When I was a Student: 1940s & 50s

Peter McGeer, BA’44, MA’46

Gordon Shrum was head of Physics and Commanding Officer of the COTC. (Photo: UBC Archives)
Gordon Shrum was head of Physics and Commanding Officer of the COTC. (Photo: UBC Archives)

In my years at UBC (1941-46), the student body underwent substantial growth, rising from about 2,600 — with two men to each woman — to nearly three times that many, with three men for each woman. A substantial part of the increase resulted from veterans returning from the armed services. To cope with this expanding attendance, a number of the army barracks were transported from the wartime army camp site on Point Grey to become classrooms or laboratories on the campus. This was to be a temporary measure, but many of those shacks were still in place when I visited decades later.

In my initial years the war was still on, and Gordon Shrum, head of the Physics Department, was also the Commanding Officer of the COTC (Canadian Officers Training Corp). As able-bodied men, we were required to attend COTC parades on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Saturday afternoons. Mostly we seemed to march in platoons and companies, but I did learn how to disassemble and reassemble Bren and Sten guns. Sometimes on the weekday afternoons we would be entertained by the gun crews on the Point having firing practice at a target towed up and down Main Mall by a Westland Lysander aircraft. We could lean out the windows of the Sciences building, interrupting our chemistry and physics labs, to jeer at the gunners who never got close to hitting the target sleeve.

Since there were no student residences, we all lived off campus. Given gasoline rationing and war-time shortages, there were few cars available, so we got to UBC by public transport. Buses picked us up at the streetcar terminus at 10th and Sasamat and delivered us to the bus stop on Main Mall across the road from the Sciences Building. Classes typically began at 8:30 am, so around 8:00 to 8:15 am there was a considerable crush at the transfer point. Those with very sharp elbows probably got a seat more often than random order in line would suggest, but it was a short ride to the campus bus stop!

The bus stop at the mall had a counter that served soft drinks, coffee, sandwiches, etc. It tended to be a gathering place mid-morning and midafternoon. It was, for me, conveniently located between the Sciences Building and the Agriculture Building, as I was Sciences and my fiancé, (who now is my wife of 67 years) was an Aggie, and we could meet for the mid-morning coffee.

Christmas and final exams were written in the auditorium, and maybe they still are. More than one exam was written at the same time, and you were seated in such a way that you couldn’t easily overlook the paper of someone else writing the same exam. Alternate seats were left empty and invigilators circled. I remember an occasion when, near the end of the allotted time, I heard a muffled oath behind me and a cascade of paper came down the sloping floor between my feet.

The luncheon gathering place was the cafeteria in the basement of the auditorium. Hot meals were served, but many of us brought our lunch with us as a money-saving strategy. There were many tables, and my memory is that they were in four rows, and two aisles. Each fraternity and sorority had “their” table where sisters and brothers gathered at meal time. There were no sorority or fraternity houses.

There was an active intramural competition based on teams from the fraternities, sororities, faculties and other groups. This was centered on athletics, but also included cultural activities such as a choral singing. There was an active drama society, and the leading lights in my early days included Lister Sinclair who made a career at the CBC, and Fletcher Markle who went on to Hollywood.

We were kept up to date on campus affairs by the Ubyssey, which published weekly. A feature that was eagerly awaited at noon each Thursday was the humour column authored by Jabez. Throughout his time on campus the identity of Jabez was a well maintained secret – only later did we learn that Jabez was Eric Nichol.

Faculty names remain with me. Garnett Sedgewick and Freddie Wood strove to inspire me with the English language. Daniel Buchanan taught me calculus – he and Walter Gage were in mathematics. W. Kaye Lambe ran the library, where I was eventually allowed into the stacks and discovered The Decameron. The Chemistry department, where I majored for a BA and continued to a master’s, was led by R. A. Clark. M. J. Marshall was my thesis supervisor, and Harold Ure and J. Allan Harris were other staff members. My colleagues and I tended to doubt the breadth and depth of this faculty, but when I went on to a PhD in Princeton I learned that the foundation they gave me was superior to that of most of my classmates who came from universities in the US or other countries.

