ALUMNI- IN-ACTION ORAL HISTORY
Interviewed by Ed Brubaker
June 10, 2002
B This is an interview with Dr. Murdo MacKinnon, former Dean of the Wellington College of the University of Guelph and is being conducted on June 10, 2002 at the home of Ed Brubaker and it is for the Oral History Committee of the Alumni Association at the University of Guelph.
Murdo, you came to Guelph in 1964 as Dean of the new Wellington College in the new University of Guelph. Can you tell us what constituted the Wellington College at that time?
M Yes, after I came, the Senate recognized the existence of Wellington College of Arts and Science but, of course, the term science was limited to certain departments: physics, chemistry, mathematics, statistics. All the biological sciences stayed within the Agricultural College and eventually, of course, Wellington College divided up into Arts, and Social Science and Physical Science, and the term Wellington College disappeared about 1970.
B Right, but you were brought in as first Dean?
M Yes, Dr. MacLachlan brought me here. Rather an odd situation. I came over in that spring for a wedding in Guelph. I met him at the wedding reception. He offered me a job, and I said I had no plans to leave Western because I was just about to become the Dean of Arts up there, and he was rather persistent. By midsummer, he had got me to agree to move. I was not reluctant to move because I had been at Western 18 years and I knew a lot of people at Guelph through my Air Force connection, through the Inter-Varsity Choral Festival, and also Guelph and Western were involved in a Shakespeare seminar at Stratford. So I had a lot of connections and Guelph friends.
B Good. And, when you came, what did you have to do?
M I had to do almost everything, really. The first year, the Registrar and I worked seven days a week till about 11 at night because we had not only to establish budgets but we had all the academic regulations and programs to write for Arts and Social Science and we had also the Ceremonials Committee and numerous Building Committees because we had to build an Arts Building, and a library, and some residences. So, I was extremely busy for the first few years, but as I got Heads of Departments appointed they gradually took over the recruitment. The first year alone, I recruited 75 faculty members myself out of 700 applications.
B And when did the first students come in?
M Well, students came in September ’65. Dr. MacLachlan was determined that we would not be behind Brock University. They were going to open in ’65. And I got a very good suggestion from Gordon McNally in the Zoology Department. He suggested that I hire two retired High School Principals to go out to the High Schools and tell them about the advantages of coming to Guelph for Arts and Science and Agriculture. We did that. Money was no problem. The Province gave us all the money we needed and these men did a splendid job. Of course, they were both graduates of Guelph and they helped to bring a stream of students. So we had just about the numbers we wanted from the very beginning.
B Which were how many?
M Oh, we brought in about 800 students the first year and, of course, it grew steadily because the semester system was very popular. Whereas other universities had turned down the semester system, Guelph adopted it, and we started right away with three semesters a year.
B Right. Do you remember the names of the two High School teachers?
M No, I don’t remember their names but they were friends of Gordon McNally and it would be a little difficult for me now to go back in the Archives and find them. But it was that kind of cooperation that we got. And the established colleges, the founding colleges, did everything possible to help me and my new people, even though they were a little worried about what power sharing there would be. They soon found out that they would be better colleges because they would be part of a larger university and the Arts was a useful adjunct to their work.
B Isn’t that wonderful to get cooperation like that!
M Yes, we did, from every college. For example, we didn’t have a Department of Fine Art but Macdonald Institute agreed to give up Gordon Couling, so he moved over to Wellington College and became the Head of our Fine Art Department. And then, the Chaplain, whose name you’ll remember…. Presbyterian Minister….
B Dr. Young?
M Yes, yes, Bill Young, wasn’t it?
B Bill Young.
M Bill Young had on his staff, Ralph and Edith Kidd, in charge of music, so they moved into Wellington College and Ralph became the first Head of the Music Department. And then the Agricultural College had Alec Ross as Head of the English Department and he became Head of English. He was the only Head of Department that I had, really. He did the recruiting for his Department, but for a lot of other Departments like History and Sociology and Philosophy I had to find a Head of Department and, in the meantime, also find some regular teachers for the Department. So, it was very busy at the beginning but a wonderful cooperation from the Board of Governors, and the Senate, and particularly Dr. MacLachlan.
B Good. How long did you stay in that role as the Dean?
