When 35-year-old John William Dawson was named Principal of McGill in 1855, the position was no plum. The institution was in financial trouble and the campus was a shambles. The unfenced grounds were grazed by local farmers’ cattle, and the college’s only two buildings, the Arts Building and the East Wing (so-called, although it was a separate structure), were surrounded by weeds and rubble. The buildings had been badly damaged by flying rocks when the city dynamited adjacent land to create a reservoir, and they now stood abandoned. The school’s 70 students attended classes elsewhere in the city.
Undaunted, the visionary Dawson set to work. He was a resolute and patient man – after all, it had taken him six years to persuade his wife to marry him. Over his 38-year tenure as principal, he prevailed on government officials, benefactors, colleagues and graduates to assist in transforming the “tiny, poverty-stricken provincial school” into Canada’s premier university.
One of the first groups he enlisted was the McGill University Society, the forerunner to today’s Alumni Association. The Society was established in 1857 by a group of graduates who pledged to work for the advancement of their alma mater and to more frequently “conference among themselves.” If the organization’s founders pictured themselves chatting over leisurely lunches, Dawson had other ideas. With sleeves rolled up and shovels in hand, they joined the energetic young principal in planting trees to help beautify the campus. Cows were no longer welcome.
That was 150 years ago and graduates have been advancing their alma mater ever since, as volunteers, student mentors, advocates and ambassadors around the world. And their financial support has helped build and maintain two handsome campuses.
For the Alumni Association’s 150th anniversary, we are compiling a “scrapbook” of personal memories of McGill. We’d like to know what made your time at McGill memorable. Was there a person, a chance event, a moment that had a profound impact on you? Fire up your computers or pull out pen and paper and let us hear from you. See details on page 39 of this issue.
To inspire your muse, you might want to read a few McGill authors. As you will learn from our lead story, McGill alumni are among this country’s top writers, and CanLit is big. Publisher Madeleine Partous noted recently, “Canadian books rule. We’re considered hot out there. The Brits and Aussies dedicate entire bachelor degrees to our stuff.”
One name well known to students of Canadian literature – and to music fans – is Leonard Cohen, BA’55, DLitt’92, who, at 71, is still commanding a huge following with last year’s The Book of Longing, a volume of poetry and drawings. A name quickly becoming familiar is Edeet Ravel, MA’86, PhD’92, who has been producing books and collecting prize nominations at a fast clip over the last few years.
Our story profiles other bright stars in the literary firmament, including David Bezmozgis, whose face adorns our front cover. Since our story was written, his book, Natasha, detailing his family’s immigrant experience, was selected for CBC Radio’s “Canada Reads,” a combination of national book club and literary competition. Five books are chosen every year and another grad, Heather O’Neill, BA’94, also made the list with Lullabies for Little Criminals. We know you’ll enjoy reading about McGill writers with the right stuff.
With this issue, I hand over the editorial blue pencil (always a red pen at the News) to Interim Editor Daniel McCabe, BA’89, an award-winner himself for several features he has written for the magazine. I will remain a contributing editor, but will devote more time to communications projects for the Alumni Association.
Working on the News for the past nine years has been challenging, fun, rewarding – and never, ever dull. McGill’s reputation attracts some of the world’s finest students and faculty, of course, but it also brings an equally impressive array of visitors. I’ve met and been deeply moved by Romeo Dallaire and Stephen Lewis with their wrenching tales of the world’s failures in Africa, and humbled by the self-deprecation and commitment of the late Michael Smith, a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist. And where else would I find myself briefly alone with Mikhail Gorbachev, as each of us took a wrong turn in Redpath Hall, he away from his handlers and I into a private area?
I have come to love this wonderful place and I look forward to continuing to tell you its stories.