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Coming to Alberta

Excerpts from Echos in the Hall:
An Unofficial History of the University of Alberta

In 1961, a year before completing my PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Liverpool, I started to ponder my future. There were three Canadians in the department at that time, two young postdoctoral fellows plus Harry Schiff, a physics professor on sabbatical from the University of Alberta.

One day, over coffee, I asked the two young postdocs if there were any good universities in Canada where I could apply for a postdoctoral fellowship (which is a sort of physicists' purgatory). One of them said to me, "How about the University ofAlberta? Talk to Harry." The other offered a little extra incentive. "They don't do much physics there, but they have lots of money!"

I found this remark only mildly amusing, so you can imagine my puzzlement at the sight of these two fellows doubled over with raucous laughter. I knew nothing about the oil riches of Alberta at the time. In fact, I did not know where Alberta was on the map of Canada.

Two years later, in 1963, I remembered their advice. I wrote Harry a handwritten aerogram asking if there might be a job for me at the University of Alberta. He wrote back immediately, offering me a postdoctoral fellowship. For the first time, I looked up Edmonton in an atlas, expecting to find it somewhere in the frozen tundra.

Several physics professors at the U of A had links to the University of Liverpool. Among them was Avadh Bhatia (after whom the Physics Building at the University ofAlberta is named). In 1963, he spent a sabbatical in Liverpool, along with his wife, June.

Over tea one lovely autumn afternoon, Avadh gave me some advice that would make my first day in Edmonton memorable: "Don't do what the Canadians do. You will see them go out in minus thirty-degree weather in shirt sleeves. At that temperature, exposed flesh freezes in a matter of a few seconds! Wrap yourself tip well, even at the risk of looking a tad overdressed."

By the time my (then) wife and I left England, we had formed an image of an Edmonton where grizzlies roamed the streets alongside gun-toting cowboys wearing Stetsons at a jaunty angle, chewing on blades of grass, swaggering bow-legged in their pointy boots with spurs and spitting like lizards in heat.

In fact, when I informed my father (in what is now Bangladesh) that I was going to Canada, he sent me some advice, as any caring father would. "Watch out for bears and wolves when you go to the outhouse. And don't answer the call of nature after dark, even it means doing some extra laundry the next day."

We arrived in Edmonton at 3:00 a.m. on the last day of October 1963, by a Trans-Canada Airlines' Viscount on a milk run from Montreal. The next morning we woke up late. We drew the curtains warily, fearing to see the ground covered in snow. Instead, to our surprise, we were greeted by a stunningly clear day. Limpid sunshine bathed the trees as I had never seen. It looked like a crisp, cold day.

It was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch in Athabasca Hall, so we decided to go downtown for brunch. Paying heed to Avadh's advice, I wasn't about to take any chances. I wrapped my head and upper torso in my Liverpool University Science Faculty scarf, a veritable blanket in bold blue and white stripes designed for survival in emergencies such as being marooned on the Hebrides. Thus mummified, I put on my thick tweed jacket and a pair of grey flannel pants. Having fortified myself thus, I donned a thick dark blue winter coat as a final defensive measure against the flesh-freezing weather. A pair of leather gloves completed my accoutrements. Only my eyes were exposed to the harsh outside world.

As I took my first few tentative steps outside, I attracted bemused looks from the locals, who were indeed walking about in their shirt sleeves just as Avadh had told me! Good job that I was forewarned, I thought to myself.

We walked to the bus stop to go downtown, and, lo and behold, there were more of the crazy Canucks in their shirt sleeves! "Cold nuff fo' ya?" one of them said to me. As I felt the sweat beginning to course down my body in runnels, I have to admit that I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of Avadh's advice.

By the time the bus reached Jasper Avenue, I could feel my soaked shirt clinging uncomfortably to my body. I was swimming in my own sweat and on the verge of drowning. Just as we found a restaurant (well, actually more of an eatery, as there were no memorable restaurants on Jasper Avenue), we saw a neon sign flash the time and the temperature: 11:30 a.m. and 63 F!

You can imagine my embarrassment as I laboriously unswathed myself, layer by woolen layer, much to the amusement of the motley crowd assembled in the restaurant for their morning coffee.

