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The Returned Men

They were more fortunate than thousands of their friends and colleagues who did not return from the Second World War. They knew it, and they could never forget it. It colored their lives.

What follows is the story of the returned men and the impact they had on the University in the heady, booming years after the war. It is a story told in part through the words of people who were there: teachers, classmates, and some of the returned men themselves.

At the end of term in the spring of 1945, University of Alberta students took a break from their studies sure in the knowledge that the end to the war in Europe was imminent. They were confident that victory against Japan would follow.

But no one knew for sure when the Germans would capitulate — as it turned out, surrender came soon, on 5 May 1945. And no one could imagine the history-shattering events that would result in the Japanese surrender on 12 August of that summer. Nor could anyone have imagined the changes that the end of the war would bring to the University.

Fifty years ago this fall, the U of A welcomed its biggest freshman class ever: more than 1,000, a staggering number compared with the fewer-than-300 who had signed up for classes only a year before. The influx of veterans marked a growth spurt that was both unprecedented and has remained unsurpassed in University history.

Before the War had even ended, the Canadian government had publicized plans for the "rehabilitation" of "returned men" — plans that included generous assistance for those who wished to begin or continue university studies. When Japan surrendered, the Canadian military authorities suddenly announced they would "demobilize forthwith" any soldier who could produce evidence that he would be granted entrance to a university. The very next day the University received a deluge of cablegrams and telegrams, each asking for a statement that the University was willing to admit the sender.

When the flood of returned men began, an estimated 150 civilians were turned away, asked to put off their University entrance for a year or two, to make room for the vets. To provide even more spaces, the University added a complete session commencing in January 1946 and terminating in July — "Fortunately it was possible to dispense with this rather desperate expedient after one trial," says one contemporary report.

The returning soldiers had a tremendous impact on the University community, and not just because of their numbers. Their age and life experience set them apart from their civilian classmates. They were older, and some were married and had children. Unlike the beanie-wearing, joke-playing freshmen of earlier years, these students were at University for one reason: to get an education that would land them a job and a foot up in the world.

Many of the vets had been out of school for years, some because the war had interrupted their studies, others because they had gone straight from high school to work, and it was only after serving in the Canadian Forces that they decided that they would go on to higher education.

The U of A did its best to help the returned men get acclimated to the academic environment. An article in the 27 September 1945 issue of The Gateway reported that approximately 150 "rehabilitation students," as the returning men were sometimes called, were taking advantage of special refresher courses to "brush up on some of their high school subjects" including French, Latin, algebra, trigonometry, and analytical geometry.

Said the article, "One chap recently returned from the R.C.A.F., and now entering engineering, was heard to comment, 'this math course is just about the best thing I've run across.' Another, a fellow just released from the Navy and about to enter Pharmacy, stated, ' These language courses are tops, too."'

Studying was only one aspect of academic life that the returned men had to get used to. They were accustomed to following orders for life-and-death situations. Now they were following orders— from professors and administrators — for what could seem, in comparison, fairly trivial matters. Sometimes the contrast got to them, and they wasted no time letting those in charge know just how they felt.

The arrival of the vets meant an adjustment for everyone — and the campus itself underwent a remarkable transformation. Like most North American universities, the U of A was physically unprepared for the flood of veterans. To say the campus was overcrowded was an understatement. "We were squashed," remembers Frank Haley, '51 BSc, '53 MD, '57 MSc, a vet who enrolled at the University in the fall of 1947.

No new buildings had gone up since before the war, yet the number of students had more than doubled. Only two rooms, both in the old Medical Building (now the Dentistry/Pharmacy Centre), were big enough to handle classes of more than 100. To accommodate the mushrooming student population, there were classes six days a week beginning at 8:00 in the morning. The administration also scheduled classes in the old University High School building and the Normal School, which later became the Education Building and later yet Corbett Hall.

By the fall of 1946, the University began tackling the classroom shortages with longer-term measures. The most prominent and, ubiquitous solution: Quonset huts. These round-roofed buildings of a style first used at the naval base at Quonset, Rhode Island could hold up to 160 students. Some of the huts were used for classrooms, others for labs. "They do not add to the beauty of the campus by any stretch of the imagination," reported The Gateway, "but they are a necessity in today's emergency."

Finding housing proved to be an even bigger problem. There weren't enough rooms on campus to accommodate all the vets, even when bunk beds were installed in dormitories. And there surely wasn't room for the wives and children of the returned men.

