My heart belongs to Old McGill
An ex-student takes a sentimental journey back to her alma mater. Remember when they barred Leacock’s dog? And when Osler — “The Baby Professor”—was everybody’s hero? It’s still a great place — and a great university
PHYLLIS LEE PETERSON
TO THE casual sightseer from bus or horse - drawn calèche, Canada’s most famous university is an impressive but incongruous jumble of buildings sprawled around the green horseshoe of its campus in the heart of Montreal. To those who know and love it well as past students—and I am one of them—it is more, much more. It is the humanity of Osier, %he laughter of Leacock, the genius of Penfield. It is the past and the present—the relics of the Nor’west fur traders housed a stone’s throw from the only cyclotron in Canada. It is a research station in the Barbados, a lonely outpost in the lonelier north, the Montreal Neurological Institute—hospital, school and world centre of study on the human brain. It is the flaming backdrop of Mount Royal in autumn, the founder’s grave under a snow-wreathed ginkgo tree, fluorescent lights shining through the soft spring dusk from Edwardian mansions on adjoining streets. (McGill, like Topsy, just grew.) From here and its affiliated college, Macdonald, twenty miles away, have come the thousands of scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, agronomists, engineers, whose degrees rank high anywhere. Here, in a city predominantly Frenchspeaking, Scot, English, American have blended to produce something truly international yet typically Canadian. McGill was a wonderfully exciting place when I went there twenty-five years ago. It is a wonderfully exciting place today.
The excitement is, of course, subdued. If one may make the special and necessary exceptions of fraternity rushes and the student cheering section at the football games, nothing at McGill is ever blatant. McGill still asserts its position as one of the world’s greatest and most useful universities in its own way—cool, cautious and conservative. “Proceed, produce, and don’t publish,” advised a research head of the past. McGill still employs no publicrelations counsel. It shuns publicity as it did when an unknown New Zealander named Ernest Rutherford occupied its Macdonald chair of physics. Here, in a series of brilliant experiments from 1898 to 1907, Rutherford carried on from Roentgen, Becquerel and the Curies to explore uranium radiation and advance the transformation theory of radioactivity which paved the way for tomorrow’s atomic world. When this information leaked out, a high-placed McGill official shuddered. “For God’s sake, tell him to stop making wild statements to the press. He’s bringing discredit on the university.”
Without fuss or fanfare McGill conducted the radar research that resulted in the McGill Fence, forerunner of the Distant Early Warning line now being built at a cost of three hundred million dollars in a joint Canadian-American effort to hang a screen against invasion across the top of the world. It operates an international weather station at Knob Lake on the Labrador border, the only one of its kind run by a university for the safety of aviation. It has fathered such diverse offspring as the Canadian Officers Training Corps, the University of British Columbia, and football as played on this continent today. And in its dusty archives the name of its first bachelor of arts is also that of Manitoba’s first chief justice, then the lieutenant-governor—Alexander Morris—who helped found another university there.
McGill reserves one third of its medical school for Americans, a tradition strongly entrenched since 1852 when a youth named Thomas Blake hitchhiked north by stagecoach and boat from Cohoes, N.Y., and said he wanted to be a doctor. (In return, Americans have contributed generously to the support of a university depending on private endowment for its existence and receiving less than ten percent of its income from any government source.)
Today McGill’s internationalism is not confined to the U. S. Strolling across its campus recently I caught the gleam of a sari, the scarlet spot of a fez, the white twist of a turban. While I would doubtless see these under the elms of other Canadian alma maters— University of Toronto and University of British Columbia, for instance—this one was mine. I had walked this greensward off Sherbrooke Street, listened to the American voices on the marble steps of the Medical Building, gone tea dancing with a boy from Nebraska. When I did, twenty-five years ago, I was the complete cosmopolite. Now, peering wide-eyed through bifocals at Greek, Bulgarian, Hindu, I knew how small my world had been. McGill’s enrollment now numbers men and women from every province in the dominion, every state in the union, every country in the British commonwealth and forty-nine others as well. Why? What brings them here?
