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Taking Care: The Legacy of Reg Lister

Among the building names at the University of Alberta are the purely descriptive: Arts, Central Academic, Health Services, Administration... There are also the historic and regional: Athabasca, Assiniboia and Pembina.

Other buildings continue the names of men. Of bold explorers: Henday, Kelsey and Alexander Mackenzie. Of the University’s founders and their successors: Tory, Rutherford, Newton, Walter Mackenzie... And of a humble man who came to Alberta well after the explorers, helped build the University not with legislation or unclouded vision but with a shovel, and touched its students not with administrative virtuosity but by knowing when to look the other way — and when not to.

That man was Reg Lister, whose name is kept alive by the central hall of the University’s main residence complex, which in its entirety is also known as Lister Hall. The naming of the new residence in his honor in the mid-1960s was a testimony not to any position he held, although he had attained the title of "superintendent of residences" by the time he retired in 1949, but to the very genuine affection with which the University community regarded him.

In the spring of 1949, when he installed Reginald Charles Lister as an honorary member of Convocation, University President Robert Newton commented upon the "spontaneous enthusiasm among, students, graduates and staff" touched off by the action of the Senate and Board in approving Mr. Lister for the honor. The graduating class made a ceremony of admitting him to membership in their ranks, and the Alumni Association followed suit, presenting him with a certificate of honorary membership.

At the Class of 1949 valedictory exercises, Alan Armstrong, chairman of the men’s house committee, spoke about Mr. Lister. About how the residence superintendent struck terror into the hearts of "obstreperous" freshmen, but how no student ever left the residence halls without feeling that Mr. Lister was his personal friend. And he said that Mr. Lister, though not a member of the academic staff of the University, had taught the students some of the most important things they had learned on campus. He had taught them "how to live together."

As a youngster in England, Mr. Lister had had early experience of living together in a close community: he was one of ten children born to the keeper of a small shop in the tiny Norfolk village of Hingham, which is best known to history as the place which Abraham Lincoln’s forbearers left to come to America.

In 1910, at the age of 19, Reg Lister also succumbed to the lure of opportunity on the other side of the Atlantic and left England to seek his fortune in Canada. His first stopping place was the small Alberta farming community of Heatherbrae, south of Camrose, where his sister, a school-teacher, had preceded him. He later found work in the nearby town of Ohaton, but the capital city of the new province beckoned, and Coronation Day 1911 found him in Edmonton with plans to stay.

It was while watching the Coronation Day parade that he discovered two former acquaintances of his own age from England. They told him that they started work the next day building some houses on the University campus, and they encouraged him to come along in the hopes of finding a job.

In My Forty-Five Years on Campus, the slim volume in which he preserved his memories of the University, Mr. Lister recalled his hiring.

"I was staying with my aunt, so she packed me a lunch, and I left her place at 6 a.m. in order to start work at 7. The boys took me to the foreman and I asked for a job. He said that I was too small, but he would try me out. The job was digging the basement for the President’s Residence, Number 1, University Campus. As I had never seen a house being built, let alone work on one, the work was all new to me. But I worked hard and got along with the men, so the foreman kept me on at 25 cents an hour."

In the fall of 1911, Lister assisted in the moving of the University to newly-completed Athabasca Hall on campus from its temporary quarters.

"In September I helped move equipment from the Strathcona Institute, which is now Strathcona High School, into Athabasca, where I lit the first fire in the kitchen. It did not draw, so I had to cut the chimney out and put in a bigger thimble before it would burn.

The building stood by itself, surrounded by bush. Where the Arts Building now stands, were an abandoned basement excavated in 1908, and two old shacks. There were no sidewalks or roads. The trails to Athabasca came around sloughs or across the field from 112 Street. There were no trucks or cars in those days and everything had to be hauled by horse and wagon-bricks, stone, lumber, furniture, equipment. It was quite a job and often the wagons would get stuck in mud up to the axles."

The affable and hard-working young Englishman quickly became well-known on campus, catching even President Tory’s eye. Soon the president, ever quick to recognize the potential in people, had plans for Lister.

"During the winter of 1913-14, I had the job of checking the loads of bricks that were being delivered for the University buildings. It was a nice job and paid $3.00 a day. All I had to do was to check the loads and see that there were 1,000 bricks in each load. Between times I could sit in the office and keep warm. It suited me fine for a winter job, but my luck did not hold. One morning Dr. Tory came over to me during his daily walk and asked me what I was doing. He told me he had something different for me and asked me to call at his office at ten o’clock the next morning. So the next day I put on a decent suit and at 10 a.m. proceeded to the president’s office. Mr. Ashworth (the first bursar) and Dr. MacEachern were there with the president. They had my new job all figured out, but they wanted to discuss salary. I was finally hired at $80.00 a month, plus room."

The campus was in the middle of an epidemic of mumps and 18 male students were bedridden, some in the Athabasca Hall infirmary and others in appropriated rooms in Assiniboia. Lister’s new job was to take care of the afflicted students — feed them, bathe them, and keep their rooms clean. Lister referred to this as the beginning of his "taking care." For the next 45 years, except for a period of service overseas during the First World War, his life would be intimately tied to the daily affairs of the University of Alberta residences.

