The U of C: more than just ugly statues and under-achievers

When the University of Calgary was built in 1960, there were two buildings on a massive dust field at the outer reaches of northwest Calgary. In 1966, the U of C’s first year of autonomy from the University of Alberta, there were 4,000 students and 300 faculty members. The population of Calgary was 323,289. Now in a city with over a million people, the U of C has 22,794 undergraduate students with the same number of frosh each year as the total students in 1966, and nearly 3,000 faculty. The two-building ghost town situated on a dirty plain has morphed into a 218-hectare campus with well over 50 buildings.

In the 40 years since the U of C gained autonomy from the U of A, the campus’ evolution has been more than physical. From under the yoke of the U of A, the U of C has become one of the top 10 universities in Canada in under half a century or, if measured by different terms, one academic career. Dr. Maurice Yacowar’s time at the U of C bookended the establishment of the university as a degree granting institution. He started as an English student in 1959-1963 and returned as the dean of fine arts in 1995.

“It was just so exciting to come to the forest where I’ve seen them plant the acorn,” says Yacowar, who retired from the English department last year. “That was basically what it was. My first year here we were still at the [current SAIT campus]. My second year we had two buildings plus McMahon stadium. Now there are what? Seventy, 75, 100? Who knows? I think even now, after I’ve left the university, if I happen to go on campus for one thing or another, I still giggle at the difference.”

“When you think of it, here’s a university that’s grown this big and this good in the space of one academic career,” continues Yacowar. “I started here, and I finished here. From nothing, this huge university grew. It’s phenomenal. It takes generations to build a university with traditions and with excellence. But this was done within one career.”

Before autonomy

Yacowar’s acorn of an autonomous university in Calgary was planted well before he was even born. The roots of the U of C lie in the Calgary Normal School and Calgary College, both built in the early 1900s.

“It’s almost as old as the University of Alberta, which was created in the early 1900s,” says Dr. Anthony Rasporich, author of Make No Small Plans, a book on U of C history. “[Calgary College] was created in 1912 and lasted for about three years before it had to fold. It tried to achieve full university degree-granting status through the Alberta legislature, but a commission was appointed with four university presidents on it. The unanimous recommendation of that commission was not to grant a degree granting status to Calgary College but to create a provincial institute of technology that would, along with the Calgary Normal School created 10 years before, serve Calgary’s post-secondary needs for the coming years.”

Calgary College folded in 1915, and the Calgary Normal School carried the frozen acorn to where SAIT now sits. Calgary Normal School was renamed the University of Alberta, Calgary Branch in 1945. In 1960, the first two buildings were built on the dusty grounds of the current campus site and the UAC moved. Malcolm Taylor was the principal of the UAC from 1960 to 1963, and was a key figure in supplying the autonomous water to the acorn.

“His political smarts would have given the place more credibility in the university community than someone with a strictly school background would have been able to do,” notes Yacowar. “I think Malcolm Taylor was a master because he had prestige as a political scientist, as a scholar and as an administrator. He moved the university along very well.”

“The heads of the institution are always very important,” adds Rasporich. “[Taylor] did a lot to pave the way for the dual university situation from ’64 to ’66.”

Though Yacowar doesn’t deny Taylor’s importance to the institution gaining autonomy, he thinks Taylor’s predecessor, Andrew Doucette, is a forgotten figure in U of C history.

“He was a former school principal, so he was more of that level of experience of administration,” says Yacowar. “He was a remarkably energetic man with vision. I was a little sorry he didn’t get to carry the ball a bit longer, even if at the time, I could see they’d have to go to somebody like Malcolm Taylor to take the university up to the next level.”

The ’60s brought winds of change–and dust–to the university. Not only did the UAC establish itself at the current campus, but the summer of ’60 also featured massive dust storms. Yacowar remembers every sense of that year, bad smell and all.

“One of my memories of that first year [at the campus’ current location] is that when you went from one building to the next, you’d have to go to the John to wash yourself because you’d have picked up a level of grime from the blowing dust,” he says. “There was no topsoil, just blowing dust. Then they brought in a load of fertilizer to hold the dust down. So the campus smelled like shit. We brought out an issue of the Gauntlet with the fertilizer smell in brown ink but I don’t think anyone picked up on it because the smell wasn’t strong enough.”

