like midsummer madness. I think that what I accepted was, not the position or the salary, but the man. There was something about him that made me feel that to whatever no-man's land he went, there - somehow - was the kind of university I should like to have a hand in."

And as if Tory didn't have enough on his plate as president, he set out to teach history and physics himself. English professor R.K. Gordon writes that Tory would be seen "hurrying across campus, coat-tails flying - presidents wore morning coats back then - sturdy, solid, energetic and with an eye out for anything and everybody. He did not, I think, much like sitting at a desk.'"

The university opened its doors to 45 students in the fall of 1908 in the Duggan Street School. By the time Tory left the U of A in 1928 there were five faculties, two schools and 43 departments. He had also founded the Khaki University during the First World War, and the Alberta Research Council. And after he left the U of A, he went on to found the National Research Council and Carleton University. Tory passed away Feb. 18, 1947, while serving as president of Carleton College, which later became Carleton University.

As Owram writes in the introduction to Henry Marshall Tory: A Biography, "This is a pattern of accomplishment (and restlessness) unmatched in the history of Canadian education."

Tory's dream team - the first four

Edmund Kemper Broadus - Harvard man, meets Tory after being diagnosed with tubercular gland in his neck and told by doctors he must live in the West. Taught English and suffered no fools. "Esteemed and feared" by students, known as a master of sarcasm, "severe and precise."

To Rache Dickson, who went on to write the bestselling Grey Owl books of the 1930s, he once said, "Who in God's name told you that you can write?...Get out of my sight, man, until you can hold your head up and look me in the eye and say, 'I have really tried. Goodbye.'"

William Muir Edwards - Son of Henrietta Muir Edwards (of Famous Five), graduates top of class at McGill. Heads U of A's first engineering department and is "credited with eliminating the cause of a serious typhoid redesigning (Edmonton's) water intake."

During the 1918 influenza epidemic, he tirelessly cares for the sick and dying in Pembina Hall, which was temporarily converted into an emergency hospital and morgue. Succumbs to the disease on his 39th birthday, dying in Pembina Hall.

A plaque commemorating his service can still be found in the Arts building.

William Hardy Alexander (a.k.a. Doc Alik) - From University of Western Ontario, popular among students for his warmth and guidance, appreciated for his "quick wit and sparkling humour." Teaches Latin and Greek, brooks no translations of classics in his classroom.

Suffers through his frigid first winter in Strathcona, then teams up with Broadus to design and build warmer, winter-proofed houses "far out in the country" (Saskatchewan Drive and Keillor Road), covering them in "the thickest felt hair...a perennial coat of fur."

Luther Herbert Alexander - Modern languages professor stays only one year before returning to Columbia University to complete PhD (wife has no taste for pioneering). Responsible for starting glee club, which becomes foundation for world-class choral tradition.

(Adapted from I Was There: A Century of Alumni Stories about the University of Alberta, by Ellen Schoek