The precocious alma mater of the prairies

Ivy may not yet grow on its walls, but the niversity of Saskatchewan has already turned out the world’s first cobalt bomb, ur current prime minister and the best Rhodes scholars from anywhere— not to mention the Intensely Vigorous College Nine

JOHN CLARE February 14 1959

The precocious alma mater of the prairies

Ivy may not yet grow on its walls, but the niversity of Saskatchewan has already turned out the world’s first cobalt bomb, ur current prime minister and the best Rhodes scholars from anywhere— not to mention the Intensely Vigorous College Nine

JOHN CLARE February 14 1959

The precocious alma mater of the prairies

Ivy may not yet grow on its walls, but the niversity of Saskatchewan has already turned out the world’s first cobalt bomb, ur current prime minister and the best Rhodes scholars from anywhere— not to mention the Intensely Vigorous College Nine


When George Bernard Shaw observed in 1948 that the University of Saskatchewan was “apparently half a century ahead of Cambridge in science and of Oxford in common sense" the people of the province, who feel about their school much the way Russians feel about the Moscow subway, were pleased but not at all surprised.

Ever since 1912 (classes were held for the first three years in a downtown office building and schools) they have been sending their sons and daughters, as well as a good deal of their money, to the growing collection of Collegiate Gothic buildings, most of them made of local limestone, at Saskatoon. Next fall three more buildings should be ready to add to the forty-two now scattered over an uncluttered two-thousand-acre campus. high on a bluff on the east bank of the South Saskatchewan River, that was once a wheat farm. By that time the university will be deep in the celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, to the accompaniment of specially composed music, the murmur of learned societies and the rolling sound of orators pointing to the past with pride and to the future with confidence.

While few' of them will be able to agree completely with Shaw's assessment, which was made in 1948 in the preface he insisted upon writing for a book by a Saskatchewan professor whose theories about the birth of language caught his eye. there is sure to be some wonder and thankfulness that a university was ever born and raised in the middle of the prairies. When Sir Frederick Haullain as premier of the Northwest lerritories. first proposed a university in 1901. the area that was to become Saskatchewan four years later had only 91.279 people ami there were only three homesteaders between l.umsden and Saskatoon, a distance of about 140 miles on the railroad running north from Regina. Even today the whole province has a smaller population than Montreal or Toronto.

The first classes were held in September, 1909. on the third floor of the Drink le Block and thereby became the only university in the country with an elevator. There were seventy students and four professors, not counting the president. Now' there arc 275 professors and 4,100 students, and it’s expected that the postwar

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high of 4,300. when veterans swelled the enrolment, will be passed by I960 when six thousand will be taking classes. Since Mrs. F. P. Lloyd (Arts ’12). now living in Cobourg. Ont., received the first degree as a member of a class of nine, fifteen thousand have graduated and seventy percent of them have remained in the province. One graduate who left his home in Prince Albert to live in Ottawa w'as John Diefenbaker (Arts ’15; Law T9) who returned last year to receive the first honorary degree ever given by the university to a politician in office.

At the time, classmates recalled that Diefenbaker had fulfilled the prediction of the class prophet in the Sheaf of April, 1915. w'ho saw Diefenbaker not as prime minister but as leader of the opposition in the House of Commons.

Eleven graduates, in all, including Hazen Argue (Agrie. ’44). house leader of the CCF, and Alvin Hamilton (Arts ’37). minister of northern affairs, are members of parliament.

As well as sending out graduates in every professional and academic category except architecture, veterinary science and dentistry, the university has since its beginning been in close touch with the people of the province. The major link has been the College of Agriculture, an integral part of the university, which has been dedicated to the training of agriculturists equipped to meet the problems of the prairies and at the same time, through extension courses, to the making of better farmers.

Named grain strains

As early as 1914 Better Farming Trains were sent around the province by the university and the provincial department of agriculture to demonstrate new techniques and show what was new and best in livestock and crops. In 1911 the Homemakers’ Clubs, which are still flourishing among farm women, were begun. During those years John Bracken, later to become premier of Manitoba and national leader of the Conservative party, was, as a professor of field husbandry, making an investigation of the field crops best suited to the plains that resulted in a standard practical guide for farmers.

Over the years the college has developed new strains of grain—Royal Flax, Antelope Rye and Husky Barley—developed for prairie soil and growing conditions. The soil itself was given a searching look in a massive survey conducted by the late Professor John Mitchell.