M Well, we got going in ’64, and by 1970 we decided to have a College of Social Science and a College of Physical Science, so my job became Dean of the College of Arts, and I stayed on in that until 1975. Then I became a Professor of English within the College and stayed there until I retired in ’82. So, my total period of service here was 18 years, as it had been at Western.
B Oh, yes. Good. And at Western what were you doing?
M Well, at Western I had been a Professor of English, and Head of the Department, and I was about to become Dean of Arts just before I moved to Guelph, and I did the same sort of thing that I did here. I mean, I was familiar with the semester system and with Music and with Art, and especially with the Art side. I knew a certain amount about the Social Science side. I knew very little about the Science side, and so when Wellington College got started, I got approval for Earl MacNaughton of the Physics Department to become Associate Dean of Wellington College of Arts and Sciences. Subsequently, he was Dean of the College of Physical Science. So, Earl MacNaughton and I worked very closely together for 10 or 12 years.
B Right. And, how many students- you started with about 800 – how many did the several colleges grow into?
M Well, I couldn’t give you, without doing quite a bit of reading, exact figures, but I would say that the growth was steady and it, of course, had to be controlled because there was a question of classroom space and dormitory space and library space, and we had to do a lot of things at once, at one time. I was on six different building committees, including the library and the residence, and the growth I would say probably went up about a 1000 a year for the first 3 or 4 years and then the rate of growth slowed down a bit.
B But, it became a pretty major part of the University of Guelph.
M Well, nobody wanted any one college to be too large. I think that’s one reason why Wellington College was broken into three component parts: Arts, Social Science, and Physical Science and, of course, the Biological Sciences stayed separate and they eventually separated out from OAC and became the College of Biological Science. So, the Arts component was a reasonable size and, I think, made an important contribution to the life of the university, especially on the cultural side, because I had another title. I was called Director of Cultural Activities for the University of Guelph. I had a separate budget for that, which provided for concerts, noon hour concerts, choirs, visiting groups, art exhibitions. So, I got Judith Nasby as a lecturer in Art History and then asked her to look after the university art collection and, before long, we were able to establish the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, of which she is still the Director.
B Right. You came from a university with a long history, well established program, what was the challenge in coming here to a “Cow College” to start a new Arts.
M Well, actually, I was delighted to come for the reasons I gave you that I knew a lot of people here and I felt that Guelph was a sort of microcosm of rural Ontario. All the best qualities of rural Ontario were found within the Agricultural, Vet College, and Macdonald Institute. And, in Western Ontario, we lived in a farming community west of London. We were part of Hyde Park Village and all our activities were rural activities - a rural church, and boy scouts and things like that. So, I felt very much at home and I didn’t think of it as a Cow College but as a very agreeable part of Ontario to be in. And John Bruce, the late John Bruce, who I brought as Head of the Department of Philosophy, said to me one day: “You know, Murdo, this is a wonderful university to be in, Guelph, we got everything here from metaphysics to ice cream making.” Well, metaphysics was his branch of Philosophy, and he and I went over and had an indoctrination course in the Ice Cream Department and he said: “This is what a university should be, we have everything on the one campus.”
B And it was.
M Yes it was. I’d look up from the Arts College and I’d see some holsteins walking down the path and I thought, well now here we are, we’ve got rural Ontario mixed in with a great scientific university.
B And they still have some animals on campus but not as many.
M That’s right. I noticed that the picture has changed a bit but, of course, we have all these farms out some miles away from Guelph, and Guelph is really the centre of a very large and complicated enterprise.
B And the university is very much in the forefront.
B As far as agriculture in Canada is concerned.
M And as far as the science people are concerned, they all gave me and my new faculty a very warm welcome. Many of them were interested in other things besides their Animal Science or Crop Science. They were interested in music, and some of them were art collectors, and the university art collection grew out of a small collection which the founding colleges - the Vet College, the Macdonald Institute and the Ontario Agricultural College - had small collections of Canadian Art. And they became the nucleus of the university art collection, which Judy Nasby was in charge of, and which is now part of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. So, there was a strong interest in the Arts here and I didn’t find any lack of sympathy for what I was doing. And, besides, the Science people also required that their students take quite a number of Arts courses, so we were in one sense a service department providing things like public speaking, essay writing, literature courses, and things which enriched the total university environment. And, I was very happy to be part of that development.
