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Reminiscences: Walter H. Johns

Setting down some reminiscences of my thirty-one years at the University is a major assignment, and I am reminded of the words of Aeneas (Book 2, line 12), when he said "Although my mind shudders to remember . . . I shall begin."

The fact is that I look back on my early days at the University of Alberta, as on nearly all my other days here, with great pleasure, and reminiscing comes easily, perhaps too easily, to someone of my years.

I still recall the day in late August when Mrs. Johns and I set off in our second-hand car to drive west from Waterloo, Ontario, to Edmonton, with most of our few precious possessions piled in the back seat, along with our luggage. It was a happy adventure and permitted us to see parts of the United States and Canada we had never expected to visit. The last 200 miles, from Calgary to Edmonton, over the winding road that joined the two cities in those days, was marked by increasing pleasurable anticipation as we came northward and saw the countryside at its best, and finally the city itself, which welcomed us on that Wednesday afternoon, August 31, 1938, on which we arrived.

We spent the first three weeks in St. Stephen's College while we made a selection of a house to rent from the many that were available close to the University in those days. We decided on a house on 83 Avenue, near 106 Street, and this was our home for a year, until we moved into the basement suite in Assiniboia Hall, ordinarily occupied by Dr. and Mrs. Sandin, who went on leave in the summer of 1939. I still remember the pleasant walk of about a mile from our first home in Edmonton to the University. It was a very good walk in the autumn, and even tolerable in mid-winter, except for the few days that year in which the temperature went down to more that 50 degrees below zero. When we left, the house was rented by a brilliant young surgeon by the name of Dr. Walter C. MacKenzie.

My first office was in the northeast corner of the Arts Building, on the second floor, and I shared it with Dr. W. G. Hardy, Head of the Department of Classics, and Dr. Geneva Meisner, Professor of Greek. Professor Long and Dr. Collins were next door, and Dr. Sheldon and his colleagues in the Department of Mathematics, Professors Campbell, Cook, and Keeping, were just around the corner. I could not have wished for better neighbors.

There was a young spruce tree outside our office window which just reached the window sill. I noticed the other day that it has grown up past the roof of the building.

Dr. Hardy was a most hospitable guide and mentor in those early days, and I remember him introducing me to Professor George Smith, who had just replaced Dr. W. H. Alexander as Dean of Arts and Science. He was not yet used to the title and remarked, "Don't call me ‘Dean', George, I haven't got used to it yet. You know they used to call them Deacons in the Middle Ages."

Equipping a new staff member with a desk and a chair was more difficult in those days that it is now, and was left to the building caretaker. I remember Scotty MacLean telling me that he had an old desk in the basement which might do for me, and I readily accepted it, sight unseen. It was brought up to the Classics Office and I was duly installed at it early in September, 1938, when I began my duties in the Department. A few weeks later we had a visit from a senior member of the staff who asked me where I had found my desk. I told him that Mr. MacLean had obtained it for me from somewhere in the basement of the Arts Building. The professor said, "I don't know whether you know it or not, but that was Dr. Tory's desk." I was not surprised, for it was a very elaborate and very unusual piece of furniture, and must have dated from at least 1908, and probably much earlier.

The first year was devoted to teaching fifteen hours a week. It might seem like a heavy schedule, but it was a great relief from the twenty-four hours a week which I had left in my previous appointment. Any spare time I had was devoted to making the acquaintance of the books in classics and ancient history in the Library, and preparing bibliographies for my students. To provide a change of pace, I had the opportunity of visiting a number of towns across Alberta, where I spoke to teachers' conventions and other groups, and for still further variety, prepared talks for broadcast over CKUA. In those days it was such an honor to be permitted to "go on the air" that no one dreamed of asking to be paid for it. In any case, the budget of the station did not provide for such fringe benefits for the staff.

The next six years were marked by the increasing tempo of the war in Europe, and later in the Pacific, and those of us who could not go on active service found ourselves more and more deeply involved in Reserve Officer Training programs on the campus, along with our regular teaching duties. My own lot fell in with the COTC and the memory of the wonderful young men who took their training in this and the other units is one I shall cherish for the rest of my life. Some of them were killed on active service, but many of them returned for further studies after the war, along with thousands who were entering University in the fall of 1945 for the first time.

With the return of the student veterans the work in the office of the Dean of Arts and Science increased very rapidly, and I had the privilege of working with Dean John Macdonald as his Assistant in helping register the students in the fall of 1945, and the "January Class" which we set up beginning in 1946. Many of those young men have achieved great distinction in their careers since graduation, and are among my close friends today. They were a wonderful group and although the problem of accommodating them was enormous, we all felt that our efforts were fully justified, though the year 1946 was one in which no real break occurred in the way of a summer holiday for most of the staff.

