A look back through time at three years in the life of the University and the world
This year’s Alumni Weekend is celebrating all U of A graduates, but particularly those alumni from 1961 who are marking the 50th anniversary of their graduation. The following stories not only look back at what was going on in the world and on campus 50 years ago, but also 40 years ago in 1971 and 25 years ago in 1986.
This year, the oldest of the baby boomers turn 65. As they cross the traditional demarcation line between career and retirement, the generation that came of age challenging the status quo are experiencing a status shift of their own. Like it or not, they’re now officially “seniors.”
That still comes as a shock to boomers who sang “Hope I die before I get old” with The Who in 1965. Today, members of the boomer demographic that shaped every decade it passed through in the same way a giant bulge passes through a python, are busy redefining the meaning of aging and retirement. But 50 years ago, pensions and preserving vitality were hardly top-of-mind. In 1961, convocating students at the U of A, like shiny-eyed grads before and since, were ready to change the world. And, in many ways, they did. They may have got off to a slow start, but the winds of change were beginning to stir in 1961.
The under-construction Berlin Wall.
While we now worry about the future of our environmentally endangered planet, in 1961 the danger was more immediate. Under the continuing threat of the atomic bomb, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated and the Cold War entered the frigid zone. In the U.S., citizens were advised to build bomb shelters. (Here in Alberta, an underground bomb shelter was already built beneath Edmonton’s Westmount Mall in the ’50s, and the largest underground bomb shelter in Alberta was built in 1964 near Penhold.) The stare-down between the two superpowers came perilously close to real nuclear war during the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. In August, the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc erected the Berlin Wall and, in December, the Vietnam War (which was never officially declared a war) began with the arrival of American forces in Saigon.
However, the “Sixties”—as referenced in pop culture—had yet to make its tie-dyed, bell-bottomed, marijuana-scented way onto U of A campuses in 1961. Beauty pageants were still a regular occurrence on campus and it wouldn’t be until 1969 that Council passed (in a 10-6 vote) a resolution withdrawing support for, as The Gateway reported, “any contest or other activity which regulates women to object status.” Of that motion, Academic Vice-President Liz Law, ‘70 BA, said: “Women should not be considered sexual objects and a beauty contest is, in effect, a public auction.”
Still, early signs of the radical changes that swept North American campuses appeared at the U of A as chaperoned student dances had ended and the days of separate male and female dormitories were numbered. (Now virtually all U of A dorms are co-ed.) Students would also gain a seat on the Board of Governors in 1968, a year of intense student protests for more self-governance and teach-ins to raise social and political awareness.
But in 1961, The Shirelles’ hit song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” posed its eternal question and students danced the twist and the pony to the beat of Chubby Checker. During that year, Wolfgang Bottenberg
, Lynne McGettrick (Newcombe)
and Eileen Turner
became the U of A’s first Bachelor of Music graduates from the Faculty of Arts’ Department of Music created in 1958. The year 1961 also saw Ernest Manning
, ’48 LLD (Honorary), as premier of Alberta and the birth of musician k.d. lang
, ’08 LLD (Honorary). As well, throughout the ’60s, the U of A produced such notable political icons as Joe Clark
, ’60 BA, ’73 MA, ’85 LLD (Honorary), Preston Manning
, ’64 BA,’ 08 LLD (Honorary) and Grant Notley
, ’60 BA. University leaders through the ’60s who left an indelible mark on the U of A include Clare Drake
, ’58 BEd, ’95 LLD (Honorary), for whom the hockey arena is named and Maury Van Vliet
, ’61 BSc, ’64 LLB, for whom the phys ed building is named.
The addition of 30,000 new books to the Rutherford Library was newsworthy on campus in 1961. Also, some of the technological advances that would spawn the information age—and challenge libraries—were dawning. The transatlantic telephone system was launched and the first generation raised on television now watched recordings of surgical procedures in U of A’s Faculty of Medicine classes while introducing videotapes into lectures was a hot topic among other faculties. (Today, podcasts are used to give undergraduate medical education students a basic understanding of specific surgical processes.)
