Then there was science

The lobby of the physics and math building

Secretaries Dorothy Chesney (left) and Joan Lederman and switchboard operator Marjorie Yowrski posed for this publicity photo before the official opening of the new “physics and mathematics” building.

I've been watching you -- watching you and your university for some forty years now, from my comfortable home here under the Laurel Creek bridge. True, the bridge didn't exist forty years ago, and neither did the university, but the creek did, and I've been here beside it, watching. Trolls watch, and trolls remember, and I dare say I remember things that many of the humans at the University of Waterloo have forgotten. I remember a summer day in 1964, when a very new biology professor named Noel Hynes came strolling down in my direction and cast a speculative eye on the rippling waters of the creek. "Aha," I could almost hear him say, "an outdoor laboratory for my life's work, within a frog's jump of the Biology building - and too bad for any trolls whose habitat gets disturbed!" I admit I didn't imagine then that he would one day be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. I just thought he was a pushy scientist, and realized with sorrow that scientists don't respect trolls the way they respect, say, muskrats.

But I didn't set out to tell you about 1964 today. I wanted to continue the story I told you last week, about Waterloo in 1958, when the chemistry and chemical engineering building was put up near the Schweitzer farm house, and a couple of ugly portable buildings were rolled up Dearborn Street from the old Waterloo College campus to the new one. Not wanting to miss any of the action when they were moved, I was watching from behind a tree while Mike Brookes, the director of campus planning in those days, supervised the job, and I remember his muttering with amusement about the "cowboy" contractor who was doing the job.

You'll notice that chemistry got first billing in the name of that rather dull brick structure, which is still doing duty as Engineering I. Probably you think the university went into business first as an engineering school, and in a way that would be right, but the label "science and engineering" was used a lot in 1958 and 1959. In the archives I expect you can find the little brochure titled "Science and Engineering Calendar", and if you look at the pages headed "Teaching Staff" you'll see something odd: there are just six faculty members in anything that sounds like "engineering", compared to 26 in physics and chemistry, and another seven in mathematics. After all, what did first and second-year engineers mostly study in those days (and still do, for that matter)? Science. Physics. So the Associate Faculties had professors with names that have been the core of the faculty of science ever since - Aziz, Brodie, Cowan, Ellenton, Irish, Leslie, Mackay, Woolford, Woolner. No biologists yet, you'll notice, certainly not any biologists who wanted to mess about in streams. The physicists and mathematicians worked in that original "chemistry and chemical engineering" building right alongside the few engineers who had arrived - I'll tell you more about them later - and they waited impatiently for a building of their own.

The "mathematics and physics" building, which you'd know as Physics, was put up during 1959, and professors and students were using it by the fall term, although the official opening wasn't held until February 1960. Take a close look, if you will, at its architecture. Better yet, to save you the trudge across the ring road and up past the greenhouses, let me quote from James Scott's history of the university: "The architects set the two top stories over stylized arches in the first storey to create a suggestion of the cloister and at the same time not only to appear functional but be functional." A cloister, can you imagine! There surely never was a university less cloistered than Waterloo, but by 1959 perhaps there were some people who subconsciously wanted the campus to look like the dignified homes of more traditional universities, where scholars could stroll in privacy and comfort.

If you want my opinion, that was the beginning of a very big miscalculation in the planning of this campus. Somebody - maybe Mike Brookes - had the idea that the place should be organized around quadrangles, where the great minds would mingle. Indeed, there's an engineering quadrangle and an arts quadrangle, and with imagination you can see traces of other quadrangles on the map. But Waterloo weather doesn't exactly lend itself to mingling for most of the year, and in any case, whatever happens in, say, the engineering quadrangle is a well-protected secret from the rest of the university. The main effect of that design principle was to have engineering turn its back on arts, and arts turn its back on science, which helped to produce the six solitudes in which Waterloo still lives now.