B And, it not only enriched the university but helped the students because if we cannot express ourselves when we get out of here, and talk and write fluently, well, we won’t do a very good job.
M Well, I used to volunteer to teach the first-year course in writing for science students because I found them so interesting. If there was something I wanted to learn about, I assigned them an essay topic. I remember one: I asked on the advantage of genetic diversity. I didn’t know anything about it but one of these first-year students wrote me a fine essay on the subject. So, I think it was a great interaction between Arts and Science in those first 15 years. I should add another factor too. That, in my role as Dean of Arts, which I eventually became, first Wellington College, then Dean of Arts, the University Presidents were very, very supportive; Dr. MacLachlan who brought me here, and then Dr. Winegard, who was 7 years President. For example, we could not have started the Guelph Spring Festival without Dr. Winegard’s support and encouragement and the university’s financial backing.
B And that brings us into another major activity that you’ve been involved with in Guelph for 35 years, I believe.
B And that’s the Guelph Spring Festival.
B Tell us, how did that idea originate, who came up with the concept and idea, and how did it get started and grow to what it is today.
M Well, it’s hard to make it really short. But, it starts this way. In Centennial year, 1967, there was a tremendous explosion of cultural activity across Canada, and lots and lots of Federal money to promote it. We got Nicky Goldsmith to leave the Centennial Commission and come to Guelph as Director of Music and he said “Let’s have a “National Vocal Competition”, which we did, and then he said “Let’s have a Guelph Spring Festival” in 1968, which we did, and he remained as Director of it for the next 20 years. So, we had a situation like that, so that 1967 had quite an effect on things that happened across the country, and especially here. So, the Spring Festival was jointly created by Nicky and me. I had the staff and the administrative background and the money, and he had the musical ideas, and the university made the facilities available just after the Winter semester and just before the Summer semester. So it’s continued and I’m happy to say that we’re moving some of the events next year back to the University of Guelph because the River Run is so heavily booked. We’re moving back to Memorial Hall for certain concerts. So the connection is still there, and the later Presidents have been just as supportive as Dr. MacLachlan and Dr. Winegard.
B Right. Now, it started in a relatively small way.
B Can you describe what you did in the first several years? What it’s grown to today?
M Yes. Well the first year was purely a National Vocal Competition, which was one week, and the singers came from all over Canada and were billeted in Guelph homes. And then, finally, there was a final evening with an orchestra and big prizes were awarded. Well, the next year, we had quite a different thing, not a vocal competition, but we brought in orchestra, choir, soloists, pianists and that sort of thing. And then, over the years, we added some plays of outstanding movies, educational seminars, weekend programs, and operas, chamber operas, church operas. And during Nicky Goldsmith’s 20 years, the Festival grew to get a National and International reputation and, to some extent, it still has that but other Festivals have grown up and the Guelph Spring Festival is no longer the biggest thing around here. We have things like the Guelph Jazz Festival, and the Hillside Festival, and the Elora Festival, the Drayton Festival, and so on. So, we are concentrating now on being a Festival of Classical Music on three weekends, which will be late April/early May of 2003. That’s the way we’re going. We’ve found a particular niche which we can fill.
B And classical music – that will involve some orchestration, orchestras, as well as vocalists?
M Yes, quite an emphasis on choirs.
B On choirs.
M And on small groups like string quartets and small orchestras, and at least one small opera, and outstanding pianists, and string quartets, clarinetists, harpists, and organ recitals - very popular in this city - organ recitals. And we have an educational component too. We have a competition every year, and then we also have Master classes where the students pay only $10, instead of $50 or $100, to get a class with a superb professional, who has come. If they’ve come here to perform, we ask them to stay till the following day and do some teaching. And, of course, this works both ways. It gets a bigger audience for the performer, and we get the benefit for our young people. So that will continue. So, the Spring Festival has, I think, maintained a strong alliance with the university and with the community.
B And these performers are quite willing to spend a day teaching?
M Yes, we don’t pay them very much for doing it. They do it largely because they love teaching. And, of course, we can’t force them to do it. We say, “If you’re free to stay for the day after your performance, for maybe four or five hours, you’ll still be able to travel somewhere that day”. And nearly all of them will say yes. A few dollars don’t really matter to them; they love teaching or they wouldn’t do it.