In the fall of 1945, 64 married vets were "temporarily" put up in the Varsity Rink. They slept on bunk beds in "dressing rooms," expecting to be reunited with their families by November. That's when the City of Edmonton was expected to have converted enough prefabricated huts from Dawson Creek into suites for the vets. But the project hit a snag early in October when the supply of building materials dried up. According to The Gateway, the provincial government did "everything within its power to speed up construction of the servicemen's homes," but it wasn't enough.

The situation nearly got out of hand at the end of October, when the University announced that it was evicting the hockey rink residents to ready the facility for winter sports. The vets were urged to try and find accommodations off campus.

That's when the Canadian University Returned Men's Association sprang into action. CURMA was a lobbying group formed at the suggestion of three University faculty members: COTC officer and entomology professor Col. E.H. Strickland, University librarian and advisor to student veterans Donald Cameron, and applied science dean R.S.L. Wilson. It did everything from sponsoring dances for the vets to lending them money. But its principal headache was what the 1946 Evergreen and Gold yearbook referred to as "the desperate housing shortage."

CURMA established a committee to field phone calls and go door-to-door to find rooms in the Garneau area, and appealed to everyone at the University to help. But as The Gateway reported, finding the necessary accommodations wasn't easy. Hardest of all to place were vets with children, who "strangely enough, are viewed by prospective land-lords as a form of bubonic plague." When only a handful of the vets were able to find off-campus housing, the University decided to allow the rest to remain in the hockey rink. Once the vets and their families were reunited, there were more unexpected challenges. Wives who had assumed that their husbands would return and be strictly family men couldn't help but be disappointed when those husbands began showering more attention on schoolbooks than on their families. And while there were activities for wives, it wasn't always easy for them to take advantage of the social events, what with limited budgets, children to care for, and the difficulty of getting to campus.

The wives formed social communities of their own, recalls former CURMA president Kenneth Crockett, '46 BA, '47 LLB. They would play bridge and help each other out with babysitting. Single returned men also helped by forming a babysitting service. And when stresses began to near the breaking point, the vets and their families could take advantage of a counselling service offered through CURMA.

As serious as they were about education, the vets did take time out for fun. One of the more unusual social events was the "Baby Challenge" held in 1947-48 — a kind of national baby beauty pageant for the children of veterans. "It must be remembered," reported the 1948 Evergreen and Gold, "that an Alberta baby was the winner in the national contest, regardless of UBC's claims."

There was plenty of grown-up socializing as well — dances, socials, teas, and various gatherings. The "Froph Ball" — the annual freshman-sophomore dance — went on every year, as did "Waw-Waw Weekend," the U of A's "Sadie Hawkins" event, when "freshettes" and other "co-eds" got to ask out the men on campus. There were concerts, plays, and guest speakers, several of whom predicted another world war. One of the more popular programs was a series of lectures on sex, morals, and marriage offered by Dean Trendall of All Saints' Anglican Cathedral. Topics included "I Find a Partner" and "How to Live Happily Ever After."

It's too much to expect that all those who attended the lectures did, in fact, live happily ever after. But there is no doubt that many of those attending the U of A in the immediate post-war years went on to lives filled with significant accomplishments. They became community, provincial, and national leaders, diplomats, businessmen, university professors, Supreme Court judges, doctors, lawyers, writers. They helped to shape their communities — in Edmonton, in Alberta, in Canada, and beyond — just as their presence helped transform the University of Alberta into the institution that it is today.

By the mid-1950s all but a very few of the veterans had passed through the University They left in boom years: Alberta's economy, fueled by the black gold discovered at Leduc in 1947 and the optimism of the times, was booming; the post-War baby boom was in full swing; and the University itself was riding the tide of the times — by 1955-56 its budget, less than $1.5 million ten years earlier, had swelled to almost $5 million and was still climbing.

It was against this backdrop that the veterans left campus, eager to make up for lost time. Their leaving — unlike their arrival — went largely unnoticed. No monument marks their passing. Even the Quonset huts that were the longest-lasting reminder of their presence have disappeared from the now­crowded campus. The returned men came and went: their deeds are their legacy; the changes they wrought, their monument.