Lister never lost the capacity to look at life through a student’s eyes, nor did he ever allow his responsibility to make him officious. And he was always quick to see the humor in situations.

...An Icelandic girl was the maid in the south wing of Assiniboia. She was a nice looking blond girl, about 30 years old. One day she had to hurry up to the bathroom and the nearest one was on the north wing of Athabasca, Room 47. Now a well-known Calgary lawyer was a student in those days and lived in Room 55 Athabasca, and the nearest bathroom was Room 47. On this day, Christina rushed into Room 47, took her master key and locked the door behind her, and then found the aforementioned student on the seat. It was a very small room and quite crowded with the two of them! Christina said, "Excuse me sir," and tried to get out the door again. But the key would not work. The student tried it and couldn’t make it work either. Finally he took the key, climbed out the window, intending to go around and unlock the door from the outside. But the maid climbed out the window after him; and you can imagine what it looked like to see a student climbing out of a bathroom window and a maid climbing after him! I like to remind him of it whenever I see him.

"I remember a night the boys in Assiniboia were having a party and making lots of noise, so I went up to investigate. They were having a good time, drinking coffee and eating cake, but the window was open and you could hear them all over campus. It was quite late at night so I told them to shut the window and make less noise as I did not want to have any complaint from the professor who lived next door. The boys asked me who he was, and I told them — a well-known professor in political economy. The student replied: "That so-and-so! He sends me to sleep in his lectures every morning. It’s a pleasure to keep him awake."

While on leave in England in 1917, Lister had been married to Lilian Dyball, a childhood friend from Hingham, and his eldest daughter was born in England. When Lister returned to Alberta in 1919, he told the University authorities that he would need housing for his new family. The University gave him "temporary accommodation" in Athabasca Hall.

"We lived in the basement of Athabasca Hall for ten years, from 1920 to 1930, and you can guess what a time we had to raise three children there. Mr. Nichols who lived on the third floor, complained that he heard our clock strike. Our children could not practise the piano because of the noise. There was a regular thoroughfare past our door. It did not bother me as I was never home very much, being around the building 16 hours a day. And often after my family had gone to bed, I would take a bunch of students down to our kitchen and have a party. We would eat all the bread, cake and cookies my wife had around, and she would not know about it until the next day. Then I would hear about it! But the next week we would do the same thing again."

All three of Lister’s children went on to graduate from the University. Kay, now Mrs. Hugh Davidson, earned a bachelor of science degree in home economics in 1941; Joyce, now Mrs. David L. McNair, followed in her sister’s footsteps, gaining her home economics degree in 1948. Ronald earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1946 and supplemented it with a bachelor of education degree in 1968. Kay and Ronald live in Edmonton; Joyce now resides in Vancouver, B.C.

In My Forty-Five Years on Campus, Lister ended his memories (written "as if I was telling the story to a bunch of the boys") with passages which summarized the philosophy which he brought to residence life and which endeared him to successive generations of students.

"Of course there are always a few that will make a bit of trouble, but I have found that if a student does something seriously wrong, and is reported, he will take his medicine like a man. You cannot pester students about little things as it only annoys them and makes them worse. You have to be absolutely fair in all your dealings; for a little ill feeling can grow into a nasty situation — a hostile house. You cannot see everything the students do, some things are best not seen. But other things must have immediate correction..."

"I have mixed with the students in their games and helped them with their fun. I have been passed along the whole top floor of Athabasca over the heads of students. When the big raids were on I would go up to see what it was all about; and someone would grab me up over his head and then I would be passed along from one to another without ever touching the floor. By the time I arrived at the end of the line I would be lucky to have any clothes on. It was all in good fun and I couldn’t get mad at them."

"During my 45 years in residence I had done almost everything — undressing students and putting them to bed, as well as dressing some. I’ve reported some to the provost or other University officials, as well as shielding some when it seemed necessary. I have always tried to be fair to the students and the University. I have helped the blind and the lame. And I’ve enjoyed some of the parties – not all of them. I’ve helped students with their tricks and condemned others. I’ve always tried to make the students’ time in residence as pleasant as possible. Some of them have grown from boys into men and I’ve watched how they developed over the years. It has been an interesting life..."

Although Reg Lister died in 1960, his memory remains very much alive, particularly among the countless students whose lives he touched. In recognition of the importance to the university experience of the qualities which Reg Lister exemplified, the Alumni Association recently created a scholarship in his name. The Reg Lister Memorial Scholarship will be awarded annually to a student who has contributed significantly to the quality of University life while maintaining a satisfactory academic record. Alumni, particularly those who knew Reg Lister, are invited to contribute to the Lister Scholarship Fund by using the coupon provided.

In their Brother’s Footsteps
Two of Reg Lister’s brothers followed his lead in obtaining employment at the University of Alberta. Harry began work in Assiniboia Hall in 1912 and later transferred to the Arts Building, where he was head janitor until 1940. Bob joined the staff of the department of zoology in 1923 and made significant contributions to the department’s collections. (In the Autumn 1986 New Trail an article on the University’s collections incorrectly gave Reg Lister credit for his brother Bob’s involvement with the zoological collection.)

Published Spring 1987.

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