VARSITY’S MR. SMITH
WHEN Sidney Earle Smith, K.C., B.A., M.A., LL.B., LL.D., D.C.L., president of Manitoba University, left Winnipeg last summer to become principal of University College and president-elect of the University of Toronto, 22 of his friends had a party for him. There were no speeches but after dinner the chairman announcèd that a topic of conversation had been decided upon—“Why it’s a good thing that Sid Smith is leaving Winnipeg.” Penalties were to be exacted on two counts, a mild one against the man who said the President had done a good job at the University of Manitoba, a more severe one agaiAst anyone who said he was sorry Smith was going.
This party was probably unique in the history of farewells to university presidents but it was custommade to delight Dr. Smith. Contrary to most mental pictures of university presidents—and many living examples of the same—Sidney Smith is neither dry nor old, absent-minded nor overdignified. He’s a big man, half an inch under six feet, something over 200 pounds, looks not unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, and gives off a definitely Rooseveltian warmth and vitality. This resemblance is attributable in part to a cast of features, with light eyes set under heavy, shelving brows, and a naturally strong chin, softened by a second one added in maturity. It is furthered by his smile, which glistens with friendliness, by his
manner, which gives people the happy feeling not only that they’re very welcome but that they’re brighter and more charming than they ever realized before.
Added to this Dr. Smith has an almost supernatural memory, not only for names and faces, but for vital statistics about anyone he’s met even once. It is said that when he first went to the University of Manitoba 200 people he had never met before passed by the receiving line and that two hours later on their way out Dr. Smith called them each by name.
These qualities are both an asset and a drawback to Sidney Smith—his handshake has been called Rotarian, his smile political and he’s suspected of having taken a course in Pelmanism. This last bothers him. Remembering people, he explains, springs from a natural liking and interest, a characteristic inherited from his mother. His superb tact is probably attributable to the same trait and he prides himself on both—being able to count on the fingers of one hand the number of times both tact and memory have broken down. His most flagrant breakdown in memory—enquiring about a man’s wife after she’d been dead a year—still fills him with remorse. Of a recent breach of tact he takes a more gleeful view. This happened when the newly arrived Smith baby was mentioned and a visiting lady, presuming that a college dignitary with greying hair and no waistline had passed into grandfatherhood,
assured him he would get far more pleasure out of the new baby than he ever had out of his own children. “I knew she’d be terribly embarrassed,” says Dr. Smith, “but dammit, she’s my child and I said so.”
In spite of such minor lapses, Sid Smith, as he is usually called, probably would have made a successful politician—and it is rumored that he lost by only a nose to John Bracken as leader of the Conservative Party. What place his genial qualities have in academic circles is not clear to Torontonians, who are inclined to contrast him with his predecessors, Presidents Cody and Falconer, two gentlemen cut from clerical cloth. That Sidney Smith is different cannot be questioned. His background is legal, not clerical, his talents administrative rather than academic. Aside from his firm stand in favor of a liberal education as against professional courses he might be described as a president—American plan. Unofficial opinion believes his work will be in “harmonizing different viewpoints” and in “getting people to work together and with him.” That this is probably what Toronto needs from a president is indicated by the fact that Dr. Smith was appointed by the Board of Governors presumably at the suggestion of President Cody, who had the opportunity of observing him during Smith’s two years as president of the National Conference of Canadian Universities.
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Sidney Smith, U. of T.’s presidentelect is no absent-minded professor ... He remembers first names and is really a "man you’d warm to"
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As head of Toronto University, Smith will move to a larger and a different field but not to a new job. At 37 he was appointed to Manitoba, the youngest university president in Canada, facing one of the most difficult college situations in the country. First of Manitoba’s troubles was a sudden disappearance of funds through maladministration. Second was an affiliated college setup that was fraught with hard feelings and tended toward mediocre scholarship. Third was a faculty which in some departments resembled an old folks’ home.