Ham the Space Chimp.
In science, the Space Race stole 1961 headlines. The year kicked off with Ham the Chimp rocketing into space in a test-run for America’s plans to put the first human into orbit. But the Russians got there first when Yuri Gagarin orbited the world for 108 minutes in April—closely followed by U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard a month later.
More quietly, important scientific innovations were underway at the University. In 1961, Raymond Lemieux, ’43 BSc, ’91 DSc (Honorary), returned to his alma mater as a professor and researcher. He’d previously pioneered the synthesis of sucrose with George Huber and now developed synthetic versions of oligosaccharides, the sugar that coats red blood cells. His discoveries led to many important medical applications, including improved treatments for leukemia and hemophilia as well as the development of new antibiotics, blood reagents and anti-rejection drugs for organ transplants. Today, Lemieux is considered the pioneer of modern carbohydrate chemistry and the U of A’s Gunning/Lemieux Chemistry Centre is named after him and Harry Gunning, ’83DSc (Honorary), the “father” of the chemistry department.
Chemist, Raymond Lemieux
In politics, Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas
, ’76 LLD (Honorary), planted the seeds of what would become Canada’s publicly funded national health care system when his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation passed the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act. The same year Douglas stepped aside as premier to head the newly formed national New Democratic Party, which, in 2011, became the official opposition for the first time in its history.
Appropriately enough, as the U of A grads of 1961 began their life journey into a world of change, the man who would later make history as the first black president of the United States was born (as was the man who made hockey history, Wayne Gretzky, ’00 LLD). Fifty years after the civil rights movement began and the freedom riders rode buses into the segregated south, Barack Obama was elected on a campaign slogan of hope and change. Because, in the end, hope is all we have and change is all we will ever know.
- Lisa Ricciotti
1971: Janis Joplin croons, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” on 8-tracks across North America. Bell-bottoms, peasant blouses, and tie-dyed anything are the emblems of Flower Power, a term coined by Allen Ginsburg in 1965 to promote non-violent demonstrations and passive resistance, but now both its fashion and politics inform the most powerful culture of all: youth.
Vietnam War protestors converge on Washington.
In 1971, youth will have its day and, at the U of A, they will also have their say. Although less militant than American or other Canadian universities on such issues as the Vietnam War and student rights—probably due to a more heterogeneous student population, a generally conservative mindset, and the mollifying effects of the waning days of Alberta’s first oil boom—U of A students still fight for their rights... and win.
That year students were given parity with the faculty on General Faculties’ Council (GFC), a group that The Gateway staff reporter Judy Samoil, ’71 BA, ’76 BEd, ’76 (Dipl)Ed, terms the “major decision-making body of the University.” Spearheading the initiative to achieve equality on GFC was 1970 Students’ Union (SU) President Tim Christian, ’73 BA, who would go on to be U of A dean of law. The special meeting to bring about parity was held before a packed council chamber and televised to over 700 anxious students in the Students’ Union theatre who loudly voiced their approval after the vote.
Chairing the meeting was U of A President Max Wyman, ’37 BSc, ’82 LLD (Honorary), the first alumnus and first Albertan to hold that post. As reported in what was then called The New Trail, Wyman, a champion of student rights, said: “The central issue today is, are we prepared to bring out into the open the students’ views of the institutions providing for their education, and are we prepared to give students an effective voice in remedying the defects that are acknowledged to exist?”
The answer was clearly yes. So persuasive was Wyman’s argument that a senior staff member noted for his conservatism announced that he had come to the meeting with every intention of voting no, but had reversed his position after Wyman’s speech.