-Abdul N. Kamal, Professor Emeritus ofPhysics

I came to Edmonton for a two-year stint and stayed a lifetime. How things have changed!

I'll never forget my first day at the Faculté. As I entered the door, my heart beating fast with excitement, what did I see? A young woman washing her hair in the sink! When she saw me out of the corner of her eye, she quietly wrapped a towel, Hollywood-style, around her dripping hair and asked if she could help me. She was the secretary. Still in her Carmen Miranda "hat," she showed me to my office: a totally empty room, except for a phone on the floor.

Talk about first impressions! Keeping my cool—which over the years I became very good at-I decided to view the situation as simple culture shock. The shock continued when I went hunting for someplace to live other than my hotel room. Well, guess what? I was not able to rent or even to buy an apartment or a house. Why? Because I was a single woman!

In the course of my search for a dwelling, I chatted with many people and heard many stories. One person told me about a middle-aged woman who swore that she smelled roses every Saturday as she passed a statue of the Virgin Mary erected on the Faculte grounds. Her story had been passed from one person to another, taking on such proportions that an official inquiry was conducted. The findings: in the house next door to the statue, they did the laundry every Saturday using a rose-scented detergent!

-Gamila Morcos, Professor Emeritus, Faculté Saint Jean

In 1953, I arrived in Edmonton in look for a job. It turned out that my taxi driver had just done the same. After checking his map of the city, he decided that the shortest route to the University campus was over the Groat Bridge. We found our way to the appointed place on the riverbank without difficulty, but lo and behold, either the bridge had sunk, or it had not yet been built. The latter proved to be true.

I eventually did manage to cross the North Saskatchewan River and became a U of A faculty member.

After spending five-and-a-half years in the San Francisco Bay area, coming to Edmonton was like entering a different world. Early in the oil boom days, the overwhelming impression was of mud. As the residential and industrial areas rapidly expanded, construction of paved roads and sidewalks could not keep pace, and there was little in the way of sod or landscaping to cope with the gumbo.

In those times, Edmonton's ballet performances were held in the Sales Stock Pavilion, for lack of a better venue. The makeshift platforms "whomped" with every graceful landing, and long, lonesome train whistles created melancholy discords within the music.

I remember being in Eaton's basement one Saturday, during our first November back in Canada, and being almost overwhelmed with nostalgia for the fresh daffodils that would have been blooming in our California garden. Grey November, with its bare deciduous trees and no snow cover, was (and is) surely Edmonton's bleakest month.

Nevertheless, even though our California employers had offered to keep our jobs open for a year, my husband and I decided to stay in Canada. For all of the most important things in life, we made the right move.

Since housing was extremely scarce in those boom days, the University provided incoming faculty with short-term accommodations in Pembina Hall, the ladies' residence. Every morning, I had to scout the hallway to make sure it was safe for my husband to emerge. Even then, he would back into the hallway from our suite.

In the big Athabasca Hall dining room, we all stood as grace was said (in Latin) before every meal. Proper dress and manners were the order of the day. Faculty members, a number of whom lived permanently in the residences, ate at a separate table. Dr. D. G. Revell, retired head of Anatomy, always had interesting stories to lighten the heavy discussion around the table. There was a definite pecking order at the table, with the junior professors being kept in their place while the more senior ones expounded at great length (the topics were no different than they are today, except in detail). This came as quite a shock after the casual and often irreverent atmosphere at the University of California.

-Mary Spencer, Professor Emeritus of Plant Science

We arrived in Edmonton on a cold snowy morning in late December 1947, after a three-day trip by train from Southern Ontario. I can still remember travelling slowly across the High Level Bridge in the department car as we followed a horse drawn sleigh transporting the day's milk on its way to those Garneauites awaiting door-to-door delivery.

We'd been met at the station by a blue-nosed easterner, whose claim to this distinction arose not from the weather but from his place of origin, the rural valleys of Yarmouth County in Nova Scotia. This was our first meeting with Dr. Bob Hilton, the head of the division of horticulture, Department of Plant Science, a man who was to become a mentor, friend and colleague for the next 40 years. Bob was far more than a horticulturist; he was a person with a vast knowledge and a sense of humor greatly appreciated by both colleagues and students.