The college gets more than ten thousand enquiries a year from farmers asking for advice. It also sponsors 4-H Clubs for twelve thousand boys and girls and, each January during Farm Week, it is host to a thousand representatives of agricultural organizations and interested farmers who hold meetings on the campus and in between sessions inspect the university farm.

Builders ask the Engineering College for help and send in problems to be solved. The college charges only for the materials. There is a province-wide extension program which has recently taken to the air with weekly television lectures in English to help those working for a degree by correspondence.

During the International Geophysical V ear four members of the physics department probed the ionosphere, the layer of air that begins forty miles above the earth, by studying the northern lights

with the help of an “all-sky’’ camera which automatically photographs the sky from horizon to horizon every minute.

Thousands of people are cared for each year in the modern University Hospital (525 beds). Although it is on the campus, right next door to the Medical School, the hospital is operated separately by the province and serves the university as a teaching centre. The first

cobalt bomb, used in the treatment of cancer, was developed here by Dr. Harold Johns, now' at the University of Toronto.

The National Research Council, the federal department of agriculture and the National Cancer Institute have all chosen the university as the site for research units.

The university goes out to the people not only through its graduates but when-

ever a professor judges a fat stock show, talks on the radio about Saskatchewan history or addresses a luncheon meeting on the economic trends in western agriculture since the war. This neighborly visiting back and forth between the people and their university is in the tradition established by the first president. Dr. Walter C. Murray, fifty years ago.

Murray, aged forty-two. was teaching philosophy at Dalhousie when he was asked to meet the committee in search of a president at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal in the summer of 1908.

He was number two on a list of candidates headed by Adam Shortt of Queen’s. When Shortt declined, despite all the glowing prophecies made for the new province of 325.000 and still growing, Murray was asked to come to Regina where, in August of that year, the board of governors offered him the job.

Now came the search for a site. Every town of any size made a determined hid. Indian Head thought it would be fine to have the university at the nearby federal experimental farm; Moose Jaw talked of boat races comparable to the Oxford-Cambridge contests on its creek and the citizens hinted darkly that if they didn’t get the university they would never again vote for the party that frustrated them. Wherever they went the governors were entertained and at one dinner a member of the selection committee wondered out loud if it would sound right to have a university in a place called Moose Jaw. "Why not?" snapped one of the petitioners from that city. “Surely you’ve heard of Ox-ford?”

Regina offered a thousand acres of free land after hastily computing that the new school would bring a quarter of a million dollars worth of business to the city during its first year. Saskatoon, the other chief contender, offered a strong team of persuaders including Archie McNab. who resigned from the board of governors to go into politics and fight for placing the university in his town.

The story of how' the university came to Saskatoon is told in the diary of James Clinkskill, a member of the board of governors and a former mayor of that city. He told of the tension as the balloting. held in the capital, reduced the contenders to two—Regina and Saskatoon. When the verdict was returned he hurried to the telegraph office to Hash the good news home and at the hotel observed that there was no one about. “It was evident the people of Regina were so confident that no interest was evidenced on their part." he wrote.

Saskatoon literally jumped for joy. Clinkskill wrote of the next day. "When our train reached Dundurn a special car from Saskatoon was hitched on. It was filled with a joyous crowd of citizens whose joy at our success was unbounded. On our arrival in Saskatoon everyone and his wife and all the kiddies were at the station to welcome us. The steam whistles were blowing and the bells were ringing; the cheering continued till throats were sore."

Murray went to Saskatoon and to work. He had toured the universities of the east and the U. S. in search of ideas he could incorporate either in the building design or the policies of the new school. Now he went in search of professors. One Maritime professor, who had been asked to come and teach French and German, replied that he would be delighted except he had no German. "Take summer school in Chicago on your way west," suggested Murray. a man in a hurry.

Until 1937 when he retired, the university. which some people had said was an economic and academic absurdity. was Murray’s life. He stumped the province with the energy of a new coach selling professional football to the farmers and it was the new citizens from continental Europe that he sold hardest. If the university was to prosper, indeed survive, they must send their students to its halls, for they and their children made up more than half of the province's population.

These were the immigrants who had come to the prairies in colonist cars munching their last hunk of garlic sausage as they looked out of the train

which had been their prison all the way from the east coast. They built adobe huts near the ferry at Petrofka and painted them as blue as the eggs they colored at Easter; they banked their farmhouses, near Humboldt, high on the outside with earth and on the inside with barrels of sauerkraut against the western winter and when the Kaiser went to w'ar their hearts were torn by two loyalties. The Finns built sauna so they could have steam baths once again and at Gravelbourg French women used the Number One Hard wheat to make good bread for their big families.