Another oratorically gifted alumnus and native son was handed the keys to the province that year when Calgary-born Peter Lougheed
, ’51 BA, ’52 LLB, ’86 LLD (Honorary), was elected as the tenth premier of Alberta, establishing a Conservative Party dynasty in Alberta that has lasted to this day. The former Golden Bears football star—who also played for the Edmonton Eskimos while still a student—was also SU president and president of his Delta Upsilon fraternity. While serving as premier he initiated the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, developed the successful bid to host the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 and, most famously, bickered with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
, ’86 LLD (Honorary), over the National Energy Program.
The global market economy was a dominant theme throughout 1971 with a worldwide recession, coupled with high rates of inflation. Although through Lougheed Alberta government funding to the U of A increased throughout the decade, there was still a problem paying the bills. Buildings planned for in the ’60s—because of the false impression they would be needed for the continuing linear growth of the baby boomers—now had to be maintained at a considerable cost as student enrolment actually declined for the first time in the University’s history.
The student body was also undergoing a remarkable change at universities across Canada, and the U of A was no exception. From the First World War until the early ’60s the percentage of female students remained relatively constant, comprising approximately a third of the student body. But, by 1970, that percentage climbed to 40 percent and continued to climb to the point where U of A female students now outnumber their male counterparts, comprising about 54 percent of today’s student body.
In addition to the changing gender balance of the student population, those students were also free from dress codes and, particularly for women, curfews. Previously, women living in Pembina Hall had a curfew of midnight enforced by the dean of women (a position that no longer exists), but this had been let slide by the late ’60s.
In 1967 when Candace Savage
, ’71 BA, arrived at the U of A, the dean of women invited her to attend the Bluestocking Club, a carryover from the time when intellectually inclined women needed to band together for moral support. “There was a speaker—I don’t remember who—and we met in the dean’s apartment,” says Savage. “It was very nice and very boring.” Given a chance to choose their own speaker, Savage recalls, “we picked this dishy young campus radical named Jon Bordo
[’68 BA, now a Trent U professor], who came along and had tea with us. I think the Bluestocking Club died of natural causes shortly thereafter.”
In an ironic way, a sort of radical youth was also represented in the preservation of Pembina Hall, Assiniboia Hall and the U of A’s oldest building, Athabasca Hall—three original residence buildings. In 1971, the buildings were deemed unfit for occupation and slated for demolition. But because of their central place in the University’s history and in the affections of 60 years of alumni and staff, they were lovingly restored to their youthful beginnings, making them as good as new again. However, the U of A yearbook—Evergreen and Gold—published since 1921, would not be so fortunate as it ceased publication in 1971 (although a group led by Michael Ford, ’81 BCom, ’85 LLB, produced a final volume for the University’s 75th anniversary).
So it goes. Some things are saved for posterity; some things disappear forever. To think of the campus without Athabasca (1911), Assiniboia (1912) and Pembina (1914) Halls anchoring the west side of Quad is to see the University in a fundamentally different light, as a diminished place where history could not take hold. The fact that they were all saved in the ’70s says something profound about that era and its people, about a generation who may have sang along with Janis Joplin, but knew that the stakes were actually very high when you had something to lose.
- Kim Green
Dr. Verna Yiu, ’84 BMS, ’86 MD, will never forget the day a young man with a mysterious illness came into the Alberta hospital where she was an intern. The 19-year-old patient was extremely sick with a rare form of pneumonia, but doctors were stumped as to what the cause could be. “He was kept in an isolation room and we all had to wear masks when around him,” recalls Yiu. “We knew his immune system was depressed,” she continues, “we just didn’t know why.”
Later, it was discovered that the sick man had been infected with what was, in mid-1980s Alberta, a virtually unknown virus: HIV. In retrospect, Yiu says, it seems silly to think of the measures medical staff took to isolate the man, given what’s known now about how AIDS is transmitted. But, at the time, they had no idea what they were dealing with.
“It was one of the things I recall very vividly,” says Yiu, who, 25 years later, is a respected U of A professor, a pediatric nephrologist at Stollery Children’s Hospital and interim dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. Though every year is tumultuous in its own way, the class of 1986 graduated during one that was, perhaps, especially so—it was also the first year that BAs and BScs took four years to complete rather than three.
