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The rise and fall of the Lobby Syndicate

My friendship with Professor Sonet began on the stock market. Up until the summer of 1928 the stock market to me meant nothing.

If I thought of it at all as an important activity in Canadian life, I thought of it as a place where cattle, hogs, and sheep were sold; but that summer my age of innocence came to an end. Within a year I was, I thought, a big-time operator.

It happened in this way. I was on holiday on the Pacific Coast and one night at a bridge game I heard a lot of talk about the Hope Mine (I still don't know where it was or what it was supposed to produce). The thing that stuck in my mind was the assurance that the stock quoted at 50 cents would go up to $1 or more in a few days. The next day I went into a stockbroker's place on Granville Street and with trembling hands paid $100 for a thousand shares of 'Hope' on a ten percent margin. By the time I got back to Edmonton (a week later) the stock had gone to $1 and I promptly sold. So, I made $500! Why hadn't someone told me about this before? What was the sense of living on $3,500 a year as a University Extension worker when this sort of thing promised escape from penury?

That fall, in company with eleven other adventurers, I formed a loosely-knit organization which we called the 'Lobby Syndicate.' Somehow or other each one of us managed to put up $1,000 and with this amount of cash we entered the market. Fortunately one of our number was a young man with business experience and we appointed him chief executive officer with power to buy and sell whenever he saw fit. We held weekly meetings when Bob Muir, our business agent, reported and we took council on what to do next.

The most enthusiastic member of our syndicate was Professor Edouard Sonet, head of the French Department at The University of Alberta. Sonet was one of the most brilliant and popular professors on the campus. He rather prided himself on the fact that his English was by no means perfect. 'I have been in zis country twenty years, I still place the m-fasis on the wrong silable.'

Nearly every day he would present himself at my office door and shout:

'Corbett, put down your pen. It has lost its power. We pass on the stock market. If we buy a cow, then every day we must observe the cow.'

He was a keen student of the stock market and was very often right, but occasionally he would make a wrong bet. One day he looked at the board and saw that 'White Eagle' had slipped from $1 to 4 cents a share; he promptly bought for his own account 25,000 shares; a week or so later he came to my office as gay as usual: 'Corbett, I make a miss-stake. The wings of the eagle have been clip. It has disappear from the Board.

'But, as we say in French, it is necessary to back up in order to make a bigger jump. We go see the stock.'

The Lobby Syndicate did very well indeed. We pyramided our stock, bought everything on margin, never took out any certificates, but used what we had as collateral for more buying. By the fall of 1929 we had visions of wealth beyond our fondest hopes. One night at a meeting of the Syndicate we decided that Sollway Mills, where we had been dealing, 'was spread out too thin.' So we shifted our account to Stobie Furlong. A few weeks later, in October 1929, Sonet and I had been out duck-shooting and on our way home we met a friend who told us about the market crash. Next day we hurried over town to see our brokers, but across the window was pasted a sign bearing one tragic word, 'Closed.' Sollway Mills were still doing business, but our boys had shut up shop.

'Let us return to shoot the duck,' said Sonet. 'There is more profit in the grave than in this.'

That was the end of the Lobby Syndicate. We lost our money, but we'd had a lot of fun and no one seemed to have any regrets. So far as I myself was concerned, getting acquainted with Sonet was worth far more than anything I could ever have purchased with the money I lost. For years after that experience he was a source of constant delight to me, as indeed he was to everyone who was blessed by his friendship. Stories about Sonet are still part of the University's fondest memories for students who studied under him and worked with him in the French plays he produced every year.

Published February 1975.

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