And when their sons and daughters made the long trip to Saskatoon and the university they found a man there called Dr. T. T. Thorvaldson. a professor of chemistry, who looked like Carl Sandburg. and w'as to become famous with his discovery of alkali-resistant cement. They smiled when his Icelandic accent stubbornly refused to yield and he said things like "spherical wolumes rewolwing in space." They smiled because this man, now dean emeritus of graduate studies, made the meaning of this new university clear and real to them.

And as the years passed and students with names like Hnatyshyn, Thiessen. Arneson. Zulkowski and I.a France came before Sir Frederick Haultain. now chancellor. Dr. Murray knew that he had won his battle. By 1931 forty percent of the students were of non-Anglo-Saxon origin.

Tunnel to co-education

He infected good teachers with his enthusiasm, persuaded them to come to Saskatchewan and stay there when other richer offers were made to them. He lent his own money to needy students, arranged loans for others. He listened to their troubles, fired them sadly as Christmas grads when their marks fell low. He cajoled governments and handled university affairs with a skill that sometimes bordered on guile.

“1 don’t know how he did it but he seemed to know everything that was going on," recalled one graduate. “One night a group of us. including a man who is now a dean in an eastern college, went through a tunnel, normally reserved for steam pipes, from the men’s to the women's residence. We spent an hour there in the middle of the night wiring up washroom doors and playing other pranks and returned without seeing anyone or. as far as we knew, being seen. The next day Dr. Murray called us to his office. He knew* all our names. He talked for a while about the gravity of what we had done: he reminded us of the sacrifices being made by our parents. Then he stopped talking and we sweated for a while for he had said this could mean the chop. After convincing us we had acted like jerks he let us stay."

Dr. J. S. Thomson. Murray's successor. who was known to some of his constituents as Butch, served until 1949 with 1942-43 off to head the CBC. He is now dean emeritus of divinity at McGill. Time has mellowed the campus estimate of the second president, who was not as skillful as Murray in his dealings with his -staff and the government, but is noxx recognized as a distinguished scholar and a man to xvhom the great idea of a university xxas precious and bright.

He was followed by Dr. W. P. Thompson. a geneticist xvho made an international reputation with his contribution to the development of strains of rustresistant wheat. As a teacher at Saskatchewan since 1913, Thompson was known

as a brilliant scientist and the possessor of a small perennial classroom joke he used to illustrate the possible salutary effects of close inbreeding. Cleopatra, was, he would observe, the product of several generations of brother-and-sister marriages. "And we’re given to understand that Marc Anthony found the lady not unattractive,” he said.

With business buoyant the university has knoxvn its greatest period of expansion under Thompson, after being retarded by txventy years of war and depression.

Annual budgets, originally only thirtytwo thousand dollars, have risen to more than fix'e million. By next fall the Animal Husbandry building and the classroom wings of the Biology and (wuth the help of a Canada Council grant) Arts buildings xvill be completed.

When I returned last November, txventy-five years after I had left, short of a degree and even shorter of money, the fourth president had just been chosen. He is Dr. John Spinks, a scientist who has w'on a w'ide reputation for his work in the use of radioactive tracers in agriculture. He'will take office this fall.

Spinks, who boxed for sport at one hundred and twenty pounds, came to the university as a chemistry professor in 1930 from the University of London. He xvas frequently mistaken for an undergraduate because of his youthful appearance (he was only twenty-two) and his addiction to long striped mufflers. He sometimes carried a stick in those days.

I spent a week on the campus remembering what it was like when Dr. Spinks and I first went there, looking at new' buildings and looking up old ones, on which ivy still refuses to grow. I sidled into the new library, named for Dr. Murray. acutely aware that I still had two books twenty-five years overdue. I had a cup of coffee (ten cents) in the Memorial Union Building, dedicated to the memory of the fallen. The young men now play ping-pong in the downstairs common room in Qu’Appelle Hall where they used to shoot craps.

Frank Teddy is one of the few of my contemporaries to become a dean of arts. Outside his office 1 once again broke into a light hoarfrost of fear just at the memory of a former occupant. Dean George Ling. In retirement. Dean Ling emerged as a kindly man and a railroad buff, of all things, whose delight was examining locomotives.

By the end of the second day 1 had enlarged on the old truism about the students looking so young, despite the occasional beard, to include the observation that some of the professors looked irresponsibly youthful, too. The girls, however, are not as pretty as they were. Of course, this could be due to the unflattering babushkas and heavy snoxx boots they wear in xxinter. They still lean forward at approximately the same angle into the xxind as they walk around the Oval from the Chemistry Building.