B Yes. They like being with the students who are interested.
M For this educational program, we use the Guelph Youth Music Centre on Cardigan Street, which has a lovely recital hall and a good piano. And the moment people see it, this converted seed mill made into a beautiful Music Centre; it’s a great asset to the community.
B Yes, Guelph has acquired a lot of facilities over the last 35 years. Originally, there used to be the War Memorial Hall and John F. Ross Auditorium. Those were about the only two auditoriums with any size in the city other than the churches.
M Ross Hall has another name now, but I forget what it is. Memorial Hall, because it’s been modernized, and has a nice air circulation system, is still one of the best concert halls in Guelph. They have comfortable seating; they’ve reduced the seating from 800 to 500, which is a great improvement, and artists who come just love performing in that space. Good acoustics and a lovely, handsome building. So, and then of course, we had about ten years work to get the River Run Centre built. That was a City idea, and largely the idea of Nancy Coates, she’s the real originator of that thing, and she’s still on the Board down there. It was a long slog to get all the necessary folks from the Federal, the Provincial, and the City Government, and all the private money. But there it is; it’s a jewel. It’s very much enjoyed and admired. It’s so heavily booked now that you have to look a year and two year’s ahead to get your reservation for a performance.
B Oh, that’s good. And, there was a lot of local opposition to it as well.
M Oh, terrific opposition. As there always is to a capital project, unless it’s a hospital. Nobody votes against a hospital. But you could vote against a concert hall and say that’s for the privileged. Well, when you see 10 or 15 yellow school buses in front of River Run bringing the children there for something in music, you say - this is for everybody. This is not just for a privileged group. It went through City Council by only a one-vote majority. I don’t know what we would have done if we’d lost that vote because quite a bit of money had been spent on planning the building.
B Oh yes.
M But Guelph deserved it and we got it right down to the very spot where John Galt founded the city in 1827.
B Is that right?
B I knew it was in that area. But I didn’t know there was a spot.
B Where he cut down the first tree.
M Yes. Within a few yards of there. Yes.
B Okay. Now, Murdo. What was your background as a boy growing up and what got you into the education field?
M Well, one doesn’t like to talk too much about one’s own life. But I’ll give you a quick summary. I was born in Saskatchewan, where my father was a Presbyterian and then United Church Minister. And we moved to Toronto in 1925. So I had my High School and University in Toronto, and in 1939 I was about to go off to Harvard University for a PhD. But with the war on the border was closed, so I got into the Canadian Air Force until 1945, and then again in the Reserve for 10 years after the war. So, I had a technical background; I was a commercial radio operator before I got into the Air Force. I was qualified for the Merchant Marine but I never did get into a ship. I got into the Air Force instead. Then, in ’45 I came back to academic life: a year at University of Toronto, and then 18 years at Western. And that’s where we… We lived in the country. We had a 10-acre smallholding, and a barn, and apple trees, and four children, and two horses and all those things. So you see, rural life was ok with us. That’s why coming to Guelph was such an easy move. Although in Guelph we didn’t have a farm, we had a house in the city. So that’s pretty much my background. I was a Professor of English, and then at Western I was becoming an administrator, Head of Department, and then I was about to become Dean. So, I wasn’t one of the great scholars of this university. My colleague, Alec Ross, wrote a lot of books and I didn’t write a lot of books. I wrote some articles and radio talks, but my time was more given to administration, organizing, fundraising, and I would say, primarily, promoting the arts, the performing arts.
B What, trade were you in, in the Air Force?
M I was called a Technical Officer in the Radio Division; that is, I was not air crew because of my eyes. I was responsible for radio communications and various stations on the East Coast and, eventually, towards the end of the war, I was in charge of the whole communications system from New Brunswick to Iceland at the Guelph air-to-air, air-to-ground, point-to-point radio telephones, direction-finding and control towers, and things like that. I had a large staff of technical people who could make things work but I was in the position where I decided what things would be needed and what parts.
B What rank did you hold?
M By the end of the war, I was Squadron Leader and I don’t know if they use that rank any more.
B No, I don’t think so.