I am grateful to UBC for the experiences I had and the foundation it gave me. UBC provided me with a base on which I went forward to an enjoyable, productive life.

Margaret Cox, BA’50, MD’55

I was a UBC student from 1947 to 1955 studying English and medicine. Two extracurricular events that surface as strong memories were lunch-hour readings by poets in the auditorium in the late 1940s. The first was the Welshman Dylan Thomas, whose resonant voice needed no microphone; his words boomed over the audience in a layered baritone of rhythmic harmony. Years later I saw his play Under Milk Wood, and also a quotation from his poems inscribed on the side of a passenger rail car in Wales: “and floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales” foretelling scenery on the journey through the mountains. Milk Wood was a mythical small town described on a “spring moonless night…starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’ and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down the shoeblack, slow, black, crowblack fishingboat bobbing sea.” The second was the Canadian poet Earle Birney, professor of creative writing at UBC, whose poems “David”, “Vancouver Lights” and “North Star West” we studied in English 100. The early Trans-Canada Airlines of that time were slow transport aircraft across the nation, inspiring Birney’s words: “O Stewardess lively-loveliest, see her go gardening all up the aisle blossoming every wooly head on a calyx of pillow”. Both these poets had a “frolic in words” that delighted their audiences, opening the music of poetry to students in the sciences as well as those in the arts ….an example of what a university can do outside of teaching prescribed material, to bring people of international repute face to face with students. Of many inspiring encounters on campus, these two were most memorable. Thank you UBC for your vision!

Joseph Perdue, BASc’52

Joseph Perdue
Joseph Perdue in the 1950s.

In 1952 I graduated in Electrical Engineering, one of the last groups of veterans from WWII to come through. We were given a chance by the government to further our education, a chance many of us took. I spent happy years at UBC and made lifelong friends. The university also helped us to get summer jobs by providing us with addresses of companies looking for summer students. I went to the Yukon for three summers and in 1951 took a summer job in South Slocan with West Kootenay Power & Light Co. I met my wife there and we were married in December 1951. After my graduation we moved to Toronto, where we still live. Thanks to my education at UBC, I enjoyed a successful career until my retirement at aged 68. In 2016 I will be 95, and look forward to seeing my grandson, Dylan Perdue, graduate in engineering from the same university as I did 64 years ago.

Clarence Madhosingh, BSc’54, MA’58

Clarence Madhosingh & Sam Haqq, 1954 Haircut
1954: Clarence Madhosingh and Sam Haqq (sitting) were students 
at UBC from Trinidad.
Clarence Madhosingh & Sam Haqq, 2013 Haircut
2013: another haircut for old times’ sake.

Haircuts in Vancouver: This was the first weekend after registration and after settling into residence at Acadia Camp, Sam Haqq and I — students from Trinidad — were ready for our first Canadian haircut. We decided to go downtown by bus early on Saturday morning to see some of the city, have a haircut and be back in time for lunch at Acadia.

As we looked around at barber shops we found that the rates were $2.00 and up (haircuts in Trinidad were 25 cents then). As this was too expensive for us we decided to try trimming each other’s hair.

After walking around the stores wide-eyed looking at the variety of merchandise and imbibing the vistas of mountains and sea from downtown, we realized that we would not be able to return to Acadia Camp in time for lunch. We went into a small restaurant to have lunch. The waiter brought a basket with a rolls and a plate with cubes of butter. He filled our glasses with water and handed us each a menu. When we looked at the prices on the menu we realized they were too high for us. Before the waiter returned to take our orders, we snuck buttered rolls into our pockets and left quietly.