In his five years as Dean of Law at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Sidney Smith had some administrative experience but nothing to prepare him for the colossal task that faced him. In the first two years at Manitoba Sidney Smith aged 10, took so much out of himself that discussions went on among his friends as to whether anything was worth that much of a man’s life. At the end of 10 years he left the university in a sound financial position, with a fair percentage of bright young men on its staff and with the affiliated colleges feeling they could hold up their heads in any company. People were sorry to see Sidney Smith go but were willing to admit the rightness of his theory that he’d done the job he came to do, that he’d always be associated in the public mind with that and nothing else.
Because he came to Toronto from Manitoba, Sidney Smith is frequently thought to be a Westerner. When he breaks into a solemn discussion to tell a good story, steps out of a line of dignitaries to grab the arm of a friend and say, “Come up some time and tell me about yourself,” the impression is confirmed. Actually Sidney Smith is a Maritimer, born in 1897 on the little island of Port Hood off Cape Breton, eighth generation of Smiths to be born on this continent. Youngest of the four children of John P. and Margaret Etheridge Smith, he went to a local one-room school, later to high school on the mainland, driving across in spring and fall, boarding in town during the stormy winter months. Of those years he remembers that he liked to fish, swim and sail but most of all that he was terribly serious and worked hard, entered King’s College at the immature age of 14. Looking back he feels that he missed a good deal, believes that 18 is early enough for a student to enter university. He believes too that there’s nothing to be gained by getting an education the hard way. “I don’t think it’s any advantage to have to earn part or all of your expenses. I went through the mill myself and know what it is to be dog-tired at the end of the day, so tired that it is impossible to study all evening. The old idea of a man living on porridge and working his way through college has cost too great a price.”
From King’s College, Sid Smith went to Dalhousie Law School, where the late Norman MacLeod Rogers, James Lorimer Ilsley and Angus L.Macdonald were among his classmates—broke into the middle of his course to enlist in 1916. He went overseas with the 9th Canadian Siege Battery, saw action at Vimy and says of his Army record, “I held my own—I went in as a gunner and came out as a gunner.” Actually when the war ended he was in England, training with the Royal Flying Corps.
After finishing his course at Dalhousie, Smith practiced law for a short time in Windsor, N.S., gave it up on the suggestion of Dean of Laws Macrae to take a year postgraduate at Harvard. To explain his change of direction Smith quotes Bernard Shaw:
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” adding on his own, “those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” Smith taught first at Dalhousie as lecturer and assistant professor on Trusts, Wills and Mortgages, then at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, after which he returned to Dalhousie in 1929 to succeed Macrae as Dean of Law.
To Sidney Smith the big dividend of these years that took him from the Atlantic to the Prairies is that they’ve made him a Canadian. In favor of this theme he’s willing to drop his anecdoting, straighten out his lively eyebrows, lay aside his gesturing pipe and do a little serious talking.
“There is one thing for which I am truly thankful,” he says, in all sincerity. “With my work in eastern Canada and that in the West I have received a picture of the Canadian scene which I otherwise might have missed.”
The first duty of Canadians, he believes, is to “put Canada above individual interest, community jealousies, class hatred and provincial rights.” His hope for his own work is that it may give him some opportunity “to promote Canadian unity and better understanding.” Manitobans say it already has, that during his term as president, relations in educational matters between Winnipeg and the French-speaking city of St. Boniface were consistently friendly and cooperative. As proof of his courage they point to CCF Prof. Watson Thomson whom he retained as head of Adult Education against all onslaughts, and to his appointment of a young Jewish professor as head of the German department. Smith insists there were no onslaughts, no opposition, and praises the spirit of tolerance he found in the West.
Whatever else he does, Sidney Smith can be counted on not to ram the West or the Maritimes down the throats of the people of Ontario. When he left Dalhousie for Manitoba he said, “I am not taking with me any educational policy designed in Halifax for Manitoba . . . any successful university policy must be related to the time and place of the particular institution.”
In Manitoba he chose to be the exalted head whom the faculty met socially once a year at a stuffy tea party and of whom the students had no opinion because they didn’t know him. At Toronto it is too early to see any set pattern, but six weeks after the opening of the term faculty members reported him as “a man who wants to be friendly,” “a man you’d warm to,” while female students were almost unanimous in saying they adored him.
