Through half a century, Waterloo has become entwined in the histories of many families. We're starting off with the Soulises, the Prasads and the Townshends.
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There's the one about the homeless student who briefly lived inside a wind tunnel in an engineering lab. The intrusion was discovered when the wind tunnel was turned on one day—and a sleeping bag shot out like laundry snapping in a storm.
There's another favourite story—the one about the co-op student who was hired to drive across Ontario on his motorcycle like some character out of a 1960s road movie. He spent his work term trying to recruit high school students for the new systems design engineering program established at University of Waterloo in 1969.
"I told him to go wherever the high school kids hang out," recalls retired engineering professor George Soulis. "I said, 'See if you can get me 50 students.' "
And then there's the one about Soulis teaching the first class of engineering students in the campus maintenance building, next to the snowplows and tractors.
These are just some of the stories told by George Soulis, a furniture designer who left industry to teach design to University of Waterloo engineering students back in 1961. In addition to teaching, he held many administrative appointments and was part of both the university's Senate and Board of Governors for many years. However, he is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the popular systems design engineering program.
To his four children and eight grandchildren, Soulis is also a storyteller. "Grampy's" tales about the University of Waterloo's early days are shaped by the heart of a designer who knows how to arrange the episodes of his life. His love of smooth lines, and the gentle art of bending without breaking, has inspired two generations of the Soulis family to join the University of Waterloo community.
The legacy is one that is still evolving with three grandchildren currently studying on campus. Neal and Graham Moogk-Soulis are English and history students while a granddaughter, Jane Robinson, is studying physics and music.
Two of George Soulis's four children are currently long-time University of Waterloo employees. In 1998, Neal and Graham's father, Ric Soulis, earned a PhD in civil engineering and joined the department. By pure coincidence, he uses the same office his father occupied many years ago. Mary Soulis, a daughter with a MASc in civil engineering, has been working in University of Waterloo's Institutional Analysis and Planning department for almost 26 years.
Soulis's love of a good yarn may have played a part in the work his grandsons do for the student newspaper. Neal writes stories for Imprint, while Graham produces a comic strip.
"Throughout the family, there is a great history of storytelling," says their mother Carol Moogk-Soulis, who herself graduated from the University of Waterloo with a master's degree in management sciences. "When I look at my sons, I see that creative side and that interest in people."
For another grandchild, Soulis's influence was more direct: Mary Soulis's daughter, Laura Thompson, graduated in 2003 from systems design engineering. Two other grandchildren, Nicky and Harold Soulis, both graduated with BA degrees in 2002.
And the list of three generations of the Soulis clan goes on: Nicky and Harold's father, Glen Soulis, spent a short time studying at the University of Waterloo in the 1970s and then went on to become a musician, recording artist, and performer with the popular Beirdo Brothers for many years. Another of George Soulis's daughters, Christine Harten, in the 1990s worked for Shad Valley, a one-month learning and enrichment program for senior high-school students hosted at a dozen Canadian universities, including Waterloo.
It would seem that from the time George Soulis joined the University of Waterloo in those early days, when there were just 1,000 students, the history of the University of Waterloo and the Soulis family have been tightly intertwined. Indeed, Soulis's stories seem like signposts on a road map that lead you to the origin of the university's culture of innovation. At the same time, they express a father's love of adventure. "In the early days, things just happened," he says. "The fondest memories I have are about how quickly we could work."
Indeed, Soulis's first brush with the fledgling university back in the late 1950s is a good example of how vision trumped bureaucracy every time. Soulis loves telling how founding president Gerald Hagey hired him.
A mutual friend told Hagey that he thought Soulis would be a great teacher. "Gerry turned it over to (dean of engineering) Doug Wright and Doug got in touch with me and to make a long story short, within the afternoon, I was hired to teach a first-year engineering course."
There was just one problem.
Soulis had been a furniture designer and mechanical engineer at a factory in downtown Waterloo and did not have a graduate degree. So calls were made to Ottawa, and the next day a $12,000 grant from the Canada Council was given to Soulis to attend a prestigious design school in Germany for a school year.
While the university was experiencing its growing pains and triumphs, so too was the Soulis family. George Soulis, who had been briefly unemployed, was delighted by the university job offer and the grant, but he didn't want to leave his wife Kathryn and four children for a year. After some tense moments, his mother gave the young family some money and they were all able to embark on their greatest adventure together—living in Germany for nine months.
As the oldest child, Ric Soulis clearly remembers celebrating when his father got offered a job at the university. "I was 10 years old at the time. My father was one of the early hires by Doug Wright... Taking a whole family to Europe just wasn't done back in 1959. It was just incredible. We took a steamer across."
George Soulis was greatly influenced by his studies in Germany, where he attended the Hochschule für Gestaltung. There he embraced the principle of the "creative designer" who could cross the boundaries of art, architecture, engineering and industry.
In many ways, the systems design program Soulis helped found is an excellent training ground for what he likes to call the "general practitioner" of engineering.
Soulis's daughter, Mary, recalls frequent tours in those early days as her father showed off the new campus to visiting friends and relatives. She also recalls his great commitment to undergraduate students.
"He's not high profile. He never worried about taking credit for what he did; the work itself was enough," says Mary. "He always liked to be starting something new and being innovative. He was involved in many things that related to ensuring a quality education for undergraduate students."
