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Professors emeriti and longtime staff are living history of university

Meet the intrepid educators who came from around the world to shape the University of Calgary in early days
February 23, 2016
From left, Dr. Cyril E. Challice of the physics department with Canadian Association of Physicists prize winners James Prescott and Stephen Hernadi standing next to the university's electron microscope, 1960. UARC82.010_1.11

From left, Dr. Cyril E. Challice of the physics department with Canadian Association of Physicists prize winners James Prescott and Stephen Hernadi standing next to the university's electron microscope, 1960. UARC82.010_1.11 

Our professors emeriti and early staff members came by plane, train and automobiles. They arrived from around the globe, academics in every discipline, eager to make a difference.

The hiring process often involved a letter or a telegram asking, "When can you start?" Many arrived the day before the first day of classes. Most came without ever having seen Calgary, often with young families in tow, looking forward to making their mark. Others came with the idea in mind they would stay a year or two, then move on.

These are the intrepid educators who took a chance and ended up carving out outstanding careers at our university; the dedicated staff who started on a small campus and stuck around to see multiple locations and programs materialize. And Calgary and our community are better for it. 

Main campus started with only two buildings in a 'sea of mud'

Built on the bed of glacial Lake Calgary and located on the edge of the city, the University of Calgary's main campus seemed miles from anywhere at the time.

“When we came, there were two buildings and a sea of mud,” recalls Joyce Doolittle, professor emerita of drama.

Tom Swaddle, professor emeritus of chemistry says, “The tumbleweeds used to roll around, the deer hopping over, rabbits everywhere — it was fun, but not very attractive.”

New arrivals were told to look for the "cloud of dust" north of the city and know they’d found the campus. And residents in nearby communities often had silt "dunes" form on their lawns from the combination of ceaseless construction and Alberta’s windy weather. 

Building community from humble beginnings

These meagre beginnings seemed to add to the charm of the place and the nascent university community became a tight-knit family. 

Robert Dewar, professor emeritus of psychology, recalls the activities that made the campus feel intimate.

“In my first year here [1965], President [Herbert Stoker] Armstrong invited all the new faculty members to his house for a social get-together," says Dewar. "It was small enough that you could do that. And this way, you got to meet people right away from other departments. We made good friends from chemistry and political science and so on.”

Women played a particularly important role in creating community. The Faculty Womens’ Club (FWC) was started in 1956 by a small group of women, and was instrumental in bringing together the university and the greater Calgary community.

The club’s scope of support included hosting convocation receptions, organizing elaborate balls to connect the university with the community, creating babysitting and preschool programs on campus to support the further education and advancement of women. FWC also awarded some of the first undergraduate scholarships offered at the university. In 2009, the FWC celebrated its 55th anniversary with the anthology Golden Threads: Women Creating Community, which is available in the Doucette Library. 

Construction boom and campus growth exploded between 1960s and 1970s

During the 1960s, construction in Calgary was booming. The city began the decade with a population of around 262,000 and by 1970, that number had grown to 385,000. Campus growth was also exploding; in 10 years, more than 30 buildings opened, and just as quickly, new faculties and programs of study were started.

The student population grew alongside this physical growth. In 1966, there were 3,740 full-time undergraduate students and 334 full-time graduate students. By 1970, those numbers more than doubled.

“The student population increased vastly. We kept adding faculties,” recalls Gary Krivy, registrar emeritus.

Calgary and Alberta were in a growth cycle and the city was once again reinventing itself. Doug Gilmore, professor emeritus of architecture, recalls the 1970s being “a marvellous time to be here.” 

'Every September, the faces change, you get new blood, new energy'

Reasons for joining the university family varied, but the reason for staying seemed to be unanimous — and related to the heart of what any family is: the people who work and study here.

“There are tremendous faculty and staff on campus,” says Heather Smith-Watkins, planning and review analyst, Provost Office. “Students are always exciting; that’s why I’ve worked at a post-secondary institution for such a long time. Every September, the faces change, you get new blood, new energy.”

Tang Lee, professor emeritus of architecture says, “I would say the most important thing that makes me stay at the University of Calgary is the students." 

Robert Stamp, professor emeritus of education agrees. He adds, “You’ve got these young people, with their own ideas, fresh ideas. You get this intergenerational exchange."

Generations of learning

“Just towards the end of my career, I was beginning to teach kids from students I had taught in years gone by," says Ron Murch, senior instructor emeritus of Management Information Systems, Informatics Research Centre. "So that was a little gratifying too, hitting the second generation.” 

Dewar says, “Two of my former students came back to the psychology department after going away to study; they became department heads. So, at one point, my former student was now my boss."

David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies, reflects on his own reasons for carving out a successful more than 30-year career.

“The spirit of entrepreneurship that pervades much of Alberta culture is very strong here and I found that at the very beginning," says Bercuson.

Celebrating 50th Anniversary stories 

The stories from our professor emeriti and early staff members are insightful, funny and endearing. They agreed to share their tales in celebration of our 50th Anniversary in a 22-minute  video  created from more than 580 minutes of interviews. Watch a sneak peek of the video below.

Share your own University of Calgary story and hear more from our professors emeriti at  ucalgary.ca/celebrate.

The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary in 2016-17, we are making tremendous progress on our journey to become one of Canada's top five research institutions, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.’ For more information, visit ucalgary.ca. To learn about our 50th Anniversary celebrations, visit  ucalgary.ca/celebrate