We bought a pair of cheap barber scissors and combs and gave each other haircuts for the rest of our student days at UBC. Sam became so proficient (due to all the practice on my head) that soon his room became a virtual barbershop on Saturday mornings with friends coming for a wee trim.
Sam and I remained lifelong friends. While I was visiting him in 2013, he asked his brother, Tennyson Haqq, also a UBC grad, to give him a haircut. I immediately offered to do it instead, for old times’ sake. We made jokes about the changes that had taken place since our haircuts in the 1950s. Sam was now blind from glaucoma and could not check on my mistakes with a mirror as he had done before. He had less hair and it was now all grey. My eyesight was fading and my hands were shaking, and the cutting tool had advanced from scissors to an electric clipper. Sam passed away shortly after my visit.

Exploding Wine Bottles: Dr. Buckland was a renowned forest biologist who became blind. However, he lectured to forestry classes and had received a research grant to provide him aid for his condition and for laboratory research. He hired me to assist him with his literature reviews. I read the titles, the summaries or the entire papers that interested him from the current scientific journals in forestry. I also undertook his research project as his laboratory assistant. For this job, I shared a laboratory in one of the temporary huts on the West Mall with Fred Florian, an Austrian forestry student who was working on his graduate thesis research.

Fred suggested one day that we should brew some wine as there were a number of large empty demijohn bottles stored in the laboratory. He had acquired his taste for wine and his expertise in wine-making from his father, whom, he said, was a brew master in Austria. I sterilized one of the large bottles and Fred obtained the appropriate grapes and yeasts. We set up the fermentation on top of a high cupboard out of sight from anyone who came into the lab during the day. At night the lab was locked and only Fred, a couple of profs and I had keys for this building so our clandestine wine-making operation was fairly safe. Fred and I realized that making wine in a university laboratory would not be acceptable with the authorities but were unaware of any specific rules prohibiting it and, hopefully, we would consume it before it was discovered. If we were questioned, we thought we would try to justify it as part of our microbiology studies.

One day Dr. Buckland visited the lab as he did sometimes for updates on the progress of the research or for assistance in reviewing a manuscript. As he was leaving a few minutes later, unable to see but alerted by his keener sense of smell, he mentioned that there was a definite smell of fermenting grapes in this lab.

After the fermentation had peaked, Fred decided that we would dispense the precious brew into a number of sterilized wine bottles. In some of the filled bottles he added a teaspoonful of sugar before he corked them. These, he said, would ferment a bit more and produce a champagne wine. All the bottles were laid flat on their sides and left to “age”, out of sight on the top of one of the high cupboards. Dr. Buckland again visited the lab on one unusually hot summer day when the un-insulated hut, which had no air conditioning, became quite warm. During the course of quite intense discussion about some particularly complex data in a publication, there was a loud bang like a gun shot in the laboratory.

Whereas Fred and I were surprised, Dr. Buckland was decidedly startled and asked anxiously: “What’s that?” We realized immediately that the heat had caused the “champagne” bottles to pop and Fred winked at me. Just then another bottle popped even more loudly. Before Fred or I could provide an explanation, Dr. Buckland said: “I get it. You fellows have been making wine here. The least you could have done was to let me in on it. OK, bring down the other bottles before they all explode.” Fred climbed on a stool and handed me all the remaining wine bottles for storage in a cooler place. Dr. Buckland, without further comment, nonchalantly continued our scientific discussions as Fred spent a good hour cleaning up broken bottles and precious spilled wine from the floor. As Dr. Buckland was leaving, Fred presented him with a bottle of our champagne and asked him to give us his evaluation of it.

The spring water-fight at the Acadia Residences: Acadia Camp at UBC was a mixed-residence with men and women living in separate huts but they dined in a common cafeteria. It was a warm spring evening during examination week in 1954. Most students in the Camp were relaxing in the fine weather after supper by lounging on steps and banisters or sauntering around in small groups enjoying the warm sunshine before hitting the books again.