The Chemistry Building, xxith its builtin acrid smell compounded mainly of H>S (that’s the one that smells like rotten eggs), reminded me not of chemistry, which I had never recognized as a valid science, but of one of the university's truly great men—the late Professor R. A. Wilson. He taught English con amore in that place against a backdrop of scientific symbols on the blackboard and flanked by bunsen burners because there was a shortage of classrooms.

Burns and Service were his favorite poets and I can still hear him intone, with his slight Scottish burr brushing the words, eyes closed and head thrown back, a line from the Yukon poet's work: "Pines and pines and the shadow of pines

as far as the eye can see." It was his hook. The Miraculous Birth of Language. that attracted Shaw's attention. "His name being unknown to me.” wrote Shaw, “I hastened to ascertain whether his chair was at Oxford, or Cambridge. Owen's or Edinburgh. Dublin or Birmingham. I learned it was Saskatoon, a place of which I had never heard, and that his university was that of Saskatchewan. which was connected in my imagination with ochered and feathered Indians.”

Outside the office of the Sheaf, the campus weekly, moved from the first tfoor of the men's residence to the basement of the women's residence, emissaries from companies like Du Pont were dangling jobs at graduation before seniors. In the Thirties such men would have been killed in the rush or led gently away. In those years we developed a type of professional student who took course on course rather than face a world which was offering forty dollars a month, not in cash but in notes, to country teachers.

In the Sheaf office the latest edition had just arrived. "What's wrong with the damn thing this time?" asked one of the editors, lunging at the stack. Nothing had changed really.

Despite the light glaze that quickly came over their eyes I told them what it was like there in the Thirties. I told them how you could take Arts for five dollars a subject; the fees for the course now start at $247. Four friends of mine had a furnished room for which they paid a dollar a week. When a football team went to the coast to play the University of British Columbia the porter cooked their meals in the colonist car using the provisions they brought along. There is no more intercollegiate football, although it is going to be revived this fall. The boys compete in volleyball instead although they have a fine modern stadium where they hold track meets and bicycle races.

Kent Phillips, who has left the uni versity to go into business and make some money, had a football team in 1931 that beat all the other western schools. One of his best linemen was a big strong farm boy who ran to the sidelines in the first game and demanded of his coach, "What the hell's going on here?" Phillips explained that this was known as lining up for the kickoff. For all his weeks of training, the new star had never seen a complete game played.

What are today's students like? One of their professors had said they were "doughheads," that they lacked the dedication of the early days, the anger of the Thirties and the maturity of the postwar years.

"What is there to be angry about?” asked Bill Deverell, who as managing editor of the Sheaf has the job I once held. "Things are just fine. The Hbomb? We're more likely to get worked up about the lack of parking space for our cars."

"We're not Beatniks and were not Angries," said another student. "Were kind of joyless. I guess. Only the Comm es and the Socialists worry about politics. We have security here."

“There are too many activities." said another. “A little loneliness would do us a lot of good." Among the most strongly supported undergraduate activities is a happy-go-lucky, gaily uniformed band which has sprung up in recent years. Though it's called the Intensely Vigorous College Nine, its membership is usually closer to fifteen.

I he late forties, when the veterans dominated the campus, were vintage years. I was told. Ed McCourt, a pro-

fessor of English ¿.nú the author of the novel. The Wooden Sword, spoke of them nostalgically.

"They were industrious and eager, willing to put up with overcrowding and other inconveniences," he said. “It was a little embarrassing, though, to correct the syntax of a man who had probably twenty-seven trips over the Ruhr."

Arthur Moxon, one of the original four professors, a former dean of law, who at seventy-seven now practices law in Saskatoon, recalled the earliest days.

"It was like a Scottish university in its intensity. At Dalhousie we weren’t as polite; we used to give our professors a bad time but these students respected you, looked up to you. They were interested only in learning," he said.

Since then the fear has been expressed by some alumni that the concern with science would turn the place into a superior technical school, that the humanities would suffer. But for all its emphasis on science, the professions, and practical service to the community, the university has maintained a quiet inner life

in the classical tradition where men and women contemplate in tranquility the great ideas and examine the mysteries of the universe and the spirit.

The Rhodes Scholarship Trustees recently reviewed the ¿icademic records of students from the ninety schools in the Commonwealth and the U. S. from which they are drawn. University of Saskatchewan scholars had the best record at Oxford.

George Bernard Shaw probably wouldn't have been a bit surprised to hear it. ★