The first long hot summer

Gerry Hagey working on a blueprint

They might say he’s a dreamer – Gerry Hagey, in his office at Waterloo College, plans a university.

I hope you were paying attention when I talked about the beginnings of the University of Waterloo, comparing it to my lovely creek here with its several sources somewhere upstream. But now I'm going to change elements - you don't like the way a troll tells a story, you don't have to listen, you know! - and remind you that when the university actually started teaching classes in 1957, everybody was talking about the earth and the sky, not so much about the water. Laurel Creek kept flowing day and night, the herons flew past and the muskrat looked at his reflection, but I had very few human visitors here at my habitation underneath the bridge that hadn't yet been built. Human beings were peering in other directions.

At the beginning of May, they were peering into the heavens, mostly, as a "test vehicle" named Vanguard I was fired upwards from a place called Cape Canaveral, in Florida. Never been to Florida, myself - horrible hot climate, no snowdrifts at all - but I would have enjoyed laughing at those rocket enthusiasts, trying to make a politician's promise come true. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United States, who made the promise in the summer of 1955, just about the same time that Gerry Hagey was trying to get some of his business friends together to talk about teaching science and technology at Waterloo College. Eisenhower announced that the United States was going to put a satellite into orbit around the earth, as part of the American contribution to something called the International Geophysical Year, which was to start on July 1, 1957. (Now there's a coincidence, wouldn't you say?) So the Cape Canaveral people got busy, and the Vanguard test was fired upwards on May 1, 1957.

Says a history of the space program: "Then came Sputnik. Russia's launch of the world's first artificial satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, had a profound effect on the American people and the governmental agencies involved with satellite development. Moreover, the size and weight of Sputnik 1 - 184 pounds (83 kilograms) - made this country acutely aware that the Soviets had developed rockets far more powerful than any in the American arsenal. This point was driven home even more dramatically a month later when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, a 1,120-pound (508-kilogram) satellite carrying a dog named Laika." Do you remember Laika, who went into orbit aboard Sputnik II in the first week of November 1957? It's not widely realized that dogs were a last-minute substitute for trolls in those early space experiments. Trolls would have been more adaptable and more intelligent, but it's quite true that our metabolic processes aren't like human functioning the way dogs' are.

Anyway, I didn't start out to talk about space travel. I was telling you about the International Geophysical Year, and how it's no coincidence that the University of Waterloo got into business just as the IGY was starting. It was the first of these endless "years" that the United Nations keeps declaring now - the International Year of Peanut Butter, the International Year of Peace in Nunavut, that kind of thing. The novelty hadn't worn off in 1957, and the IGY seemed solemn and exciting both at the same time, and very, very important. Typical of things arranged by the United Nations, though, it took longer than it was supposed to, and the "year" ended up lasting 18 months, until the end of 1958. Among many other things, one of the big events for the IGY was the establishment of a scientific base on Ross Island, Antarctica. It had tents at first, and then prefabricated buildings were put up - one of the first being a chapel, you'll be interested to hear. The camp is still there, now called McMurdo Station.

Oh, science was just busting out all over in 1957. That was the year the first computer with disk memory was built. You can guess who built it, I suppose: IBM, International Business Machines, although we trolls have some less flattering explanations for that acronym. Also in 1957, the first Fortran compiler was developed for an earlier IBM machine, the 704. Within minutes, the first error message was delivered, when a scientist at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh received a card deck with the compiler, attempted to run a program, and left a comma out of a GO TO statement in his first attempt. No, I'm not making it up, but you have to admit it's a characteristically human blunder to make.

So with all these things happening, the time was right, obviously, for science and engineering classes at a little college in a little Ontario farm town. Sure it was a farm town: right here where you're standing, on this manicured campus sloping down to the creek, there were cows and corn. And there were plenty of horses and buggies still to be seen on the streets of Waterloo in those days. Still, I'll admit that the town centre, such as it was, had manufacturing too - if you followed the gentle creek down through Waterloo Park, you'd come to the Seagram distillery, and then to a ramshackle factory where the Waterloo Town Square shopping centre is now. And somewhat more modern industry was growing up rapidly in Kitchener nearby.

That was where Gerry Hagey had come from, the B. F. Goodrich plant that was one of the biggest employers in Kitchener and Waterloo, and in its technological innovations (better tires for the bigger, better Chevys of the mid-1950s) he had glimpsed something of the future. Maybe you think trolls don't read newspapers, but I certainly read the Globe and Mail on July 3, 1956. "In the next ten years," an editorial said, "one engineer will be required for every 100 persons in the nation's labour force. In other words, we will need 150,000 engineers. At the present time, our universities are graduating only approximately 1,700 to 1,800 engineers a year." That was the sort of thing Hagey had in mind, along with his former boss at Goodrich, Ira Needles, who made a speech to the Rotary Club late in 1956 revealing "the Waterloo plan" for educating "engineers and technicians" on the co-op principle.

