The year was 1964. The Beatles were leading the British invasion, Bob Dylan was playing acoustic folk music at the Newport Folk Festival, and James Bond in Goldfinger was playing in movie theatres. In business news the first Ford Mustang rolled off the production line and IBM announced the System/360. University students marched through Times Square, New York, as well as in San Francisco, Boston, and other US cities in the first major student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. And in September of that year, 100 of us registered for the first co-operative mathematics program in Canada.

Students outside Dana Porter Library in 1969

Students walk outside Dana Porter Library on a snowy day in 1969.

Math co-op appealed to most of us for the same reason — we were seeking a quality education while getting a head start on a new career. At the time, computer science was a very new field and it was common knowledge that at the University of Toronto, a CS “major” would first use a computer in third year — at the University of Waterloo, we worked on computers after the first six weeks of first year (remember those six weeks using electronic calculators!). In addition to the early introduction to computing and the practical application of math, co-op offered us the chance to complete university with minimal debt as a result of regular work terms. Graduating with two years experience (and in most cases, a job offer) seemed to overcome the disadvantages of the extra calendar year it took to graduate and the three-times-a-year move to a different location.

We were very close as a class — most other co-op programs were in Engineering, and other Math programs didn't have the work term focus and thrice-annual moves that we had — so we tended to keep together as a group. Our work terms saw most of us head to Toronto, Montreal, or Ottawa. We rented a three-bedroom apartment in Toronto — three of us from the “A” term and three from the “B” term — and proceeded to confuse the landlord every four months as three somewhat familiar cars replaced the three other cars they were just getting used to in the parking lot. Our academic terms were challenging, so we banished the game of bridge in second year (it took too much time and brainpower) and substituted simpler card games to pass the time between classes. We had “scouts” to identify the easier electives that allowed us to concentrate on the five math classes we took each term. Summer school terms meant intramural baseball teams and special student rates at local golf courses. October of '68 saw us gathered around a small black-and-white TV watching our classmate Bob Finlay in Mexico City becoming the first Canadian to reach an Olympic 5,000 meter final.

We graduated in 1969 — 26 of us had survived the eight school terms and six work terms that made up the honours program. Sixteen of us — including our two female grads — celebrated by taking a class trip to California to tour many of the largest computer installations of the day (UCLA, Edwards Air Force Base, Litton Systems, the IBM Research Centre). It opened our eyes to what was out there in the industry, but it also showed the prestige that Waterloo had attained by that time. (In many instances we were offered employment opportunities simply because we had a degree from Waterloo.)

Al Aitchison and his classmates reunite for their 35th anniversary

Al Aitchison (back left) and his classmates reunite for their 35th anniversary.

It's now 2019. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are still making music, James Bond films are still playing in movie theatres, Mustangs are still being produced, and IBM is still in the computer business. Those teenagers who first met in 1964 are in their 70s now — and mostly retired from careers in education, research, actuarial math, and computer science. We still fondly remember where and how it all began. We organized a reunion in 2004 (our 35th  anniversary) and another in 2009 (our 40th ). Of our original 26 graduates, 18 managed to come to one or both of those events — one travelling from Moscow and another from Australia to attend. We also enticed some of our former classmates who had transferred into the general stream to join us. We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary, and while our numbers are diminishing, we enjoyed renewing old friendships and looking back at our shared Waterloo experience.

Al Aitchison is a proud graduate of the Math co-op class of '69. He and a group of former classmates returned to campus for Alumni Weekend in June to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their convocation.