The busiest year

Bill Davis rides with university VIPs

Bill Davis, the premier of Ontario, came to spring convocation, but had to take a back seat in the ’57 Chevy that transported some of the VIPs. He’s at far right, next to former presidents Burt Matthews and, at rear, Gerry Hagey. Current president Doug Wright got the front seat. The driver was Steve Little, chair of the university’s 25th anniversary committee.

I remember 1982 as the busiest year in the history of your university, at least until 1993, but that's another story. In 1982 the University of Waterloo celebrated its 25th anniversary by looking back to its beginnings, under the leadership of a president who had been here almost at day one, and by moving forward in a dozen or more directions simultaneously. It was the year of future shock at Waterloo.

"Technology Futures Day" was the label they used for the most exciting and disorienting day of the year, March 17. On that day Waterloo launched two major activities at once: the Watfund fund-raising campaign and a little thing called the Institute for Computer Research. I had to laugh, really, seeing that row of grinning, slightly awkward men in their suits and ties, telling the world how Waterloo was going to beam everybody up (pardon the mixed metaphor) to the computerized New Jerusalem. There they were -- Trevor Eyton, Page Wadsworth, Josef Kates, and of course Doug Wright -- with their ambitions, their confidence, their souvenir keychains each containing a certified defective microchip from the electrical engineering laboratories. (I still have mine, attached to the greatgrandmaster key to campus buildings which I keep under a rock here beside the creek.) To a troll's eye it all seemed slightly naive; to human eyes, I gather, it was inspiring. It's hard to realize that the events of Technology Futures Day took place not in the Davis Centre, which hadn't been built yet, but in the Arts Lecture Hall.

The Watfund was officially launched on that March day, with a $21 million goal, but it wasn't really beginning; private campaigning had brought in $8 million already, the happy audience was told. Some of the money was already being spent, for that matter, on things like the beginnings of the "campus network" (with the new Sytek technology, at $700 a connector box) and the brand-new Watstar computing system in the faculty of engineering.

Oh, computing was in the air in 1982. I heard a few murmurs from people in more traditional fields of study, fearing that they were going to be neglected or left behind, as all the publicity and most of the money were turned in the direction of Eric Manning, Ruth Songhurst and their Institute for Computer Research. Manning told his audience on Technology Futures Day that through ICR -- which had been approved by the university senate less than a month earlier -- computer companies could "literally buy a front-row seat" for the latest Waterloo-created technology and the newest Waterloo-trained graduates. It took a while, but then the rush started, and in December Digital paid a quarter of a million to be the first ICR "partner" with the right to look over researchers' shoulders.

The most spectacular deal of the year came just a couple of days before Christmas: $17 million worth of "partnership" arrangements -- that word again! -- between Waterloo and IBM Canada, including arrangements for software, hardware, employment and research. Rumour was that the links had been negotiated in late-night phone conversations between Waterloo's Wes Graham and a couple of his friends high in the IBM hierarchy. There were obligations on both sides, but the IBM arrangement could be interpreted as the biggest gift, by far, ever received by Waterloo, if not by any university anywhere in Canada. Whether IBM got its money's worth, I'll leave to the judgement of the Don Mills troll colony; whether Waterloo got its reputation's worth, I'm still trying to decide. At the minimum, there were a lot more computers on campus after it than there had been before.

All this was happening, as I was saying, before the Davis Centre existed, except perhaps as a twinkle in Doug Wright's eye. The computer science department was shoehorned into the Math and Computer building with the rest of the math faculty, and Tom Brzustowski, the vice-president (academic), was still explaining to people that "mathematics is now an experimental science" and a few rooms with blackboards really weren't cutting it. The electrical engineering department spoke of its need to build a state-of-the-art "foundry" for microchips -- what a splendidly old-fashioned word, here in Mennonite country, for the place where technicians carry out the essentially magic activity of giving slices of silicon a brain! And the president started a persistent campaign of phone calls and visits to Queen's Park, trying to coax building funds out of the provincial government.

The lobbying campaign wasn't hurt, I'm sure, by the announcement that Bill Davis, the premier, would be one of the people to receive honorary degrees from Waterloo at the spring convocation. The mayor was on the list too, and so was the president of Wilfrid Laurier University, in an interesting gesture that said the long-time rift between the two descendants of Waterloo College was finally healed, at least as far as the Waterloo side was concerned.

At the same convocation, the university gave medals to sixteen "builders", figures from its early years. They included the obvious founders, from Hagey on down, as well as a few people better remembered by the old-timers, the historians and (of course) the trolls than by the younger generation of the eighties. One in that category was Doris Lewis, the university's first librarian, who had the rare books room in Porter Library named after her. Another was Bert Barber, who had headed the "coordination" department - not yet renamed "co-op department" -- from 1958 to 1971. To say that Barber was the "first director" of co-op gets you into historical difficulties -- it appears that that distinction actually belongs to George Dufault, who headed the program briefly before returning to teaching and other duties -- but he was certainly the man who established its workings and its reputation, and he received his "builder" medal along with Graham, Gellatly, Stanton and the others.