A big heart and good whisky
The answer lies not in statistics. This is not Canada’s largest university —6,500 students against Toronto’s 11,600—nor is it the oldest. King’s College in Halifax was founded in 1789. It is not the wealthiest; its whole history has been a financial struggle for life. It is certainly not the most beautiful, with buildings erected as they were needed and ranging from Greek through Gothic to split-level modern. But there is something about it—what? Atmosphere, tradition, achievement? The more practical considerations of low fees in a private university—$600 yearly in medicine, $350 in arts, $450 in engineering? Small classes, a high standard of teaching, the close relation between student and staff? All these— and something more. The indefinable spirit that is McGill.
If that spirit could assume shape it would, I think, be a benevolent elderly gentleman, a trifle eccentric, a little crotchety at times, but with a heart as wide as the world for youth. He would be a bachelor—or if married, negligibly so -and would pour his frustrated fatherhood on every student who came his way. He would carry a turnip watcli that never kept time and would wear clothes as though he’d forgotten l,o button them. He would teach Shakespeare so you saw him, and the Punic Wars so you took sides. He would smell of tobacco and chemicals, with a possible downwind of good whisky. This portrait, 1 hasten to add, bears no resemblance to anyone living or dead. Yet, in a way, it is a composite of all the McGill professors I ever knew.
They are gone now, those giants of the early Thirties. Waugh, who made history a living thing; McMillan, whose English II either broke a freshman or prepared him for study at McGill; Leacock, who varied the teaching of economics with the humor that gave him a place in Canadian hearts. I remember him well, a brown shaggy man with a brown shaggy dog the janitor refused to allow in the Arts Building. I remember other things too: yellow slickers and coonskin coats, Stutz roadsters and the annual Meds Ball where the anatomical exhibits were no more pickled than certain embryo doctors. Coffee at Murray’s with the first cup costing a nickel and the rest on the house. The Red and White Revue at His Majesty’s Theatre, the hard slugging in the Redpath Library until 2 a.m. with spring exams lowering.
The hangover of Scottish Calvinism that made coeds wear flapping black gowns over gym tunics and forget what a geisha could do with a kimono. The inexorable process of weeding out and the abrupt departure of “Christmas graduates.” The aftermath of the Depression, and the kindness of the dean when 1 told him I had to leave— like thousands of others.
I never went back, until last fall.
Just what middle-aged impulse made me turn through the Roddick gates I’ll never quite know. It may have been yearning for the past. It may have been the future and two sons rapidly approaching .college age. Being Englishspeaking Montrealers, they will never consider going anywhere else. What, I wondered, would they find of my Old McGill? The answer in immediate and concrete terms is, “Very little.”
When they become students at McGill my children will discover few landmarks I knew. The founder still sleeps in the green triangle outside the Arts Building. The original Union still stands on Sherbrooke Street, smelling of old sneakers and providing space in its depths for the production of the oldest college daily in the commonwealth. (When I was there two of the ink-stained wretches laboring over the press were Lionel Shapiro, now a bestselling novelist, and Jimmy Manion, now with the Department of Commerce at Ottawa.) They will also find the same gentle kindness, the same dour emphasis on hard work, and less intellectual spoon-feeding than they ever had in their life. Apart from j that, everything I remember has gone j with the cold wind of progress. Nothing stands still in this world, least of all McGill.
Academically speaking, the undergraduate will find himself in a great centre of science, a great tradition of the liberal arts, and a medical school rated among the top three on this continent by' many experts. He will he encouraged to think for himself and to assume leadership in the country he came from. Socially, he will rub shoulders with the world, form lifelong j friendships and have a good time. It his idea of this runs to panty raids or ! braining someone with a bottle at a football game, he’d better go somewhere else. The out-of-towner will live in a hoarding or fraternity house, a private home or Douglas Hall-—if he’s lucky. (The newly opened male residence boasts a suite for every student, a front door open all night and a waiting list for two years.)