Earlier that year, the University had provided 12 townhouses, in three buildings, for the housing of new academic staff. The buildings stood at the corner of 87 Avenue and 112 Street, just south of St Stephen's College, a space subsequently occupied by the Education and Household Economic Buildings.

If you were lucky enough to get one of these units, you were allowed to occupy it for four years. After that, your family was alleged to be wealthy enough to afford to go out on its own.

It was a great place to live. Our neighbors were all young and about the same age. Because most of us had children, the complex soon became known as "Rabbit Row."

We were a cosmopolitan bunch; in addition to the families of the Hiltons and Knowles, there were those belonging to a singer called Eaton, a tone-deaf soils specialist named Bentley, a geologist called Follinsbee, a play producer named Robert Orchard, a couple of chemists with the names Brown and Harris, a couple of Campbells (each with the first initial D), another Scot named Tweedie, a philosopher named Mardiros and an artist by the name of Jack Taylor.

The complex even had a father figure, Harry Sparby. Harry and his wife Cynthia, had no children, but he was the provost of the University and, therefore, deemed well qualified to serve our small community in this capacity.

During our time in Rabbit Row, many of the original group gave in to the urge to put down roots elsewhere. There was no shortage of suitable replacements, however. Families of Bakers, Goodales and Godfreys, Johnsons and Whiddens, Baldwins, Davys and Elders all applied for, and received, citizenship.

I don't think anyone, including the abundant offspring, would say that they did not enjoy their stay at Rabbit Row. We were a good social group, in spite of the fact that some of the men played bridge and the women had no time for it.

-Hugh Knowles, Professor Emeritus of Plant Science

Edmonton has been a great place to live and work, but I would have been surprised to encounter anyone back in the fall of 1951 who would have picked it, given a choice.

People had been born there, of course—at least that was the popular belief, though you could not prove it by the makeup of the University I was joining. Nearly everyone on faculty at the U of A was from someplace else.

Since then, of course, some have come back after trying it elsewhere and even more have chosen to stay put because of what the city and its people have to offer.

But in the early '50s, for someone from Vancouver via the University of Toronto, Edmonton was scarcely a household world. In fact, I had to look it up.

Even then, my wife, Bobbie, and I had little to go on-a faint whiff of oil and gas somewhere north of the Calgary Stampede, a hint of far-out Social Credit doctrine and more or less interesting claims about the vastness of the city's green space and its low pollen count. What it did have, however, indisputably, was a surprisingly large river valley, the serpentine entrails of the place, apparently; and most important of all, proximity to the Coast and 1,700 miles between it and the Toronto we could no longer stand.

We never looked back when we left it—and all the rest of the effete East we had never come to know. I had jumped at Alberta's $3,700 per annum for joining its seven-man Department of English.

With coveted job in hand and fire-sale Hillman (probably the singleworst car ever made to cope with Edmonton's winters: we took the battery in at night), it was Westward Ho! for my wife and me and newborn son. We headed for a place with oil, a river valley, weird politics and an absence, apparently, of stained-glass windows—a country at the outer edge of most known things, except for a university environment.

As a student, I had already come to love the University during my seven years in it and would, as professor, happily stay with it for at least another 33. There I pursued the most civilized and rewarding of activities in the lively company of bright and stimulating people, at least half of whom were perfectly normal. The other half included an absent-minded professor who, at a stop sign, got out of his car to assist a woman who had dropped her shopping bag and then hopped on a bus and went home.

That lay ahead, of course. For the moment it was exciting enough to set out for Edmonton, by a route simply picked off the map and never used since—through Glacier National Park and then straight north forever until the Calgary Trail reached Edmonton and 87 Avenue, where a sharp left turn towards the University seemed indicated.

You should try that particular route through Strathcona sometime: there isn't one. But two hours later, by now thoroughly conversant with back-street Edmonton, its sagging snow fences, clotheslines, telephone poles and garbage tins, we made it to the University-owned semi-detached house that was to be our home for a couple of years—two storeys complete with finished basement, fireplace and 10-foot by 20-foot garden plot right where the Education Building now stands, built at a cost (I am told) of $13,000 a unit.

-R. George Baldwin, Professor Emeritus of English

Published Winter 2000.

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