I can remember the day when the Invasion [the invasion of Normandy in June 1944] was. We were walking in Queen Elizabeth Park with a Naval commander from the British Fleet whose ship was in Philadelphia being refitted because it had been hit pretty hard, and he was out to look at some land that his father owned. It was a very beautiful night here. The moon was shining and we were walking in Queen Elizabeth Park, and he looked up and said, `Oh I hope it's like this in Britain tonight,' and I said,'Why?' and he said, `Because it would be a nice night there, too.' And the next day it was all over the world, that the Invasion was on. He was hoping for good weather for a good landing. I think he knew that night. He knew for many days, maybe weeks, that that would be one of the days they'd go. – George Ford

George Ford, '42 BSc(Eng), '46 MSc, '88 LLD (Honorary), was working as a field engineer on the Alaska Highway in 1942 when the short-staffed Faculty of Engineering asked him to return to Edmonton to teach. Now a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, Ford taught at the U of A until his retirement in 1985. During his time on campus, he served as the first chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and as dean of the Faculty of Engineering.

I remember what we did on VE day and VJ day. We went downtown and everybody gathered on the streets downtown and we just walked around in crowds and hooted and hollered and honked horns. We didn't do anything special; we just gathered as a community of people and rejoiced that it was over.– Dorothy Ward Harris

Dorothy Ward Harris, '46 BA, in the address she gave as historian of her graduating class, told her contemporaries, "Others have fought through war. We must fight through peace. "An active member of the Women's Athletics Association as a student, she went on to earn a graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin before returning to teach at the U of A in 1965. A popular instructor in the former department of Physical Education and Sport Studies, she became a professor emeritus in 1990.

I would have to say those of us who were there before that were pretty much kids, having fun studying, not too aware of the war. When [the veterans] came back we had this sense of their seriousness and their maturity. They were interested in getting their education and getting on with their lives, whereas we had been having lots of fun as well as studying: I think in a way it helped us mature a little more at the end of our time there- it helped us be more realistic about going out to face the world on our own, having people with those experiences around us. – Maurice Roe

Maurice Roe, '49 BCom, had been a student at the Uof A for less than three months when he turned 18 late in 1944 and quit his studies to join the service. He was discharged less than a year later when the age limit was raised to 19. After graduating from the Faculty of Business, he joined Coca Cola's fountain sales department, and eventually worked his way up to the positions of senior vice-president of Coca Cola International, and vice-president of the Coca Cola Company. Now living in Atlanta, Georgia, he retired three years ago.

I came right from high school. I was just 17 and a half when the war finished, so I was one of the kids in the class. To some degree there was a generation gap — an experience gap. After a couple of years on campus, I went into the law school and there were 32 in my class, and I think there were only about a half dozen of us who were not ex-servicemen. That was when I thought, we'll sort of pull together. Even though a lot of my classmates were a lot older than I, everybody got to know each other much better and the groups got very much closer together — so much so that in 1949 when I ran for president of the Students' Union most of my classmates who worked on my campaign were war veterans.– Tevie Miller

Tevie Miller, '49 BA, '50 LLB, '91 LLD (Honorary), the head of the cheer team while a student, returned to his alma mater as chancellor from 1986 to 1990. The former associate chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench, his extensive community interests include the Edmonton Community Foundation, Alberta College, the Edmonton Symphony Society, and the United Way. He served on the organizing boards for the Commonwealth Games in 1978 and the World Student Games in 1983.

The first essay in one of these classes [of veterans] came in. I glanced through it and brought it back the next day. Before I turned it back, I gave them each a sheet of foolscap and asked them to put their name on top. I said 'Now look at your neighbor, see if he hasn't been too stupid, and if he has, put his name on for him.' (There were always one or two who forgot.) I said. 'Before I turn back your essays, I want you to do a very short resume of what your essay was about.' And there were six of them who hadn't had the decency to read the essays their wives wrote for them. The other guys had a good laugh at their expense. – Aylmer Ryan

Aylmer Ryan, '39 BA, '40 MA, Was completing graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley when the war interrupted his studies. After serving overseas, he returned to the U of A in 1946 to teach in the English Department, helping to handle the crush of returned veterans to the student body. Ryan became the warden at Assiniboia Hall and later the University's provost, in charge or student affairs and discipline. He later returned to military service to complete two tours of duty in the Korean War.

It was difficult going to class because you were used to a life of movement and doing things. You came back to a structured society where you had to sit down and study. – Kenneth Crockett

Kenneth Crockett, '46 BA, '47 LLB, began his University education in 1938, but interrupted his studies to join the Air Force. When he came back to study law in The fall term of 1944, no first-year classes were being offered, so he took his second year first, and his first year second. During his career, Crockett was Chief Crown Prosecutor with the Alberta attorney general's office for five years, and received the honorary appointment Queen's Counsel. He also practised with a private law firm in Edmonton, where he is now retired.