Quite unexpectedly and for no particular reason, two chaps from my hut walked over to the adjacent hut and emptied two waste cans of water on the fellows sitting on the steps. Of course, they quickly reciprocated and soon both huts were in a water-fight. The standard waste cans in the rooms became handy weapons for delivering copious amounts of water. The men from other huts joined in. Quickly, bucket brigades were formed in each hut to deliver liquid ammunition to the front lines which were the open areas between the huts. Within minutes almost the entire Camp and hundreds of men were embroiled in this water fight. Water, water, everywhere!! Buckets were clanging, men were screaming and shouting. The general ruckus attracted the attention of the girls, who emerged from their huts out of curiosity. Soon they were ceremoniously dumped on with buckets of water then they too became just as energetically involved in the water melee.

The camp “super,” Mr. Amour, a former army sergeant, rushed to the scene, a war zone that required his military expertise, he must have thought. He blew his shrill whistle, which he always carried around, likely since his soldiering days, to get the attention of the militant mob. It worked and he was summarily doused with several buckets of water. As a good military strategist, he also knew when to retreat and obtain reinforcements. He rushed to his office and called for heavy backup. He ‘phoned Dr. Shrum, (Head of the Physics Department), who was in charge of all university housing and reported that he was under attack and that things had gotten out of hand at Acadia. Interestingly, Dr. Shrum also had military experience during WWII and from Amour’s perspective this situation called for a response more from a higher military authority than the head of housing.

Dr. Shrum soon arrived in his massive American car and, like a tank, parked it in the centre of the battle ground keeping the head lights on, hopefully to spot likely culprits. No such luck, the combatants had already scurried away quickly changing from wet uniforms into dry clothes. The grounds were soggy and muddy. Water, precious ammunition in this war, was flowing freely in the corridors of the huts. The general and his lieutenant stood in the glare of the headlights devising a search and prosecute mission. The wet bodies were gone and only anxious faces could be seen jammed against the windows in the huts watching for the General’s next move.

Mr. Amour, in quick march, returned to his office to call the resident RCMP officer who arrived in minutes, armed and ready to get his man or men, and, in this case, also women, depending on his luck. The plan was to round up any wet students. The rational was that wet students were culprits. A law student immediately suggested that Mr. Amour should then be the first to be apprehended as he, being wet, would be just as culpable as any other wet person. So, this plan did not work. In the meantime Dr. Shrum decided to examine the huts for damages and to question students about the event. As he entered one of the huts he was doused by a can of water strategically set over the doorway. He retreated in fury and desperation. He advised Amour and the RCMP officer to keep an eye on the situation which appeared to have subsided by this time. Wet and cold and frustrated, he anxiously got into his car to leave when he found out that he had two flat tires.

However, Dr. Shrum had the last word and, in effect, final victory in this battle. He placed a surcharge on every Acadia resident’s accommodation account to cover the costs of damages to the buildings, excess water usage and for the repair of his two flat car tires.

Michael Meagher, BSF’57, PhD’76

Our Forestry Class of 1957 was privileged to assist in welcoming the Sopron Foresters to UBC in the spring of 1957. After fighting the Hungarian government the preceding fall, the Soproners evacuated to Austria when the Soviet Union’s troops invaded. From there they sailed to Halifax in early 1957 and then took a cross-country train to Abbotsford in January, where they were housed in Air Force barracks to begin English lessons and resume classes. A few of us, including Marc Bell (representing the AMS), me, Everett Peterson and Bill Martin of the 1958 Class, squeezed into Bill’s wee car and drove through the snow-covered route to be part of the welcoming event. While waiting we asked Professor Udvardy how to say “welcome” and “hello” in Hungarian. Bill focused on a more-fundamental level, asking how to say “hello, girls.” Our next contact was to greet them at UBC during their first visit to their new university. I rode the bus as a (somewhat) guide, during which the question “Where is the forest?” arose. My reply was: “See those mountains? Add 1000 km.” Their UBC tour included an address from the steps of the Biology building, extolling freedom and democracy by Prof. Vladimir Krajina. He had been a member of the Czech resistance during World War II, and then a member of the Czech government until the Communist putsch, so he had strong feelings for people escaping such tyranny. A welcome banquet included a speech by our class president, Rod Pringle. He had sought help with creating and pronouncing his remarks in Hungarian. That made a visible impression on the crowd (not only in our group) until one of the Soproners blurted out: “My god, he is speaking Hungarian. I thought it was German!” More effective help was provided by Gus Loman and Edo Nyland of our class when they translated into German – intentionally.