Some of what Needles explained to those earnest after-lunch Rotarians never came to pass, though. The "Waterloo College Associate Faculties", which was to get going in the new year, would admit students out of grade 12, not grade 13 as other universities did, but it would keep them for longer before letting them out with an engineering degree. Alternatively, some of them would end up in a shorter program for technicians. The technicians' course was dumped before it ever started - too many people looking down their noses at it, I suspect - but many of the students who arrived at Waterloo in the summer of 1957 were, at best, grade 12 graduates, and many of them were unable, as Needles predicted, to make it all the way through an engineering degree. Do you know how many of those original 74 students actually graduated with their class in 1962? Neither do I, to tell you the truth, but let's put it this way: a lot of them fell by the wayside. On the other hand, one of them turned out to be a dean. That was Bill Lennox, and I've sometimes thought that he may be a troll himself, but don't get me started on that.

"Industry desperately needs the services of technically minded young men and women," Needles told his audience - as though they didn't know - and he explained how the co-op program would benefit everybody, employers, students, even the college itself. "This new plan will allow any college to train and educate double the number of students under existing programs, with the same space and equipment," forsooth. He can't have foreseen Waterloo's hopeless struggle to get special co-op funding out of the Ontario government, money to recognize the extra costs that are involved in running the place year-round. In the first year, though, he somehow coaxed more than $600,000 out of Queen's Park, which was real money in those days.

"The possibilities that I have outlined are exciting and vigorous," Needles also said. Well, yes. Gerry Hagey and his colleagues were pretty excited at the end of 1956 and in the early months of 1957, as they started talking to the likes of the Canadian Engineering Institute and the Canadian Manufacturers Association. They wrote to a hundred major Canadian companies asking for advice and participation; some of them even wrote back, I think. It must have been an exciting day when the first letter from the first company arrived in Williston Hall at Waterloo College.

Of course there were grumblers. As I've said, lots of people thought the technicians' course would cheapen everything, wasn't worthy of the name of "college". By March, even the board of governors of Waterloo College was getting cold feet - and that I'd love to see, a whole board with cold feet at the end of their navy-blue legs. The technology year might be "detrimental to the prestige" of their dear college, they wrote in a letter to the gung-ho governors of the Associate Faculties. So the gung-ho gave that part of the plan the heave-ho. They went ahead with the university-level program, and by May they had written three years' worth of curriculum (why three, I wonder, not four?) and cleared it with an existing engineering school, down the road at the University of Western Ontario in London. Just imagine them driving back and forth to London in one of those 1957 Chevys, by highway 7 or highway 2, long before highway 401 was even started!

In the spring the Associate Faculties offered admission tests to some 300 students. Half of them applied for admission, and half of those, more or less, were given the okay to start on July 1, 1957. Waterloo was more than ready. They had, as one of your historians puts it with unconscious irony, "added an extra chemistry laboratory and a science storeroom on the third floor of the arts building", not to mention ordering $125,000 worth of new equipment. Everything was ready.

You've heard all about those first days in the summer of 1957, haven't you? Times were exciting anyway. On June 10, the voters threw out the Liberal government, which had been in office under Louis St. Laurent and William Lyon Mackenzie King since 1935, and a few days later John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives took office. Plus, the city of Waterloo - it had only been a "city" for a few years - and its biggest industry, the Seagram distillery, were both celebrating their 100th anniversary. So Dominion Day, on Monday, July 1, was an even bigger party than usual. The next day, Tuesday, those 74 would-be students (or maybe it was 75 - I didn't count them personally, you understand) bought their textbooks from Elsie Fischer, who would go on to spend thirty years running the bookstore for the new university. And on Wednesday, they started their classes, mostly in a couple of temporary buildings with hot tin roofs. No cat, though: it was an all-male crew.

Other things happened in 1957 too, of course. On the first of October, a new batch of students arrived, as that first gang headed out to their co-op jobs. Yes, I said October. For Waterloo's first few years, the terms were three months long, not four. Never let it be said that this place can't admit its mistakes and make changes! And since a college without a stadium is nothing to crow about, Seagram's and the City of Waterloo dug into their corporate pockets and provided money and land for a stadium on what inevitably became known as Seagram Drive. The spectator seating, you know, was uprooted from some racecourse that was being renovated, and the world's ugliest concrete-block gymnasium was built next to it. The University of Waterloo doesn't own Seagram Stadium any more, and its name has been changed to the bland University Stadium, but for many years we could point to the stadium as the university's first permanent building.

Did I say "we"? All this reminiscing must be getting to me. A troll shouldn't let himself identify too closely with any human endeavour. People come and people go, universities are built up and if you're not careful they wither away, but trolls go on forever. And if you drop by again one of these days, I'll tell you about the events of 1958, which may be a Jack Benny's lifetime ago but which seems to me like only yesterday.

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