However, in spite of the "suggestion of the cloister" in the design of the Physics building, nobody was isolated in 1959. The place was too small for that, and departments were side-by-side in two permanent buildings and the rickety portables, which would be there for another decade. The bookstore had a few square feet of space in Chemical Engineering, and Doris Lewis's little library was there too. It's not for any reason of planning, you know, that the telephone switchboard is still in the Physics building forty years later - it was put there in 1959, behind a little counter right at the foot of the main stairway, and it must have been easier to find it space upstairs in the building than it would have been to move all the cables a few years later. The real old-timers at Waterloo still talk nostalgically about those days when they bumped into all their colleagues several times a day (the human old-timers, I mean, not the trolls, to whom human contact is not by any means so welcome). Of course there weren't all that many colleagues to bump into, but more people were coming every month. Ken Fryer and Wes Graham, for example, both arrived during 1959 to teach mathematics. And many of the male staff were very pleased at any opportunity to bump into the young Vera Leavoy, who arrived as a secretary and moved up, through the years, to be a senior research administrator.

An important man at Waterloo at that time, who perhaps isn't very well remembered nowadays, was the portly Bruce Kelley, who had taught chemistry back in Waterloo College days and who was named "dean of science" in 1959. There hadn't in fact been any deans of anything up until then, possibly because nobody had time to get business cards printed, but by 1959 a few things were getting settled. When Kelley got his "dean" title, by the way, what started to be called the faculty of engineering got only an "acting dean", a fellow named Doug Wright. I think you know that he figures rather largely in the later history of the university, but we won't talk about him right now, if you don't mind.

"The faculty was adequate for the work," says another fine sentence from James Scott, "and in the fall of 1959 the faculty of science was ready to offer four courses." He means "programs", naturally - the British terminology hung on at Waterloo for a while. Starting that year, students could sign up for honours chemistry, chemistry-and-physics, physics-and-mathematics, or general science. "With typical optimism Kelley announced that the faculty planned to introduce graduate programmes in physics and chemistry the next year." There was no shortage of ambition at Waterloo in those days. Megalomania, some might call it. The place was growing fast.

You'll notice that I have gone on this long about Waterloo in 1959 without so much as mentioning the president, Gerry Hagey, or his right-hand man, Al Adlington, whose title at this point was "business manager". The mustachioed money-man would emerge a few years later as vice-president (administration), and would wind up his academic career as acting president of the University of Western Ontario, but that's still more water under the bridge. Right now I'm talking about 1959, when Hagey and Adlington and their business supporters were spending many hours in meetings, and riding the commuter trains to Toronto to see what they could get Leslie Frost's government and the local Member, John Wintermeyer, to do for Waterloo.

What Frost and Wintermeyer did was get three bills passed by the Legislature in the spring of 1959, including the original University of Waterloo Act, which turned the "Associate Faculties" into a university. The two other bills turned colleges into universities: Waterloo College became Waterloo Lutheran University, and St. Jerome's College became the University of St. Jerome's College. Let me just pause here to complain about that silly name. How on earth can an institution be a "University of College"? You might as well name a street Avenue Road! . . . Oh. Anyway, the idea was that St. Jerome's and Waterloo Lutheran, representing the two religious groups that dominated Kitchener-Waterloo, would both become "federated", as the technical term is, with the new university. They'd continue to teach the arts, presumably from Lutheran and Roman Catholic points of view, and have an important place in the university without having to be responsible for science and engineering.

All of which makes perfect sense on paper; but if you think that things which make sense on paper will also make sense in flesh and blood, well, you don't know human beings the way trolls know human beings. The whole idea of federation was going to blow up within a few months, but that's a matter I'll leave for another talk. I might just add that a smaller religious group, the Anglicans, thought it was time to get in on the act, and in January 1959 they obtained a charter for their own college, which they named Renison in honour of a prominent but dead archbishop. It made its headquarters in a house on Albert Street, not too far from Waterloo College, and negotiations started for some sort of affiliation. Meanwhile, of course, St. Jerome's was out in the south end of Kitchener, wondering how to get back to Waterloo. Father "Corky" Siegfried, the president of St. Jerome's, drove up through the snow and chose a building site. Hagey himself had picked a new site for Waterloo College, roughly the area where South Campus Hall is now, and spoke of a splendid Lutheran chapel that would stand on a high spot of land there. I sometimes wonder what your university might have been like if that particular dream had come true.

Anyway, that's the story of 1959, and if you drop by again in a few days I might tell you a little about what happened the year after that. Goodness knows there was enough of it.

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