One professor was a known communist. One time, in one of my classes, he started to talk about the evils of the West and guns versus butter, and some of the veterans simply closed their notebooks, stood up and walked out of the classroom. He shouted after them, 'You can't leave my class! Give me your names! I'll report you!' To those of us who were 18 years old and had never seen this flouting of authority, that was really something. My wife remembers someone from British Intelligence, a future Rhodes Scholar, came to class one morning. The teacher started to ask various students if they had done their assignments. Some of them had not. She was very irritable about this. She turned to this one fellow and said, `Did you do your assignment?' He said 'No, and I don't intend to.' She asked why, and he said,'`I think it's a waste of my time.' She was astonished. She said, 'I see,' and she didn't ask anyone else if they had done it, and that was the end of it. – Richard Sherbaniuk

Richard Sherbaniuk, '48 BSc, '52 MD, '56 MSc, was an editor and columnist for The Gateway while completing medical school. After doing post-graduate work at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan for two years, he returned to Edmonton as the first gastroenterologist in Alberta and taught in the U of A Faculty of Medicine. He lives in Edmonton with his wife, Dodie.

They were grown up. They had been off fighting battles and doing whatever they damned well felt like and many had been officers in very high command. I am thinking of a couple who came back highly decorated and they'd spent the last few years dive-bombing over Stuttgart and whatever, and they weren't having some creepy old professor telling them what they could do and what they couldn't do. Nothing liberated the campus like the veterans coming back.– Dodie Sherbaniuk

Georgina "Dodie" Sherbartiuk (Yule), '48 BA, began studying at the U of A one year before the war ended, when first-year girls were expected to march drills across campus — an exercise she found "fairly worthless.'" She earned a degree in honors languages and worked for several years before marrying Richard Sherbaniuk. They live in Edmonton, and have five children.

We didn't really complain about the facilities. Geology was kind of nice because it was at 8 in the morning and they would show slides first thing in the morning and after you'd taken the streetcar over you could catch some sleep. When Bob Folinsbee would turn the lights on I think 50 percent of the class would be asleep. – James Hole

We had to have classes in scattered places all over campus. The pressure on classroom space was so great that the interval between classes was extended from 10 to 15 minutes so students could go from one faraway building to another. The campus was covered with huts, all over the place, and our students had to go in some of them. They were adequate. They weren't built for luxury.– Wilbur Bowker

Wilbur Bowker, '30 BA, '32 LLB, '72 LLD (Honorary), was a lawyer­turned-soldier when he was pressed into active duty at the U of A law school in 1945. It was supposed to be a one-year posting but Bowker remained, becoming dean of the Faculty of Law faculty for 20 years and director of the Law Reform Institute for several years. In 1989 he received the President's Award, the highest honor of the Canadian Bar Association, and he became an Officer in the Order of Canada in 1990. He is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law and lives in Edmonton.

We had no room. My first lecture was to 232 engineering students in Med 158. Labs were a bigger problem. The first labs were from 8:00 to 11:00, the next from 12:00 to 3:00, the next from 3:00 to 6:00, and the next from 7:00 to 10:00. I shared another office with a staff member and students wanted to come and talk to you and there was no room. With 500 students you should have a lot of student-teacher interaction. When I walked into an analytical lab after doing a 12:00 to 1:00 lecture and the lab had over 100 students in it, immediately a line of students formed. We had what were called demonstrators, third- and fourth-year students. But the students in the lab, if I was there, would go past the demonstrators. A line would form. That would go on until 6 o'clock. In the first year I had 500 students in classes and labs. No teaching assistants. You did the marking. In my first year, I knew the names of all of my 500 students. In the second year, I had about 500 students but sometimes I'd be confused. In the third year, I had another 500 students, roughly speaking. Then I'd see another student and I would not be sure if it was a student from this year or from the year before. I had 5,000 students in my first 10 years. – Walter Harris

The university was exploding in size. I had 246 [students] altogether in three classes. I had all their essays and exams to mark. Classes started at 8 a.m. Monday morning and they ended noon on Saturday. The classes were full. There's no doubt about that. But in the army huts, things were rather looser than they would be in the classrooms, which were pretty well packed with the long standing benches and chairs and so on. But in the huts they could spread out more. Mostly they just sat on chairs and benches. – Aylmer Ryan

CURMA was active. It was a pressure group to get housing for returning veterans, particularly the ones who were married. We ran a housing bureau. It was a question of people indicating their need and getting listed and then matching things up. That involved a good map of Edmonton and getting people organized. People were very much in the spirit. – Willard Pybus

Willard Pybus, '47 BEd, '49 MA, was a 24-year-old Air Force vet and former teacher when he entered the U of A in the fall of 1945. As the 1946-47 president of the Students' Union, his primary responsibility was constructing the first Students' Union Building. He later worked in the Canadian Foreign Service, and is now retired in Victoria.