The medals were recognition, of course, that the university had reached its silver anniversary and had better remember and record its past while the memories were still bright. A special convocation ceremony that was to be held in June as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations was cancelled when it occurred to the organizing committee that maybe the crowd would be embarrassingly small, but there were a number of parties in the course of the year, and somebody made a 1957 Chevy available for parades and pictures. Late one night, the car was the centrepiece of a symposium -- did you know that that word means "drinking party"? -- as I and a few of my trollian intimates took it for a spin across the north campus, remembering the way things had been here along Laurel Creek before the university came. At the very spot where we stopped to gaze down over the campus, there now stands an arena, for which plans were being drawn during 1982. Later in the fall, thousands of people came to campus for an open house, marvelling at what Waterloo had built in a quarter of a century and what promise it showed for the next twenty-five or fifty years; the trolls, not liking crowds, stayed home that weekend and caught up on our sleep. Yet another innovation for the anniversary was the "25-Year Club", which was begun with some twenty faculty and staff members -- thirteen active, seven retired -- who had been at UW since the founding day, July 1, 1957.

I've barely begun to mention all the innovations and changes that hit the university in 1982 in the wake of the Doug Wright whirlwind. He probably can't take credit for all of them -- the yellow tape on some stairways, for the benefit of the blind and visually impaired, certainly wasn't his doing -- but I wouldn't doubt that he had a hand in the plans to create a "biotechnology centre" jointly between Waterloo and the University of Guelph. Two other centres were also new that year, one (at St. Jerome's College) for "Catholic experience" and one (in the faculty of science, obviously) for laser chemistry. I've mentioned the beginnings of the campus computer network and the beginnings of Watstar; that year also saw the founding of the university ethics committee, with Phyllis Forsyth as its first chair, and the appointment of the first ombudsman (under exclusive Federation of Students auspices). Oh, and the university got its first industry-sponsored professorial chair, the "Canadian Pacific chair" in the computer science department. Wouldn't be a bit surprised if Wright was involved in that arrangement as well.

For all the excitement and planning and vision, it's important to remember that 1982 was not really a year of good times -- not in Canada and thus not at Waterloo, not entirely. Inflation was high and unemployment was suddenly high too; that may have been the year that we first heard the word "stagflation". With the recession it was hard to find jobs for co-op students and new graduates, even engineers, who had traditionally been the cocks of the walk. It was a depressing and scary time for engineering students, who suffered a further blow in the first week of January when somebody stole their adored Ridgid Tool from the trunk of a car during a party at Bingemans in Kitchener. (Serves them right, perhaps, for bringing out the Tool while there were engineers from other campuses in town, attending the Canadian Congress of Engineering Students.) The mighty wrench was returned in the spring, on the very day of the Iron Ring Stag, encased in a 45-gallon drum of concrete; it took an EngSoc crew six hours' work with sledgehammers to get the thing out. Given all that discouragement, I wasn't surprised when a proposal to create a $50-a-term fee to pay for "improvements" in engineering education was turned down in a student vote. As you probably know, though, the idea was brought up again not too much later, and eventually put into effect, leading to the Waterloo Engineering Endowment that we know today.

Also grumpy in 1982 were the professors, or at least some of them; the faculty association leadership talked about unionization, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. Salary "restraint" introduced by the Ontario government didn't do much for staff morale, and students were hurt by a change in the tax regulations that made meals in the cafeterias subject to tax for the first time. For the first time, as I recall it, the president of Waterloo spoke publicly in favour of higher tuition fees, when Wright told the Ontario Council on University Affairs that a fee increase would be "not necessarily attractive, but perhaps less unattractive than either of the other options", namely cutting quality and squeezing more money out of the government.

However, people kept doing new things. An honours accounting program was introduced, and so was an "option" in women's studies. A small crowd gathered to meet a rare long- eared owl that for some reason spent a day in a tree outside the Modern Languages building. A considerably larger crowd (far more women than men, it was noted) turned out for Margaret Atwood's two Hagey Lectures in February. Albertasaurus came to live in the earth sciences museum. Somebody started making and selling neckties with the university shield on them. A "trellis" and rock garden were installed to ornament what had previously been a rather bleak area of campus south of the Math and Computer building. And, in a show of remarkable confidence in the university's future, three people agreed to take positions as deans: Don Brodie in science, Ron Marteniuk in "human kinetics and leisure studies", and Bill Lennox in engineering. Now that was a fitting development for the 25th anniversary year, because Lennox had been a student in that original engineering class who came to the Associate Faculties in July 1957, and here he was in the executive suite of the university that was the Associate Faculties all grown up. Quite a year, 1982.

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