M And then, after the war, I was in charge of the Reserve Squadron at Western which had a satellite at Windsor and a satellite at Guelph, so I was often over here, and it was largely a recruiting scheme to get fellows into the Air Force Reserve. And, after a while, then they started recruiting women as well, and we recruited some for the regular force. So, I did that from ’49 to ’58, and then I got up to the rank of Wing Commander for a year or so, then back down to Squadron Leader and they haven’t called on me for any help for the last 40 years or so!
B Wing Commander or WingCo as they called them.
M WingCo, Yes.
B Pretty elevated position.
M Well, if you weren’t air crew, you know, the rank was alright but a WingCo who was just on the ground job wasn’t quite the same thing. It was an elevated title for largely an admin. job. And it was most enjoyable. Sure.
B Sure. And you’d meet a lot of good people.
M Yes, yes, including good people. We used to come over here to Guelph to the Tri-Service Military Ball at the Armory, when the Air Force, Navy and Army people had an annual ball in the Armory. And we’d drive all the way from Western Ontario on a winter night to come to that party.
B Yes, yes. Murdo, when did you get married? And you mentioned four children. What are they doing now?
M Well, we got married in 1941. I’ve often said to my wife, Elizabeth, that we didn’t really have any choice about who we were to marry because our mothers went to school together in the 1890’s, and they went to university together. So, I’d always known her. Well, we got married in’41, so she was an Air Force wife, and then the children started arriving in ’45. We had three girls and one boy, plus other children we took into our family, but four biological children. And we had, of course, a nice country house outside London. A great place to bring up children – a barn, apple trees, horses, and fields to walk in, so that’s what we did. And we moved here in ’64. Two of the children were still at home but two were away at university. So, some of our children look on Guelph as home. And some of the others only come here as visitors.
B Right. Okay. And what are they doing now?
M Well, they’re scattered around, unfortunately. We have one daughter in Toronto who works at the University of Toronto. We have a married daughter in Montreal who is married to a Professor at McGill. We have another daughter in Montreal who is married to a computer man, and we have a married son in Calgary. He went out with a bunch of Guelph guys. They decided in 1974 that there were good jobs available in Alberta. So a bunch of them piled into a car and sailed off to Calgary where they are still quite happy. So, we have eight grandchildren in a strict biological sense.
B And how many others that you kind of look on as…
M Well, we have a couple of honorary daughters, one of whom is now a grandmother. So in a technical sense, we might say we are honorary great-grandparents.
B Good for you. Now, that is rewarding isn’t it to see the kids come along, and your own children do well.
M Yes, it’s a great pleasure.
B Murdo, I’m sure there must have been a few highlights in your career, particularly here at Guelph. If you can recall, can you tell us about one or two of them?
M Sure. Well, I would say having the Spring Festival every year for 35 years has been a major part of our life because not only was I Chairman of the Board for 20 years but we did a lot of the entertaining. We had dinner parties and receptions at our house and we helped organize other parties. Then, of course, the University with the opening of the various new buildings. I mean, getting that magnificent building put up with the help of Colonel McLaughlin from Oshawa, that was a great highlight. And then when I retired, they re-named the Arts Building as the MacKinnon Building. That was quite an exciting evening. It was a total surprise to me and my wife and to nearly everybody who was at our retirement dinner. I think only about 2% of the people knew what was going to happen. I said to the President, “Dr. Forster, I was very upset when you made this announcement because I figured you’d made the wrong speech at the wrong place.” And he said, “No, no, I didn’t, I knew what I was doing.” Well, I said: “I was so startled by this that I thought you’d pulled out the wrong speech.” Well, he was a little bit miffed at that. It was a very nice gesture on their part. And now we also have, of course, the Richards Building and the MacNaughton Building and several other buildings to people who, like me, held a senior role for some years.
B Any special awards that you’ve been given?
M Well, you know if you live long enough people give you medals for this and that. I think the nicest one I have is the Ontario Bicentennial Award. In 1984, Ontario celebrated its bicentennial, so they selected 1984 citizens in a province of 7 million. And, some of us in Guelph were in that list, like Patricia McCraw and Nancy Coates and because they’ll never appoint any new ones, the numbers are constantly diminishing. We look on ourselves as a rather exclusive club with a smaller number every year.
B Okay. Any other points that you would like to bring up and record for us?