A woman student away from home will have no problem. She automatically becomes a paying guest at the venerable pile on Sherbrooke Street known as the Royal Victoria College, the same building hut a far cry from where I leaned out of the windows to smoke. She will live with girls from Winnipeg, New Jersey and Pakistan, and will occupy a single room at seven hundred dollars a year, including hoard. She may bring a beau home for dinner any night she chooses and will observe such old-fashioned courtesies as standing outside the dining room until the faculty members have entered. She will be mothered, counseled and receive free medical care, as do all students at McGill. If she needs money she can borrow from the Students’ Loan and pay back after she leaves. And she will sleep in a dainty chintz-curtained bedroom, smoke in a luxurious lounge and dine like a queen where we, her predecessors, rattled around in musty paneling, smuggled cigarettes like marijuana and ate sandwiches in the basement. Remembering all this, I sat with my mouth open while girls in silks and saris and British tweeds told me about their McGill.
A McGill man is not asked to act like a gentleman —he is expected to be one
It was, they said, terrific. They liked its wonderful teachers (my old gentleman is still around), its internationalism, its restrained but completely satisfactory good fun. From Toronto: “Fm glad I came here. My best friend’s a West Indian, tonight’s date is a boy from South Carolina, and the Montrealers are grand. I’ve learned more about people than I ever would living at home.” From Chicago: “My father’s a Canadian. When I wanted to study medicine, he wouldn’t let me go anywhere else.” From a sweet-faced brown girl with the scarlet caste mark on her forehead: “At McGill, people think cleanly.”
Do they? I don’t know. I only know the pessimism of the Thirties is gone, the apathy, the self-searching and soulprobing for Why Are We Here, What Is It All For. McGill, like Canada, is moving in a straight line toward the future, pioneering new frontiers, developing new industries, contributing her full share to East and West. It has opened new graduate schools in education, social work, fine arts, to name a few; new institutes in Arctic research, pulp and paper, Islamic studies. It has imported the first faculty member of the Azhar in Cairo, centre of orthodox Islamic learning, ever to teach in a Western university. And if a lawyer wants to become an expert on aviation he will come to the Institute of International Air Law, the only one on this continent.
In spite of all these departures, there is something as English as tea and crumpets about McGill. Fraternities have flourished for almost half a century but were frowned on as unOxonian until they received official recognition this year. In this McGill maintained the English attitude of not seeing anything it didn’t want to. When fond alumni refer to Old McGill, they are not using the term in a sense of antiquity but rather with that shattering of British reserve which calls you “Old Thing” or “Old Bean,” the ultimate in comradely affection.
An undergraduate is not asked, but expected, to dress and behave like a gentleman. He will also attend a reasonable percentage of his classes. If he runs into financial difficulties he may apply for a student loan or one of the six hundred scholarships and bursaries awarded each year. Placement will find him part-time work and is often ingenious. When a dear old soul phoned for a carpenter, placement sent a mechanical engineer. Last year a hundred undergraduates spent preEaster vacation in a Montreal bakery, stamping the crosses on hot-cross buns.
The undergraduate will also indulge in compulsory sports. For this purpose he will find at his disposal a track, a swimming pool with room for eight hundred spectators, eleven squash courts, boxing, fencing and wrestling rooms, and the largest gymnasium in Canada with space for twelve badminton, five volleyball and two full collegiate-size basketball courts. (The latter game got its name from the peach baskets used as goals when a McGill man, James Naismith, originated it in Springfield, Mass., in 1891. Skiing is traditional and the annual winter carnival features hockey, ski meets in the fast Laurentian hills sixty miles away, ice sculpture outside the fraternity houses and a torchlight parade across Mount Royal. The whole city joins in the fun, concluding with a blaze of fireworks and the crowning of a campus queen by M’sieu Ie Maffe in the Montreal Forum.
The football story is not so happy; McGill hasn’t won a championship since 1938. Opinion is divided, with the official one frowning on subsidization and articulate alumni rooting for some form of painless finance to attract the good player. In 1952 the university asked the graduates’ committee of the Athletics Loan Fund to wind up operations of that fund “which, although free from any taint of subsidization of athletes, has aroused widespread suspicion.” What has happened since is anybody’s guess but the old sinews were flexing last fall and McGill almost upset the collegiate apple cart.
