Tales from times gone by

Editor’s Notebook

Much of this issue concerns itself with history and that’s no accident. As I strolled along Peel Street on my way to work this morning, I walked past several street lamp banners, heralding the University’s 190th anniversary (the banners were designed, coincidentally, by the same talented fellow who helps put together this magazine— Steven McClenaghan).

To mark this anniversary, I had the idea of polling about 30 McGillians—some of them historians or history enthusiasts, some of them current or former McGill administrators—and asking them to choose a moment in the University’s history that had a profound and lasting impact on McGill. Often, when you canvass 30 independent-minded people for their opinion on something, you get 30 different responses. Not this time. More than half of the folks I contacted offered the same answer—the arrival of William Dawson as McGill’s fifth and most transformative principal.

It makes you wonder about the role fate plays. Dawson might well be the most single important figure in the University’s history, but he actually had his heart set on another job before coming here and McGill’s governors weren’t wildly enthusiastic about hiring him in the first place (he was only 35, for one thing). One wonders how McGill might have developed if Dawson hadn’t come. Would McGill be the McGill we recognize today?

Another story in this issue focuses on a McGill institution that is marking a pretty impressive anniversary of its own—the McGill Daily, now a proudly cantankerous centenarian. The Daily has long been a training ground for some of the finest journalists in the country, and while I know I’m not in that category, I did learn a thing or two as a Daily contributor in the mid-eighties.

My very first Daily assignment dealt with summer job prospects for students that year. I dutifully interviewed the head of the McGill Career Planning Service (CaPS) and handed in my draft. A short time later, one of my editors, Melinda Wittstock, BA’86, summoned me for a chat. She gently pointed out that my story was awfully similar to one the paper had run the previous year, including almost identical quotes from that nice fellow from CaPS.

I was mortified. I hadn’t plagiarized. I didn’t even know the previous story existed. But I did learn some important lessons: always be aware of what was written before about your subject; make the extra effort to be original; and do what you can to encourage interviewees to supply quotes that aren’t the same stale, reheated comments they pass along to everyone else.  That was probably one of the more valuable learning experiences I had at McGill and there are hundreds of Daily alums who’ll agree that their time at the newspaper provided an education in itself. Kudos to the organizing committee that recently put together the very successful Daily 100th anniversary reunion—Harold Rosenberg, BSc’71, Craig Toomey, BA’75, Will Vanderbilt, BA&Sc’11,  and John Dufort, BCom’67.

Our third history-tinged article comes courtesy of the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, BA’80, one of the best essayists currently putting fingertips to keyboard. Gopnik recently delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures on CBC Radio and the focus for his talks was winter. He’s a longtime hockey fan, old enough to remember cheering for Guy Lafleur and the dominant Canadiens teams of the seventies,
so one suspects that Gopnik might have chosen his topic primarily as an excuse to delve into hockey. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Gopnik lamented that his New Yorker editor, David Remnick, views hockey “as just a bunch of white guys banging each other over the head with sticks.” In the lectures (currently available in bookstores as Winter: Five Windows on the Season), Gopnik argues the case for his favourite sport. In an excerpt we’re proud to include in this issue, he explores the origins of the game and its roots as a product of Montreal’s unique demography.

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