By January, 1947, the problem of planning new buildings and coping with the increase in student numbers had become so great that Dr. Robert Newton, the President, had to have the help of a personal assistant, and he asked me whether I would be interested. I told him that I would be delighted to help in any way I could, but that I would be very reluctant to reduce my teaching responsibilities, or to leave the close association with students of all kinds that I enjoyed as Assistant to the Dean of Arts and Science. Dr. Newton appreciated my reluctance and told me that the new post might have greater challenge and, in the end, I agreed to join his office as "Academic Assistant to the President."

I had expected that my new duties would be academic in nature, as my title indicated, but the first two major problems that I encountered were a layman's analysis of the financial statement for the Board of Governors, and an incipient strike at the University Farm. Happily, both problems were solved satisfactorily, and in the years in which I served as Assistant in the President's Office I found my duties so varied that life was never dull. One of the tasks I took on was that of providing stories about the University for publication in the local press, and particularly stories about students, which we could send on to their hometown weekly newspapers. I was greatly assisted in this by two students, Dick Sherbaniuk, now a senior member of our medical staff, and Bruce Powe, who has had a fascinating career as journalist, assistant to a cabinet minister, public relations officer for a political party, and author. I could not have had two finer assistants in my public relations work for the University.

Following Dr. Newton's retirement I continued to assist Dr. Andrew Stewart until, in 1952, Dean Macdonald retired, and I was asked to succeed him as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science. It was a great pleasure to return to more direct contact with students and their problems, and I enjoyed my five years in this office very much, indeed. The opportunity of helping students find themselves was one that never ceased to interest and challenge me, and it was only with the greatest of reluctance that I agreed to leave this position to become Vice-President in 1957. I did so only because Dr. Stewart was very heavily engaged, not only in his administrative duties as President of the University, but in Royal Commissions as well, and it was perfectly obvious that he needed help, and needed it at once. Our relations were always of the best. Then, in November, 1958, he suddenly decided to accept the urgent request of the federal government of the day to head the newly created Board of Broadcast Governors. I still remember with a sense of shock hearing of his decision to leave on January 31 for Ottawa and his new post.

I was still carrying on a class and for the balance of that year I had the privilege of being not only President, but my own Vice-President and part-time Professor of Classics as well. It was a busy period.

I had really no desire to be Vice-President, and even less to be President, since I had seen enough of the burdens of the office when I was Assistant to Dr. Newton and to Dr. Stewart, but in view of the urgency of finding someone to carry on, following Dr. Stewart's resignation, I agreed to serve at least for a year or two "until a permanent appointment could be made." However, the years passed, and the proper time to leave the office did not seem to appear, until last fall, when I came to the conclusion that I had served as long as I should, and the time had come to turn over the office to a younger man, better fitted than I to cope with organization charts, line and staff relationships, and the innumerable committees on which a President must sit.

It would be difficult to say what part of my work at the University I enjoyed most, although teaching in the classroom must rank near the top. I also enjoyed my counselling work with students when I was Assistant to the Dean, and later Dean.

It was always a pleasure, too, to see the way in which people in other centres sought to increase the contribution to higher education that might be made in their areas. First of all, of course, was Calgary, where the old Normal School developed into a branch of our Faculty of Education, then provided programs in Arts and Science, and ultimately became a major arm of The University of Alberta, destined for rapid growth until it achieved autonomy and separate status as The University of Calgary. The close contacts I had with the staff, students, and citizens of Calgary were a delight, although I felt sometimes that the impatience of the Calgarians for autonomy was a bit excessive.

It was similarly a great satisfaction to share in the plans for the establishment of a Junior College at Lethbridge, and later, similar institutions in Medicine Hat, Red Deer, and Grande Prairie. Camrose, of course, was a special case, in which an institution with long traditions of service in the field of secondary education, raised its status to that of a Junior College offering University courses. I still feel a close bond of interest with all these institutions, and look with pride and pleasure on their increasing capacity to serve the students of their areas in the field of higher education.

A university is a special kind of community and our University has always had members of a very high calibre. This includes not only faculty members and students, but members of the Senate and the Board of Governors as well. The friendships I have made among all these groups have been a joy to me over the years.

The past thirty-one years at The University of Alberta have been interesting, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding, and in retrospect I would not have wished to miss any of the experiences I have had, not only on this campus, but in university affairs nationally and internationally. I still think a university career is the most rewarding anyone can have, and I could wish for no other.

In the days ahead I look forward, with keen anticipation, to returning to the books I have loved, and the students with whom I have always enjoyed working, and shall enjoy meeting in the classroom again next year.

Published October 1969.

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