Its magnificent stadium donated by the Molson family—a name large in its history—has witnessed nearly forty years of Canadian football, including the home games of today’s professional Alouettes. This is only right and fitting since McGill assisted at the accouchement of modern football when it played Harvard in 1874. Americans then played soccer, Canadians rugby. Two games were played at Cambridge: the first under Harvard rules
was won by Harvard 3-0; the second under McGill rules ended in a scoreless tie. Americans took to the idea of running with the ball and over the years developed their present game. Canadians clung closer to the original rugby but made their own changes.
A pocketful of goldfish
Montreal is sentimental about McGill. Town and gown are bound by its graduates—doctors, lawyers, teachers, dentists, ministers and top-flight executives. (“Why go away to university when we’ve got it all here?”) The sentiment is not confined to Englishspeaking citizens. In a community where French outnumber others three to one, the Gallic spirit glows with pride and honors heaped on McGill are so many pats on the civic shoulder. Even the cops are kind. If a student gets into trouble, he is usually brought quietly home. If the trouble is bad, a red-faced gendarme holds a whispered conference with campus authorities. The only arrest rumored in my time was that of an elderly professor discovered near the gates in the small hours of a wintry morning, well fort ified with whisky and down on his hands and knees in the snow. To the policeman who asked what he was doing, he courteously explained he was looking for goldfish. He was too. He’d brought three of his hostess’ ailing pets home in a wet handkerchief from a dinner party and forgot them when he took out the handkerchief to wipe his spectacles. He was booked as a suspicious character and bailed out. by the dean—or so the story goes.
English-speaking Montreal supports McGill generously—-with money, land bequests, summer jobs, private homes thrown open to students. (In return the campus is a blaze of light at night with a hundred and fifty courses open for adult education.) French-speaking students are more attracted to t he University of Montreal but there is co-operation between the two universities—particularly in law and medicine—and the provincial government has made substantial grants to both, to McGill as a whole and to its great hospital-school-laboratory, the Montreal Neurological Institute.
This is Montreal’s medical Kohinoor, an eight-story building in Scottish baronial located on upper University Street close to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Allan Memorial Institute (psychiatry) and the medical school. The MNI serves as a clearing house for desperate cases of brain injury, accident and disease. In a typical year twenty-eight percent of its patients came from Montreal, twenty-six percent from the rest of the province, thirty-one percent from the rest of Canada, thirteen percent from the U. S. and two percent from other countries. It is also a training school in neurosurgery for graduate nurses and doctors, and its present Fellows come from Columbia, Laval, Kansas, Duke, Beirut, Shanghai, Venezuela, London, Aberdeen and Harvard—to name a few. Its clinical and laboratory facilities are unparalleled anywhere.
Twenty-four years ago the Rockefeller Foundation offered one million dollars to endow brain research at McGill, provided the associated hospital received local support. This provision has been met by wealthy citizens, Montreal itself and provincial grant. Its spirit of dedication is embodied in the superb statue of Nature unveiling herself to Science which stands in its entrance hall. Nature and the mysteries of the human brain!
“Before us,” said Dr. Wilder Penfield, director, world figure and recipient of Her Majesty s rare Ordei of Merit, “lie the unsolved problems of the nervous system, problems that have to do with the secrets of body and mind; and perhaps some day and in some way we may discover that solution of these problems may throw a little light on the nature of the soul.” Meanwhile, the institute is tin owing new light on the mechanism of the brain, pioneering new discoveries in illnesses like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
For McGill is intensely practical. Everything from polar studies at the Arctic Institute of North America, to marine biology at the Bellairs Institute in the Barbados, from urban planning to the human body under psychological stress, is put to immediate use. A development in the Pulp and Paper Research Institute will benefit the whole industry—four of its directors are presidents of large Canadian corporations. A leather-bound study on municipalities and trade unions will go to Ottawa, another on monetary theory to the head office of a Canadian bank. 'Phis practicality extends over the whole campus. When the Radiation Laboratory needed a cyclotron, the staff and students built it at one tenth the commercial cost. When the Red path Museum demanded a rare autopsy, its curator of zoology did it. (He now claims to be the only moose mortician in the world.) When the psychology lab called for human guinea pigs to be locked in small compartments for a week—without light, without sound but with twenty dollars a day they were mowed down by the undergraduate rush.
