SPECIAL REPORT

Sentimental Journeys

Successful Canadians reflect on life after high school and coping with the ‘real world’

VICTOR DWYER October 21 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

Sentimental Journeys

Successful Canadians reflect on life after high school and coping with the ‘real world’

VICTOR DWYER October 21 1991

Sentimental Journeys

Successful Canadians reflect on life after high school and coping with the ‘real world’

During his first year of university in the mid1970s, Kevin Sullivan once bowed out of a ski trip to devote an entire weekend to calculating the surface area of a glazed doughnut. The keen University of Toronto student, then 19, spent two days working at his desk as part of a long-term goal to get high enough marks to qualify for medical school. But despite his devotion, one extracurricular activity increasingly lured Sullivan away from the books. Working behind the scenes—and occasionally on stage—at the university’s Hart House Theatre, Sullivan became so engrossed in the world of drama that by the time he received his B.Sc. in 1978, he had jettisoned his plans for a medical career. Looking back on that decision, the man who went on to produce such award-winning CBC TV programs as Anne of Green Gables (1988) and its companion series, The Road to Avonlea, said: “I never did apply the concrete things I learned in class, but without my years at university, I would never have discovered my true vocation.”

In interviews with Maclean’s, Sullivan and other leading figures in the arts, politics and industry looked back with candor on their university years—and, in some cases, on the years during which they passed up the pursuit of higher education for the more immediate demands of earning a living. Each recommended that today’s high-school students at least seriously consider pursuing a university degree. Typical were the sentiments of singer Anne Murray, who in 1966 graduated from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton with a degree in physical education. Said Murray: “For

the social scene alone, it was worth the investment— and it was there that I learned how to work like mad.”

Despite such views, a degree is clearly not a prerequisite to success. Although most federal cabinet ministers and Canadian business leaders finished university, several did not. Among them are Employment and Immigration Minister Monique Vézina and Jim Pattison, president of Vancouver’s Jim Pattison Group. And among the 62 recipients named since 1986 to the annual Maclean’s Honor Roll, slightly more than one-half never earned a university degree.

Like Sullivan, the majority of those interviewed who did go to university insisted that the non-academic aspects of the experience—including extracurricular activities, the giddy freedom of life away from home and even the demands of paying their own way

through school—were often the most enriching. Said Purdy Crawford, the chairman of Montreal-based Imasco Ltd., who received a BA from Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., before taking degrees in law at Dalhousie University in Halifax and Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.: “Most subjects are important if you want to sound learned—but not if you want to understand the real world.”

Those who did reflect on life in the classroom

recalled the more offbeat offerings of their academic years. York University graduate Rosemary Dunsmore, for one, who co-stars in the CBC TV detective series Mom P.I., said that the most memorable course in her bachelor of fine arts program at the Toronto university was taught by a Marxist professor who wore a bright red scarf to every class. When the man delivered lectures on such peculiar subjects as communist thought in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Dunsmore, who graduated in 1973, recalled: “We would all just sit there and sort of look at each other.”

But for the most part, those interviewed spoke of the extracurricular aspects of campus life. Murray’s most vivid memories are of living in an all-woman residence after growing up with five brothers—and no sisters—in the mining town of Springhill, N.S. “You could run around in next to nothing,” recalled Murray. Outside of residence, it was the men that captured her attention. “It was,” said Murray, “heaven.” So taken was the singer with the social aspects of life away from home that in her second year she failed two subjects. “It scared the shit out of me,” she added. “But I have no regrets. I got to sow my wild oats.”

Imasco’s Crawford, who came from Five Islands, N.S., to study at Mount Allison, forged his strongest university friendships in a residence that students dubbed “the Bam.” Crawford shared a room with a person he now describes as “an extroverted city boy” from Sydney, N.S. His name was John Buchanan, and Crawford continues to count the federal senator and former premier of Nova Scotia among his closest friends. Others made more directly professional connections in the midst of campus life. Producer Sullivan, for one, says that in the years since working at Hart House, he has employed several of his fellow drama devotees, including costume designer Martha Mann and actor John Gilbert.

Others also found their future calling outside the classroom. Mary Collins, the federal minister responsible for the status of women, first flHH

joined the Progressive Conservative party while working towards a BA at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she also founded a journal called Conservative Concepts. “By the time I got to Queen’s,” said Collins of her thirdyear transfer to the Kingston, Ont., university from which she graduated in 1962, “my biggest extracurricular activity was talking politics.”

Added Collins hastily: “I wasn’t a nerd, but I wasn’t part of the football crowd either.”

Scrambling to avoid the pressures of academic life led others in career directions. Margo Timmins, now the lead singer of the pop group Cowboy Junkies, was in her final year of a social-work degree at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute when the pressures of school prompted her to look for less stressful diversions. Timmins joined a band founded by her brother Michael because, she said, she needed “an escape—something away from it all.” Timmins never did practise social work: the year after her 1985 graduation, Cowboy Junkies recorded their first, million-selling album,

The Trinity Session.

Just learning how to survive away from home can clearly be an instructive experience all its own. At the University of British Columbia, Pattison bought a steady stream of used

cars and sold them at a profit. That entrepreneurial drive, however, did eventually exact an academic toll: in 1951, working overtime to launch one of his first international deals, in Peru, the budding businessman was absent from two final exams—and remains three courses short of a bachelor of arts degree.

For some Canadians, financial considerations meant missing university altogether. Toronto theatre impresario Ed Mirvish was the oldest of three children when his father died in 1930, leaving his mother the owner of a bankrupt grocery store. “I didn’t go to university,” said the owner of London’s Old Vic Theatre and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, “because I was hungry and I wanted to eat.” Employment Minister Vézina told a similar story. One of 12 children of a paper-mill worker and a housewife in Rimouski, Que., she became a secretary at a local branch of the Royal Bank of Canada after high school before moving on to help build Quebec’s caisse populaire system of savings and investment institutions. Although Vézina says that she is proud of her accomplishments, she added: “I didn’t choose to go to the school of life. I would have preferred a real university.”

All of those interviewed agreed on one thing: they strongly advocate the university experience for today’s high-school students. Said the pragmatic Mirvish, for one: “What society needs is good everything—good businessmen, good lawyers and good philosophers, too.” Timmins said that it was only by delving into her courses that she developed the self-confidence on which she now draws to perform. Sullivan, too, emphasized that most people get more from university than a mere piece of paper. “Even if you come out of it with a degree you never use,” said the producer, “you form a solid image of what you are good at and what you want to do.” Murray was more straightforward. “Just go,” said the singer—a simple directive from one of Canada’s greatest successes in the “real world.”

VICTOR DWYER