As a man to work with Sidney Smith is said to follow the almost perfect line of giving his subordinates complete freedom along with the assurance that he’s right there backing them. Most serious criticism of him is that he’s “the soul of compromise,” but even those who take a dark view of his smoothness admit he’s “a square shooter” and “a man who’ll put up a good fight for something he believes in.’’
Academically Sidney Smith rates four degrees earned by his own hard study, and honorary LL.D’s bestowed on him by four different universities. Some outsiders might question his suitability for a university presidency because he lacks the academic manner. Those within the college circle say there’s no criticism of him as a scholar because people rarely think of Sidney Smith as one, and because he himself has no great pretentions along that line. Occasionally though he wonders a little sadly why a man can’t be an administrator and also be regarded as an intellectual.
Whatever he may do for the advancement of higher education, Sidney
Smith himself should be an example to the leery that a man can come through eight years of college, acquire a long string of degrees, choose a career of scholarship and be none the worse for it. In appearance he’s well-fed. welltailored and well-pleased with life. He enjoys the normal manly pastimes of curling, fishing for trout and salmon, and golf, at which he describes himself as “a century man.”
He has, to use his own words, “one wife,” whom he calls Halbe and seems to like, despite an unpromising beginning when she was seasick during the whole 10 days on shipboard on their honeymoon to Europe. “I used to sit alone on deck,” Sid Smith recalls, “and wonder if I’d picked a lemon.”
Their family consists of three daughters, Sheila and Moira, aged 13 and 11, who go fishing with their father and have been taught to put the worms on their own hooks, “because that is an essential part of every girl’s education,” and Heather, born in Toronto almost on the day the university opened with her father as president-elect. Heather was supposed to have been a boy and came as a great disappointment to Sidney Smith. Back in his college days Sid Smith bet his friend Henry Borden $25 that he was the better man, said he’d prove it by having a son before Borden did. With the arrival of a third daughter to the Smiths the bet has run into real money.
These stories Sidney Smith tells on himself with an effortless charm that has the appearance of spontaneity. In reality, they’re well-polished, often used, suggesting that what is thought to be the Smith glibness is probably a studied art. Those who knew him 20 years ago report that he was a shy young man who began all social conversations by producing a hairpin and a match and saying, “Have you seen the hairpin trick?”
The trick, like his stories, was a good one, seeming to achieve the impossible feat of rotating the match through the the steel of the hairpin.
Aside from his university duties, Sidney Smith has a number of interests which he works at. He is a member of the Institute of International Affairs, chairman of the Canadian Youth
Commissioners, president of the National Film Society of Canada, onetime president of the National Council of YMCA’s and until this year president of the Canadian Association for Adult Education.
Within the university, Sid Smith has one particular axe to grind—as Liberal education is losing ground students are turning more and more to professional courses. As a distressing example he cites the University of Manitoba, which last year registered 206 men in Science as against 18 in Arts.
“Strong professional schools in and by themselves cannot make a strong university,” Sidney Smith is convinced. “If the situation is not remedied Canada will get from the university, from year to year, expert practitioners and skilled recruits for industry and commerce who know little of the economic, social and moral issues which are vexing society, and who have a learned ignorance of ideas and ideals which must be pondered sub specie aeternitatis." That is how Sidney Smith sets it down for a University Quarterly. Using the more emotional language of the common man he says, “This old civilization of ours, damaged and hurt by war, needs leadership from men and women who know the laws of men as distinguished from the law of things ... if we’re going to be a nation of jobbers I fear for leadership and followership too.”
For the student with self-interest on his mind, Dr. Smith can justify a liberal education in another way. When the appeal for “beauty and truth,” for “opening the windows of the soul,” cuts no ice, he says, “If a man or woman will take a good Liberal Arts course he’ll make no more money, be no better than anyone else in his office for the first five years . .. but I want to see him in five to 10 years and compare him with the person who hasn’t been there.”
As a boy from a Cape Breton farm who has been there, who in 10 years became Dean of his own Law School, in 15 achieved the presidency of a university, in 25 has been appointed to what is probably the most coveted academic post in Canada, Sidney Smith should have no trouble in proving his point.