The crew of the Challenger space shuttle.
Early in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger
disintegrated just over a minute into its flight, killing its seven-member crew that included schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. April brought the worst nuclear power plant accident in history with the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the then-Soviet Union (an event frighteningly re-enacted with Japan’s recent Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster). As the cloud of radioactive fallout spread across Europe, fear spread across the world. It was heightened by the suspicion and distrust many felt toward Soviet leaders as the Cold War persisted, still three years before the beginning of the Fall of Communism.
“I remember a lot of anxiety—feeling anxious and helpless,” says artist Christine Koch, ’81 BA, ’86 BFA. Chernobyl, in particular, stirred up a swell of activism that had been largely dormant. In November of that year, 5,000 people flocked to the University’s Butterdome for a forum and inquiry into Canada’s defence policy and nuclear arms.
An article in The Gateway advancing the forum said Edmontonians had been noted for “staying home in droves” during previous arms race demonstrations, and that the University’s peace and disarmament club had only four members in 1986. During the forum, guest David Suzuki—who once taught at the U of A—cited both Chernobyl and Challenger as he argued technology was out of control.
Aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
“Technology is totally out of control, human control, and to speak as if we can control this by further technological devices simply perpetuates a myth that we are in command of this technology,” said Suzuki. He went on to blame human error for the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters. “No technology today is foolproof because no human being is not a fool at some time in their lives,” he said, while also labelling nuclear weapons as “insane.”
Though Suzuki was already convinced technology was out of control, U of A students in 1986 could scarcely imagine the gadgets that would be available to students 25 years later. Cellphones and computers still weren’t commonplace. Yiu had to tote heavy medical textbooks around in the era before laptops and smartphones. “I used to get a lot of shoulder pain from carrying my knapsack around,” she recalls with a chuckle.
However, the advent of personal computers and technology at one’s fingertips was already whispering in the wind. That year, IBM released its first laptop computer, the PC Convertible ($1,995 US). The high-tech machine ran on batteries and weighed a lap-crushing 13 pounds (six kg).
IBM's first laptop, the PC Convertible.
Closer to home, Alberta’s frenzied oil boom of the 1970s was in the middle of a serious bust; by mid-1986 the world price of oil had plummeted below $10 a barrel. The crisis led to much uncertainty for 1986 grads who were looking toward careers in the oil and gas industry. Jeff Green
, ’86 BSc(Eng), counts himself one of the lucky ones. “It was a really rough time to graduate,” recalls Green, now vice-president of production operations and administration for Perpetual Energy in Calgary. Although in December 1985, before he graduated, he’d been hired by Norcen Energy Resources.
“Norcen hired 10 engineers that year and they stuck to their hiring and kept us on, whereas numerous other companies were saying, ‘Here’s a couple thousand bucks, don’t come.’” Green started his job in June 1986 and was only there a few months before layoffs started coming down that fall. “I was very nervous. I actually thought I’d be laid off.”
Although Yiu has never faced the prospect of being laid off, she has faced her share of challenges over the last 25 years. When she started her medical career, her specialty—kidney transplants for infants—was really an experiment, she says, adding that patients were sent to Minneapolis for the transplants. “Now, not only do we do it in Edmonton, but the survival rate is really good.”
Yiu feels the U of A’s medical curriculum has also improved. In her day, students would memorize every human body part for anatomy class. Today—100 years after the medical school opened—she says instruction is “systems-based.” For example, medical students study the heart and everything to do with the heart, then do the same with lungs and so on. “It’s much better,” she says, “more integrated, because there’s some form of context.”
Yiu is looking forward to September’s Alumni Weekend for a chance to reconnect with some of her long-lost classmates, noting that in the era before Facebook or e-mail it was tough to stay in touch with anyone who moved away from Edmonton. “I haven’t seen many of my classmates for 25 years,” she says.
- Eliza Barlow