Exiled Scots are a breed rational about everything except Scotland, and they laid a heavy hand on McGill. The founder was a partner in the NorthWest Company, a vast fur-trading organization. Having made his pile in the uncharted north, James McGill retired to Burnside, his country estate outside Montreal’s walls, where he tended his meadows, planted orchards and “this day cut a dozen melons & all of them good.” After he died in 1813, McGill left forty-six acres and ten thousand pounds sterling for the formation of a university. But he set a ten-year time limit on the gift. The will was bitterly contested by his FrenchCanadian stepsons and precious years slipped by. Four Montreal doctors from Edinburgh came to the rescue in 1829 by affiliating their medical institute with the nonexistent college, thus establishing McGill and the faculty that gave it glory. By 1871 the university had stumbled through vicissitude, acquired a formidable student body and erected an Arts Building where classes were also held in science.
Now the spirit of McGill began to emerge in its donors, its buildings, its staff. William Dawson, its principal, taught geology, envisioned a great hub of Canadian learning, and was not. above climbing three flights of boardinghouse stairs in his seventies to assure a sick student he’d pass. Wellheeled Montrealers like the Molsons (beer) and Redpaths (sugar) sent their sons and were generous. In 1871 two students, engaged in one of the endless financial campaigns, bearded the shy eccentric little bachelor who headed the Macdonald tobacco empire. To their surprise, Sir William Christopher Macdonald responded with a handsome contribution and found an interest for life.
Born of Highland stock in Prince Edward Island, this unusual benefactor laid the foundation of a fortune in plug tobacco during the American Civil War. He went on to millions, closeted in a dingy office on Notre Dame Street and conducting his business strictly for cash. The tight fist opened for McGill and, once opened, never closed. It poured out fifteen million dollars; buildings mushroomed under golden rain. Believing firmly that a nation’s strength came from its farms, its homes and its schools, Sir William established the daughter college that bears his name at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, twenty miles from Montreal, and founded separate faculties for agriculture, household science and teaching. To McGill he gave land, the Students’ Union, and an entire east block for chemistry, mining and physics. . He endowed chairs, established scholarships and ran like a startled fawn when anyone tried to thank him. And as the years closed in on this tobacco king who never smoked, he was wont to wander the campus by night, reflecting perhaps — like Mr. Chips—-on the thousands of sons a childless old man could leave behind.
McGill was on its way. In 1872 a slim dark-eyed son of an Ontario manse graduated in medicine to become “The Baby Professor.” His students adored him, as did all who ever knew him. William Osier had a gift for life, a joy he wore like a shining cloak through toil and grief and the years. The stories about him are legends at McGill. How he gave his only overcoat to a seedy beggar and two weeks later received it back with a hob-nailed liver bequeathed to “my good friend William Osier.” How he comforted a patient in the wards with “You poor Scotch body, thole it a bit now. Thole it,” and saw her smile through her tears. (“Oh sir, I hanna heerd sic talk since I parted frae Edinboro’, bless ye.”) How he could never resist a child. How he came from death, whistling “that I may not weep.” William Osier, who went on to Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, and Oxford, and became the Beloved Physician.
In 1896 the school board in Vancouver applied for affiliation with McGill under the Public Schools Act of British Columbia. McGill granted the affiliation as it had already done for three Quebec colleges, Morrin, Stanstead Wesleyan and St. Francis. A few years later the affiliation was extended beyond matriculation to first and second year arts. By 1908 the McGill College of Vancouver was firmly established with ninety pupils, a staff of eight and McGill supplying financial footing. From these humble beginnings sprang the separate and distinct UBC, which now rivals McGill in size.
