The unsung heroes of the University community are spouses. Many spouses make their contributions behind the scene, their patience and encouragement enabling a faculty member to excel in research or teaching, or a student to realize that hard-won degree. Others play a more visible role, active themselves in campus life.
In recent months the University community learned of the passing of two women, spouses who were well-known on campus in years past.
Reta Rowan, who died in Toronto in July, came to Edmonton in 1922 with her husband, the late Dr. William Rowan, who won international recognition for his important discoveries in bird migration. Mrs. Rowan was involved in many peace movements, was the founder of the Friends of the Indian Society (no longer in existence), and was a strong supporter of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
Helen Sheldon first set foot on the University campus in 1910, the bride of Dr. E.W. Sheldon, a mathematician recruited to the faculty of the new University by President Tory — who was also quick to enlist Mrs. Sheldon as the adviser to the women students. Mrs. Sheldon died in Medicine Hat in April at the age of 99 years.
Less than two years before her death, Mrs. Sheldon shared her memories of the early University on a tape made as part of the oral history project of the Faculty Women's Club — a group largely comprised of faculty wives and one of which Mrs. Sheldon was a charter member. The memories which follow are adapted from that recording.
Coming to Alberta:
I was from New York City. I met my husband when he was at Yale University getting his doctor's degree. He had been a student of Dr. Tory's at McGill — as a matter of fact he was the gold medallist for the year.
Dr. Tory was planning on organizing the new university in Alberta — the Province was five years old and the University, was two when we came — and Ernest knew when he was studying for his doctor's degree that he would become a member of the staff.
We enjoyed almost forty years connected with the University.
I came as a bride to Edmonton. There were no buildings on the University campus then. The University occupied the top storey of Strathcona High School. That was the University when we came.
During the summer months, the students from the north side of the river attended the University by coming over on a raft that was run by a cable across the river. Then, when the ice was formed on the river, the students from the north side walked and drove over the ice.
I loved the open spaces and the people were so friendly. The University was just a family; it was very small and very congenial. I just loved it.
Then they started the building Athabasca Hall and Dr. Tory asked us to move into it, and I was in charge of the women students that first year — there were about a dozen in residence. I was the first "dean of women." The next year we moved into Assiniboia and Ruth, our daughter, was born in Assiniboia.
I had a very happy relationship with the students and our suite had an open door. And as we had the only telephone, the girls used our phone at all times.
In the fall of 1913 the First World War began and the Faculty Women just rallied around and we had all kinds of social events to raise money for the Patriotic Fund. We raised money with teas, and then, of course, even the men were knitting. One of our best knitters was a man, Frank Bowers, who was the first librarian at the University. When we had a prom and went on the floor to dance, we would hand our knitting to Dr. Tory, and he could turn a heel.
At the end of the War — 1918 — there was that epidemic of the Asiatic flu and the students who lived in Pembina Hall were moved into other buildings, and it was turned into a temporary hospital. My home was the centre of all the sewing that was necessary. We had to begin from scratch in supplying the needs of the hospital. It was under the Royal Alexandra, and sheeting and towelling and flannelette things were all sent to my home. At that time we were in one of the Ring Houses built in 1913.
I had a friend who came every day and helped me cut out, and she would sew the samples. Then the cut materials were sent to the different faculty women who made up these garments. It was on a large scale because I remember one order came for towels and we were not only supposed to cut them and have them sewn and initialled with the Royal Alexandra Hospital initials, but they were to be washed and ironed. And it was all done by the University of Alberta faculty wives. We were busy every minute, but there were no complaints. There was no difficulty in getting the work done.
Even the little children were taught to initial the Royal Alexandra initials. Everything had to be initialled, and after the War the Royal Alexandra gave a tea party for the children on the campus who had done it.
And again war ...
Then the Second World War came and the services were repeated. The Faculty Women just came to the rescue for every request that was made. They responded to everything.
During the War years things were very closely rationed, and when we gave a tea the women would hand over their coupons to supply the butter and tea and sugar. We catered the convocation tea, then. There were three convocations the year that I was president of the Faculty Women's Club. The reason for that was that they had a summer term. Doctors were especially in demand because of the casualties; so they accelerated the medical department at the University. There was a special convocation for that in October, and we wondered what under the sun we were going to do for tea because our tea is imported and they hadn't any ships for that.
Mrs. McGregor Smith was head of getting supplies for the tea. She went to one of the firms — I think it was Pitfield-Cooper Wholesale — to see if we could get tea or they could suggest something else. Mr. Cooper said, "What about beef tea?" and he gave us a whole supply. So we served beef tea, and it went over in a big way.
Early days in residence ...
The girls were all supposed to be in their rooms at 10 o'clock, and I would, before we settled down for the night, go in to see if they were all right and in their rooms — now they didn't have to go to bed necessarily; they could stay up all night if they wanted to, but they had to all be in by 10 o'clock.
Sometimes in the morning, I would go into a room and here Hazel Rutherford [the daughter of Premier Rutherford, now Hazel McQuaig] would be in one of the beds. She wasn't in residence, but she had stayed all night. And you know, they just had those narrow beds, and to see two girls: I would say, "Hazel, what on earth are you doing here?"
And then I had some difficulty with the girls. They couldn't go out at night without my permission, and it was at the time when the High Level Bridge was under construction. Down on the flats below the High Level Bridge, there were shanties built for the out-of-town engineers working on the bridge. The girls would meet these chaps on the streetcar, and these chaps would invite them down there so that they could have a dance. I wouldn't let the girls go, and they resented it. I remember one Calgary girl who told her mother what a strict disciplinarian I was, and the mother come to me and said, "For Heaven's sake, thank you Mrs. Sheldon."
Happy memories ...
I had no trouble with the girls except for those little things that had to be settled. Another thing: if they got invited and didn't want to accept the invitation from a student, they would say to me, "Mrs. Sheldon, if so and so asks for me, would you tell them I'm sick." And I would say to them, "Not on your life." Oh it was really loving.
I have nothing but happy memories of the University.
Published Winter 1983.