Steve (Istvan) Tolnai, BSF’59

I am a member of the Hungarian forestry group (Sopron Faculty of Forestry) that escaped from Hungary in October 1956 and was adopted by UBC as a separate Forestry Faculty. When we entered UBC, we had no idea what was expected of us, nor about the “politically correct” standard of the day and Canadian university traditions. So we decided to carry-on with our own traditions brought over from our homeland. Pretty soon we learned that some of them were frowned upon, and some of them were against the laws of our new home.

One of our favourite “traditions” was a good hollering session after a night of partying. One night, we decided to go down to Jericho Beach, where our so-called singing would not bother anybody. We piled into three cars (one VW Beetle, one black Hudson and a Mini Morris). Twenty-one of us made it to the beach, although some of the party insisted that twenty-four started out.

The beach was empty and quiet, not a soul around. It suited our purpose very well. We settled down amongst the driftwood for a pleasant drinking and singing session. Initially it was quiet, but soon the volume increased and our singing could be heard at least a mile away. We were happy and somewhat drunk, and we forgot about all of our real-life problems and the loneliness felt.

The sound of police sirens blended nicely with our singing at the beginning, but soon our singing could not compete. Police cars were coming from all directions, half a dozen of them, and they stopped, sirens still whining, on the road beside us. Car doors popped open and at least a dozen cops started to walk briskly toward our (by now silent) group.

We had no idea why they had stopped. Some of us thought maybe they want to join us. They sure did not have to make such a big noise waking everybody up on their way to join our party! We opened a few more bottles of beer before they reached our group and, to show our friendliness and appreciation, we held them out and waved the police over to join us. (In Hungary every decent cop would have jumped at the opportunity to have a beer if it was offered.) To our surprise, they did not accept our offer, and actually seemed offended by our gesture. Their leader started to ask strange questions, such as where were we from (Hungary), what were we doing (drinking) what language were we speaking (Hungarian). We kept on drinking, and they looked more and more unfriendly, in spite of the fact that we kept offering untouched bottles of beer. Their negative attitude was truly puzzling.

The leader started to make a long speech, most of which went over our head. He said something about not being allowed to drink on the beach and that we should not sing within the boundaries of Vancouver. He emphasized that he was a nice guy and that we looked ignorant and harmless. Because of this we would not be charged or spend the night in jail. We were told to surrender all unopened bottles of beer forthwith. Our respect for Vancouver’s finest changed instantly: they will have their own party with our beer, we thought. Our English was not good enough to start an argument we might not win, so all the unopened bottles were brought forward and put at the feet of the leader. To our surprise he asked for a bottle opener. We gave one to him, grinning with pleasure – maybe he had changed his mind and would join us for a drink? He lifted up a bottle, opened it, examined the label and, with a big grin on his face, very slowly poured the golden liquid into the sand! This unholy act was repeated until the last bottle was empty. We did not feel the urge to sing after witnessing this cruel act. We all went home in silence, as instructed.

I have played this event many times over in my mind. The possibilities of how this episode could have ended are endless. Fortunately, the cops realized that we were just a bunch of ignorant student who were new to Canada and did not have any appreciation or understanding of the many weird laws of the land. My heartfelt thank you goes to the Vancouver Police Force of 57 years ago.


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