In 1960–Taylor’s first year as principal at the university–Yacowar founded the student newspaper, the Gauntlet. His only year as editor of the paper was tumultuous. He printed an emotional rant in an editorial against the institution of Remembrance Day, then called Poppy Day, saying it glorified war. The editorial drew the ire of the city. Yacowar was living at home at the time and his parents had to take the phone off the hook to stop the furious phone calls, many from World War II veterans. Eventually, Yacowar was canned for printing the sexually suggestive phrase “He came into her, and it was good,” in a piece of fiction. Yacowar thought principal Taylor didn’t enjoy the storms of controversy he had brought to campus, but after meeting up with him after both had left Calgary, found out he was wrong.

“I liked Taylor, but what surprised me in my later life was that I found out he liked me,” says Yacowar. “We had this curious phenomena. Every scandal I got the university into when I was editor happened when he was out of town. He began to worry every time he’d go out of town. He’d be wondering what scandal I’d be into by the time he came back. When I dealt with him as president of the union, there were no problems.”

Yacowar became president of the Students’ Union in 1962-63 before graduating to leave the UAC behind. Principal Taylor also left the university in 1963, surrendering his seat to Herbert Armstrong. Armstrong, a former vice-president at the U of A, finally cracked the nut of autonomy. The UAC became the U of C, a separate degree-granting institution, in July 1966.

Tales of the early years of autonomy

Controversy didn’t leave Calgary with the departure of Yacowar. In October 1969, by invitation of the U of C political science club and with funding from the Students’ Union, members of the Black Panthers spoke on campus to a packed crowd of interested observers. Leading up to the speech, the Gauntlet printed the Black Panthers’ Party program and platform. The controversial party believed in freedom and equality for the black community and the end of abuse. The party also wanted black men to be exempt from military service.

“Probably the most exciting [events] were the luminaries, in a broad sense, attracted to the Students’ Union and to [Mac Hall] in the very first years,” says Rasporich. “I recollect attending a very vibrant meeting of the Black Panthers from San Francisco who packed MacEwan Hall back in 1969. The place was jammed. As I understand it, because I was standing out in the hallways trying to hear what was going on, they created quite an impression among the student body.”

Some students were so impressed they threw objects, such as crutches, at education student Ed Hamel-Schey, who was angry at the Black Panthers’ presence.

“These people have a very naive political philosophy and the students council [sic] has no right to spend $2,000 to bring them here to tell us about our problems,” he said in an article in the Oct., 22, 1969 edition of the Gauntlet.

One of the original speakers, chief-of-staff David Hilliard, got word that he would be unable to leave the United States to attend the conference. The Panthers’ law problems didn’t end there, as they were trailed by both uniformed and plain-clothed police officers their entire trip, including their Saturday visit to the U of C to chat with Gauntlet editors. The tour ended when the Panthers were forced to leave the country. They were unable to attend a similar speech in Edmonton.

Luckily, Mac Hall saw other notable speakers.

“The [event] that probably created the greatest excitement, beyond the Black Panthers, was the appearance of the Happy Hooker in 1973,” says Rasporich. “She again packed the place, and she was something of a notable in those times. The notorious and their appearance at Mac Hall were at least some of the most exciting [events] in terms of popularity and student attendance. That’s not to say these were the most constructive events for the university as a whole, but certainly exciting.”

Xaviera Hollander, a former call girl, wrote The Happy Hooker: My Own Story in 1971 about her experiences in the sex trade. Her campus visit attracted 2,000 people crammed into Mac Hall Ballroom and many more students looking for a place to hear the speech downstairs.

By the time Hollander graced campus, Mac Hall wasn’t just a place for panthers and hookers. In 1970, Dinnies’ Den opened, complete with nasty shag carpeting. In the first four hours of opening, the bar served 1,000 students despite only having a capacity of 300.

Development in the ’70s on campus beyond MSC continued at light speed. The first parts of the library tower were completed in November 1972. It was completed in 1974.

“The building of the library tower in the early ’70s result[ed] in all sorts of stories on the parts of students to the effect that the library would eventually sink because of the weight of the books,” says Rasporich. “It would either reach ground level, or it would disappear entirely into the prairie turf.”

Check out the features section next week for part two of Jon’s look at U of C history. Make No Small Plans is available in the Bookstore.

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