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University & Curiosity

Denise Donlon Book cover

“The more that you read, the more things you will know.

The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I enrolled at the University of Waterloo in the fall of 1976. Apart from my height (a gangly 6 footer), I was a wholly average 18 year old girl whose main interest was to make enough money waitressing to add to my vinyl collection, and maybe, one day, venture outside my suburban existence.

That all changed when I moved in to a house in Waterloo with seven fellow Environmental Studies students. They were the wild-eyed idealists I would soon aspire to be: hirsute, corduroy-wearing, dyed-in-the-(humanely harvested)-wool, vegetarian tree huggers, many of whom had attended alternative schools in Toronto where it appeared they majored in ‘Challenging Authority.’ I, on the other hand, had been brought up to never question it.

It was a house-hold of eco-enthusiasts, full of kitchen parties, guitar jams, free-form dance, and deeply earnest discussion. We volunteered at the local food co-op, ran the local Pollution Probe office and practiced our budding activism.

“I picketed the sewage treatment plant last night!”

“Excellent! Were you arrested?”

“No.”

“Scarred?"

“Yes, look!”

“Bonus marks!”

Music was still a big passion, which I indulged by playing folk records on CKMS under the moniker “Amelia Woodstock” while testing my musicianship at the Grad Club Coffee House where I gamely butchered Joni Mitchell songs. (Sometimes the most valuable lessons are the ones in which you discover what doesn’t work. )

Then, in 1979, a record called No Nukes: The MUSE Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future was released, featured a superstar lineup of Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Bonnie Raitt, Gil Scott- Heron and more. It made the connection for me that Music + Meaning = Magic, that one could make a contribution through artistic engagement as well as science.

So, when the Federation of Students  advertised for a full-time Entertainment/Education programmer, I applied. I looked up ‘booking agent’ in the yellow pages and embarked on what would be a life long journey in the Canadian cultural industries. I learned to read a concert rider properly (after frying Stan Roger’s poor bald head in the sun on the Village Green),

I learned to hire proper security (when I was knocked out cold at one gig and maced at another). I learned to under promise and overachieve, (the adage about Ginger Rogers’ is true today), and I learned to stand on principle (even if you get thrown under the bus). These stories and more told in my book Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances).

I arrived at UWaterloo not having a clue, and left the campus an engaged citizen. While I didn’t learn everything in the classroom, the university experience at large armed me with abundant curiosity about the world we live in and a respect for social justice that has persisted through my roles at MuchMusic, Sony, CBC and beyond.

Today’s world needs smart, engaged, principled actors more than ever and I applaud every positive impact that UWaterloo graduates will make on it today and in the future. The gift of a University experience is a grand experience and you never know where it might lead.

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