Everybody lived in boarding houses. It was considered almost a civic duty for families in Garneau to take University students. I lived in three different ones. Some of them were wonderful, some of them were just god-awful, and most of them gave breakfast but not lunch and dinner. My freshman year I was living with four other girls from Calgary in a big house on 85th Avenue. The reason we got in is we used to be neighbors of this lady and my mother phoned and asked if she could take us. [The landlady] was very chintzy and used to measure out the cocoa and whatnot the night before so we wouldn't take too much. When we heard, as it turned out, falsely, that the residences would be opened after Christmas we all went and signed up. She found out and gave us all the boot. We had to find someplace else. I got very lucky and found a really, really nice place with a dear old lady whose family just wanted to have somebody living there with her. – Dodie Sherbaniuk

In 1946 a friend of mine at the University of Minnesota whose mother lived in Edmonton said his mother was coming to Minnesota for a vacation for six weeks. He arranged for us to stay in her house in Forest Heights. After that I couldn't find anything, so I took my wife and kid to my parents' home in Wetaskiwin. I'd go back there Saturday afternoon and come back here Sunday night. Another time a judge from the Northwest Territories was going to get married, so we rented his house in Garneau. I think my wife told me we moved 12 times that first year. When I had accepted the job here, I was told they'd be building housing for new staff. I came here and they hadn't even broken ground. By spring they had built what was called Rabbit Row [so named because it was for faculty members with children — and those being the early years of the Baby Boom, there were plenty of children] but then they partly reneged. Instead of saying you have one of the units, they told me, 'you'll be on a list and we'll choose.' I was chosen, but I felt a little resentful about that. – Walter Harris

Sometimes we thought the wives should get the degree rather than the man. They were holding the home front and it wasn't easy. They were staying in barracks almost. – George Ford

It was the matter of getting to know their wives and making it a joint commitment to go to have him complete university. It was a bit of a comedown for the wives because they were looking forward to his coming back and getting a job and having support. It took a lot of dedication on the part of the wives to see their husbands through. There were a goodly number of wives that worked. And a goodly number of marriages that broke up. That's why we had the counselling.– Kenneth Crockett

We were very pleased to get out of the army and get back into real life. We were all very enthused, really looking forward to Canada being in a growth phase... I was born on a farm and to me [Edmonton] was the big city, and it was really living. I was really grateful for the chance to get off the farm. I had no enthusiasm to be a chambermaid to a cow. – Frank Haley

Frank Haley, '51 BSc, '53 MD, '57 MSc, '95 BA, was a photographer for The Gateway while completing medical school after the war. In 1964 he received one of two fellowships in anesthesia granted by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and practised at the University Hospitals until his retirement in 1990. A former president of the U of A Medical Alumni Association and of the Defence Medical Association of Canada, he was active in the Canadian Forces Reserve and spent six months on a peace-keeping mission to Egypt in 1974-75.

When I went there first it was like a girls' school. There were a whole lot more women than there were men. It rapidly changed and the girls loved it because it went the other way. – Maurice Roe

Going from my first year when we were just little high school girls with just these young boys who were either too young to get into the service or didn't make it for health reasons, to have the campus suddenly transformed into something different —-there were so many men. Hot dog! And it just put a different light to the whole campus as I remember it. I don't think I'm looking at it through rose-colored glasses. It changed the whole atmosphere. – Dodie Sherbaniuk

It was the era of the big band; I danced to Tommy Dorsey. Several of the big bands came through Edmonton because of all the military. They played over at the Armoury. We had most of our University functions at the Macdonald Hotel and they were all formal, and we had our very first American-style nightclub which was the Club Roosevelt on Jasper Avenue just east of Mike's Newsstand. All of our dances prior to that time were held in large rooms, big gyms or ballrooms. The American-style one had a dance floor that was about 10 feet by 10 feet and the rest was tables. The only way you could have liquor was to bring it in and hide it in a cubbyhole under the table. – Dorothy Ward Harris

We came over a couple of years but we left after two years, three years, or a five- or six-year course. We did sort of spread out, kind of drift away. There wasn't a sharper end point like there was a beginning. It's only when you look back that you realize what a significant time it was, when you talk to your grandchildren ... But for me, it was probably the best time of my life. – Frank Haley

Published Summer 1995.

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