By 1910 the mother of colleges had set her own build-as-you-need style of architecture and planted a forest of Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals and Victorian fortresses north of Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street. Its peculiar providence continued to smile with the combination that has never failed it -— a faculty with enthusiasm plus public-spirited citizens with money. Walter Stewart (Macdonald Tobacco) and J. W. McConnell (Montreal Star) carry on the princely tradition, and the Graduates’ Society — with fifty-three branches across the world — receives money regularly from such contributors as Jacob Viner of Princeton, Hume Cronyn of Broadway; five Canadian ambassadors and a judge of the supreme court; bishops, bankers, cabinet ministers, and John Williamson, Tanganyika’s diamond king.
McGill’s principals too were a varied lot and the job seemed prescribed ambassadorial training: Sir Auckland
Geddes left in 1920 to represent Britain in Washington; Lewis W. Douglas left in 1940 and was later ambassador to Britain. Diplomacy suffered a setback in my time; the principal, Sir Arthur Currie, who led the Canadian forces during World War I, had no way with words but brimstone. When a distinguished scholar replied in eloquent Latin to his memorized speech for the honorary degree, Currie won the skirmish with “Pax vobiscum!” Old Guts and Gaiters, he was called in a scurrilous poem circulated through the Faculty Club. It took a good soldier to march the university through the Depx’ession. ¡
Revisiting the campus of one’s youth can be a saddening experience, a disillusionment. For me it was neither but rather the x-ediscovery of certain small quiet voices I first heard here. The Arts Building, my particular bailiwick commanding the main avenue, has’ not changed xxnuch in twenty-five years'—or a century. A melee of students sui’ges out to the steps as the clock strikes the hour. In the milling hall a notice board proclaims an evening of Polish song, a program of sixteenth-century music. Someone has lost his rubbers. The Players’ Club is “doing” Hedda Gÿbler and a more arty group tackles Musset’s Marianne. A solemn-faced freshette is selling the Fig Leaf, which; she assures me is “a new magazine dedicated to humor.” (How do they get-that way at eighteen?) A student organization is sponsoring Culture. Anotlxeir has resurrected Peter Lori’e in M, a classic silent film. The hubbub fades, the flame-shaped torches blur in ''their sconces, and I can almost see Stephen Leacock thx’ough murky bfrown shadows.
IIow much beer in the cellar?!
Leacock. My old gentleman in the flesh, who tauglit economics and political science but rarely mentioned either. Canada’s greatest humorist and a character out of his books. As with Osier, there are a thousand stories about him. How he would allow only an honor student to hold his dreadful dog outside the building wheri Bill Gentleman, custodian, refused it admittance. How he involved the whole mathematics department in an abstruse px’oblem until they discovered it related the cubic space of his cellar to beer. How he talked to us about everything under the sun, revealing the glittering facets of a xxiind that' never forgot anything it read, opening up vista after vista of enchantment while one thing led to another. How he clung to a strict policy of laissez-faire and, when the dean informed him the entire graduate class had failed because 60—not 40—was the pass mark, replied with a brief note, “After careful revision, I have discovered all these gentlemen obtained 60, not 40!”-’
Are there still humanists at McGill? I think so, but outlined in fluorescent light instead of a.yellow shaft through a dusty window, wearing coi’rect dark suits instead of the shapeless tweeds I remember. In this free air the belief that the world exists for man and not man for the world cannot help but flourish. I found the cx*edo evex’ywhere. In Dr. Cyril James, its principal, who stresses the McGill aim toward the well-rounded individual. I found the belief in student zip, in research enthusiasm, in minds marching ahead, with hope, with faith and good cheer. 1 found it in Dr. Penfield’s statement when he flew to Moscow for lectures before the Soviet Academy. “In the field of the brain thex-e can be no narrow intei’ests or prejudice. Any discovery must benefit all mankind.”
Whether Rutherfoi’d’s discoveries fifty years ago fall in this class rexnains to be seen. Certainly they are not foi’gotten in the Physics Building which, like all Macdonald’s gifts, was built of the best, in this case, copper Copper nails, copper sheathing—and “dead Ernest” (later the Rt. Hon Lord Rutherford, Cavendish Professor at Cambridge) experimenting with alpha radiation on equipment he im provised for three hundred dollars. Today a modest plaque outside the building records his achievement. In side a Geiger counter still registers activity—which has faded to one fifth what it was in 1904 — and certain experiments must be done elsewhere.