George Soulis smiles fondly when he remembers that first class of systems design students recruited by the young man on a motorcycle. "They certainly weren't the most academically inclined but they were great risk-takers," he says. "They agreed to come to a school they had never heard of and to a program that had just been approved... Some of those guys are very well off today."
Soulis laughs today when he remembers a problem he had while lecturing. He would often come to the end of the lecture and realize he hadn't covered the material because he had gotten carried away telling stories. In his retirement, he has more time to tell stories and, with the encouragement of relatives, he is starting to write them down.
His grandson, Neal Moogk-Soulis, will graduate with an honours BA in English and history this year. When Neal receives his diploma, it will be from a university vastly different from, yet similar in spirit to, the one his grandfather joined almost 50 years ago.
Neal himself is a living testament to how the Soulis family and the university history are enmeshed. Many years ago, when his parents, Ric and Carol, were organizing their wedding, they unknowingly chose a date that happened to be the same day Ric was to attend his University of Waterloo convocation for his BASc in civil engineering. In the hurly-burly of wedding preparations, the conflict was discovered, and alternative wedding dates considered, but in the end Ric missed his convocation in 1972.
Today, Neal Moogk-Soulis ponders that important day in his family history, and jokes, "I'm glad he went to the wedding instead."
A successful experiment
When the late Tribhuan Prasad received a letter in the 1960s inviting him to teach at the University of Waterloo, he approached the opportunity as if it were a scientific experiment.
Already an esteemed academic in India, Prasad decided his objective was to broaden his own career while providing rich opportunities for his young family. He hypothesized that Canada would be fertile ground for his six daughters and two sons.
However, he first looked at the family atlas to see exactly where Canada was—how far north, to be exact.
Next, he brought only two of his children with him to test how they adapted to the different climate and culture. Watching his two daughters thrive, Prasad decided to join the engineering faculty and his large family made Waterloo its new home. Almost 40 years later, it can be stated that Prasad's bold experiment was a resounding success. The Prasad family embraced the University of Waterloo community and five of his eight children received University of Waterloo degrees.
After many years as a renowned cancer researcher, his daughter, Ranjana Prasad Bird, has returned to the University of Waterloo to serve as the dean of graduate studies. "I still see University of Waterloo as our saviour," she says. "It was quite a challenge for my father to have eight children and educate all of them."
Her sister, Archana Fawcett, received her BSc in biology while another sister, Sadhana Prasad, graduated with a BSc in biochemistry. Two other siblings graduated with engineering degrees—Bannu Hurtig graduated from the University of Waterloo's electrical engineering program while Vijay Prasad received his BASc in civil engineering.
Bird had been reluctant to leave India as a teenager but eventually arrived at the University of Waterloo, where she earned her bachelor's degree in science in 1974. Bird's first year on campus was a difficult one. However, her father, known for his kindness as much as his intellect, became her ballast as she negotiated life on a campus so different from her life in India.
Her father drove to and from campus with his children and shared frequent family coffee breaks. "I also remember hearing him lecture while I walked through buildings," Bird says. "He had a very distinct voice. It was very authoritative, deep and resonant."
Her younger sister, Dr. Sadhana Prasad, now a physician in Waterloo, was one of the "guinea pigs" who arrived early with their father when she was just 13 years old. "University of Waterloo has been so much more than just a place to learn," says Sadhana Prasad. "There is a real sense of belonging when we go there."
Hallow the ties of kindred
The Venerable Peter Townshend has been on Renison College's board of governors for three years, but there are times when he still gets asked where he fits into the historic Townshend family.
With Anglican bishops, priests and many teachers in three generations of the family, it's easy to get confused.
"Education has always been a significant focus in our family," says Townshend, a priest at Holy Saviour Anglican Church in Waterloo. "There has always been the belief that education is, in itself, a ministry." When he sits on the Renison College board, he is continuing a legacy of service that began in 1968 when his "Uncle Bill" joined the board of governors. His other uncle, retired Bishop Robert Townshend, was an ex-officio member of the Renison board between 1994 and 2001, and was later made an Honorary Senior Fellow of the college.
The late Bill Townshend, a director of education for the Waterloo County Board of Education, served on Renison's board for many years between 1968 and 1992. He was board chairman in the mid-1970s and was made member emeritus in 1997.
Bill Townshend's wife, Betty, enriches the family connection by her long-time involvement with Renison's Town and Gown Society, a charitable women's group. More recently, Betty Townshend's daughter, Susan Remers, has also joined the organization.
The web of connection doesn't stop there: Susan's husband Gerry Remers (MA '82), president and chief executive officer of the local firm Christie Digital Systems Inc., sits alongside Peter Townshend on Renison's board and Remers's company has been a generous Renison donor.
Todd Townshend, a cousin to Peter and Susan, is a University of Waterloo grad who lived at Renison and went on to become an Anglican priest and professor at Huron University College in London, Ont.
The family's roots are in London, where Peter's late grandfather William Townshend became a Suffragan Bishop of Huron and began the long tradition of nurturing a connection between education and religion.
The potential for more connections between the Townshend family and Renison exists with the next generation of young people just beginning to make their way in the world. "As far as family gatherings, if we were talking about something other than family," says Peter Townshend, "it would be about education."
Text: Beth Gallagher
Photography: Bryn Gladding
Originally published in The University of Waterloo Magazine, Spring 2007