M Well, I would like to say that those of us who have been privileged to work in Guelph, and at the University of Guelph, realized that the finest qualities of Canadian life can be found here. And also, it has a strong international vision, primarily because of the sciences and agriculture and veterinary science. But the other faculties benefit from that international dimension and I was instrumental, for example, in bringing Jim Shute here, who is Director of International Programs. And I think those are things that Guelph must remember. We are not just an outstanding Canadian university; we have an international role, and you can go anywhere in the world and say you are from Guelph and you get a very good welcome.
B That’s for sure. Murdo, you’ve been involved with the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. How did that come about?
M Well, several factors came together. I knew some people who knew Mr. Macdonald Stewart in Montreal who had inherited this fortune from the tobacco business, and this man said to me: “Mr. Macdonald Stewart is being asked for money by all the universities like Toronto, Queen’s and McMaster, and Guelph hasn’t asked him for any money. What do they want?” So, I went to our President, Bill Winegard, and I said “This is a message for you from Mr. Macdonald Stewart.” And Bill said: “Oh well, we need some more money for the Hotel and Food School.” So then he took over and we got $400,000. Well, a little later on, my wife and I were traveling in New Brunswick and we saw a Macdonald consolidated school which had been made into a museum. And I thought – click - we have a Macdonald consolidated school. So I came back to see Dr. Winegard and also Judy Nasby and said, ”What do you think about this?” Well, they took hold of it then, and got in touch with Mr. Macdonald Stewart who came down and saw the beautiful school that Macdonald paid for about 1904-1910, and it all worked. I mean, I was just sort of involved as a messenger boy but then I got on the fundraising committee. It was easy – we raised $2 million for that project without any trouble at all. The university put its muscle behind it. And it’s unique in Canada in that the owners of that place are the Wellington County, the City of Guelph, the School Board, and the University of Guelph. They all helped to pay the annual bills, and the university transferred its whole art collection into there, and it’s now one of the finest art galleries in Canada. And it grew out of the fact that Mr. Macdonald, way back before the first world war, believed in establishing consolidated schools so that you could have a reasonable number of vacant classrooms and a central school and bring the students in by horse and buggy or bus, or whatever. So that’s a very proper use. The building was beautifully converted by these Toronto architects, Teshima Moriyama, and the building itself is a jewel. It’s one of the finest pieces of art. So it’s a win-win situation for the community.
B Very attractive. Very pleasant place to visit.
M Yes. It’s grown and is renowned for its collections. Well, that, and I would say River Run, and the expansion of the university, and the Arboretum. I was on the Arboretum Committee in the early days. They didn’t really need me. But that’s one of the great assets of Guelph. There’s 300 acres of beautifully developed… and coming along with careful planning and great varieties. You know, it’s the only place that’s open every day of the year, free for everybody.
B And right in the city.
M And right in the city, and a magnificent arrangement … there’s an old pine woods, and there’s new plantings, and rose gardens, and Italian gardens, and English gardens, and Memorial gardens. So we spend a lot of time walking out there.
B Yes. Okay.
M One other aspect of Guelph cultural life I think should be put on the record. Back in the ‘80’s when I was helping to run the Guelph Spring Festival, and our Manager was Nancy Coates of Guelph, a man came into the office and said: “There’s a beautiful seed mill up beside Goldie’s Mill. It’s for sale. You people, the Guelph Spring Festival, should buy it and have it as a building for your performances.” And Nancy said “No, we don’t need to own a building, we rent all the buildings that we need, but there is a group in town that needs a building seven days a week, and that’s the Suzuki String School.” Now it was her idea. She went to City Council and said “You people should buy that parkland, and buy that Mill and rent it back to the people who need it.” So, the Suzuki String School worked, and with the help of others, became known as the Guelph Youth Music Centre, and they haven’t quite finished paying for it. But they raised an awful lot of money, and volunteer labour, and they have now got a beautiful building right beside the restored ruins of Goldie’s Mill, and there are several little schools in there. Besides Suzuki, there’s a Trillium School and a Waldorf School, an ORFF School, and so on. And, it’s one of the nicest new things in Guelph. And I want to put it on the record that the original idea was that of Nancy Coates, who was also the moving spirit behind the River Run Centre.