Sciexxce has sprawled out from its original block like a giant amoeba ingesting everything north to the mountain. The Donner Building for Medical Research, the Eaton Electronics Laboratory, the Radiation Laboratory and Cyclotron, the Physical Sciences Centre—all ai’e new since my day. In them I found the same sparkling optimism (which did not prevent my being discreetly scx’eened), the same warm feeling for McGill.
Iix the radiatioxx lab: “It’s the most truly international university on the continent. In research McGill puts the xxioney and emphasis where it will count and draws lines. A project in one graduate faculty doesn’t have to overlap another faculty. This makes foi independence of spirit and is a godsend to the departmexxt head.”
In physical sciences: “We’ve got about a thousand engineers using the centre. Yes, they’re different from the ones twenty yeai’s ago. They don’t seem to have to learn everything the hard way. Maybe it helps to mix them up with Moslem and Hindu, Ethiopian and Turk—with a leader of French resistance teaching class.”
I walked through the glory of fall, thinking over all I’d seen. The kids themselves, fresh-faced, roaring around with youth busting out all over, yet with a purpose that scared me. The dearth of rich men’s sons—oh, there are still scions of wealthy families, the snazzy sports cars in the parking lots, but no one pays much attention. The playboy I knew with his own rented house, his own staff including a valet, wouldn’t cut as big a swath now as the University Scholar with a consistent eighty percent. The razzle-dazzle seems to have faded from the fraternities.
I had tea in the bowels of the Redpath Museum while Indian relics, ethnological collections and Palaeozoic fossils—all beautifully displayed—drew crowds upstairs. The staff discussed murals and cycloramic lighting for the new North-West Company exhibit, and I kept on remembering the showpiece of my time. A four-foot eel that disappeared from its murky tank in the main hall until a University Street landlady required emergency treatment for shock after finding it in her bath.
The Red path Library has been extended and streamlined to house a million and a quarter volumes, including Sir E. K. Chambers’ Shakespeare collection, Canada’s finest William Blake library, and the largest gathering of Lincolniana outside the United States. Smocked attendants scurry at your behest; 650 students can read in a variety of rooms, with chairs kind to their backs and light that considers their eyes. (My generation didn’t have backs or eyes. We just had faces.) With deep inarticulate sentiment, McGill has installed a special room for my old gentleman. Leacock has never really left the campus but I think he approves the paneling from his own library, his books, his worn pipe, the familiar tobacco jar close to his hand.
Divinity is around the corner on McTavish Street with colleges for Anglican and United while the Presbyterian stands firmly apart, rock-ribbed, Gothic-arched and with the smoke of Auld Reekie clinging invisibly to its ramparts. The college is affiliated with the university but a burr informed me it lias its own professors, its own courses, grants its own degrees and holds its own convocation. If that isn’t the spirit that made McGill, what is?
All along McTavish, millionaires’ mansions have been converted into laboratories. The same thing is happening on surrounding streets, inundated by fluid growth and this thundering wave of vitality.
Dusk muted autumnal flame as I came again to the gates and turned for another look at the campus. (And if these looks have been a little starry, a little blurred, please forgive me. This is my alma mater, as another may be yours.) Beside its daughter college, Macdonald—with spreading acres, gold of willows, brown of stone and red roofs blending into October haze— there is nothing beautiful here. Nothing but time, kindness. The intensely personal quality that binds all who knew it with what they have shared— the rustle of elms in lamplight, laughter through an open window, the sudden sharp stabbing realization of a meaning to life, the glory of blood surging through veins.
My old gentleman.
Crackling optimism. A belief in essential goodness. The wisdom of experience. Something called love.
Whatever the future holds for McGill, these things will never change. They are as old as truth, as deep as the roots, as fresh as a wind on the heather.
A good place, this, for my sons to find the strength of their country and manhood. ★