Saturday, September 21, 2019



It would have been difficult to have had a more confused and humble beginning when something called Ryerson Institute of Technology opened its historic and battered red door over two days because the politicians were busy the first day of classes when maybe 210 students launched the future university on its way.
Now there are 40,000 students and nearly 3,000 doing post grad, numbers so fantastic that back on Sept. 21, 1948, you would have been trundled off to 999 which old Torontonians will recall is what we called the Insane Asylum before it was, thank heavens, renamed.
It is very much the old city that we uncover when we poke at the entrails of a university that survived more perils than the heroine in any Saturday afternoon movie for kids in the 1940s and 1950s when Rye High kept clawing for life.
All it had on its side was a glorious (but publicly ignored) history because its home of St. James Square had been the nursery for more innovations in Canadian education and culture than snooty U of T that did its best, along with the other universities, to make sure the insult of Rye High flourished as if Ryerson was just a souped up high school.
I came along in 1955 when you had to be nuts, considering the general wackiness, to enrol. But I'm glad I did get sucked in by the glossy calendar that made the place look like a cross between MIT and Harvard. We survivors got a great education, especially for the rough world of Toronto newspapers,
I wrote the history of the early days on Ryerson's dollar but then had to publish it myself as Ryerson University A Unicorn Among Horses because as student president and member of many board advisory and search committees I often saw what the Ryerson administrators wanted hidden in a censorship frenzy.
One former president said the university was looking forward, which was a polite way of admitting that many, including him, wanted to forget the first years which were a mix of BS, high school, gifted and innovative profs, failed teachers marking time, and a despotic regime which would made old Russia look like a summer camp.
So the university turns a frigid shoulder towards my book - which you can get through Amazon in the various versions of Kindle etc. - not realizing that old grads like me think the young Ryerson was the equal of any university because it taught us that  survival and even success was up to us, not some tenured prof mumbling into his politically correct lecture notes.
My original manuscript was chopped and mangled and survives, barely, in the university archives, and the hours of tape with the pioneers such as H.H. Kerr were shunted to some nook when taping technology moved on. Yet the nostalgia is golden when my fading classmates gather in a flurry of remember whens.
Even H.H., the first principal/president, is remembered for his accomplishments rather than his stupidities like when he put our entire class on probation because the mother-in-law of a major reporter complained to the premier about us. (But that's another story.)
For almost a century, there had been a teachers' college at the Square. And one of the first public museums in Canada. And art school. And art gallery.  Various government ministries had started there. Air crew trained there for war, and when the war ended, the veterans came to patch their CVs. Then came the apprentices. And now, what? Everyone wondered.
Ryerson had to wait a day for even a modest opening ceremony for the unveiling of the next step towards newfangled technology because it wasn’t important enough to command immediate attention. It was a careful occasion but not a splashy one because the public wasn’t quivering with anticipation. Two weeks later, there was a brief mention in the Legislature about institutes in general but Ryerson wasn’t mentioned because skepticism was common and the Opposition indifferent because not much money was involved.
 So no band played, no bunting waved, and no one cut a ribbon when students walked to the first classes on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Just how many were there? Estimates ranged up to 250, with 210 as Kerr’s best guess. No instructors bothered much with Admit-To-Lecture cards and roll calls, just happy some had shown up.
The next day, the premier and an entourage of civil servants gathered at 3 pm. in the auditorium, then the largest space available because the biggest air force buildings were chopped up by partitions. Many didn’t realize the old hall was one of the most historic in the city.
 It was a cool, clear afternoon that made people hope that Indian summer would arrive soon before winter. Ironically, considering the delays it had caused Ryerson, the big news was the Berlin blockade. Kerr had had his staff beat the bushes for an audience of students. They were only at Ryerson because of the promise of new courses and must have been perplexed when the premier spoke as if the rehab programs for veterans were just continuing.
(George Drew probably was preoccupied with leadership manoeuvres but he never lost his blissful ignorance about the institute that he had allowed. Kerr remembered Journalism students interviewing him later in Ottawa and becoming upset when it became obvious that Drew was still hazy about what Ryerson taught and was surprised to find a Journalism school there.)
 It was left to two provincial officials to stress the new aims, to bring underlings in support, and to arrange for telegrams from well-wishers, including principals, in an attempt to convince the premier there was wide support.
 For Kerr, the stars of the occasion were in the audience, not on the old stage. Kerr thought fondly of the first students because “they were the real pioneers. They were taking a chance on a type of education of which they, and the outside world, knew very little.” For years his instructors talked about these “special” students, like the first student president, Tom Gilchrist, who became a CBC star as Gil Christie.
The second president also was remembered, because he was the biggest character there, among the students that is.
 Honest John Vail, as he liked to be known, used a top hat, stunts and a refreshing confidence to become a legend. Inevitably, when H.H. called in for a chat the new Students’ Administrative Council president — the preferred name at first because that was the name at U of T — he would mention Christie and Vail while the student sat nervously across the desk that had been used by Egerton Ryerson.  (I still remember his wintery smile while he tried his awkward best to put me at ease.)
 Vail also figured in an early problem which was a hint that campus newspapers would always give Kerr headaches. The first paper was just a mimeographed sheet but it infuriated him with its attacks on the administration. He figured his student leader was the best bet to unmask the ungrateful writer. Vail kept reporting he was getting close but he never found the culprit. Or so he told Kerr, who found out too late that Honest John, using Ryerson equipment, had been the secret critic.
 The students found after the first days stretched into routine that despite all the talk about new courses, there were no dramatic changes from the past. Rennie Charles had come from war to the rehab confusion which taught thousands and said it was a gradual transition “from some of the things we had been teaching.” There were also older faces besides the staff because there were still some veterans. They qualified because under Kerr’s rules, anyone qualified whom he wanted to admit. Besides, he thought it safer to keep them at the Square than have them go to the last rehab operation in Hamilton where they might be dissatisfied and complain to an MPP. Their presence also helped boost the numbers.
 Eventually the Square became a routine stop for celebrities and leaders. They would receive honourary degrees, open buildings and speechify. But none of this mattered as much as that humble opening ceremony when even if the premier was, in the language of students, clueless as to what really was going on, at least Drew brought his prestige. So the Conservative newspaper, the Evening Telegram, responded with a big layout on Page 3 which had the familiar picture of the Normal school but also, for three cents a copy, Helen Hutko fitting clothes on a dummy and H. Perryman repairing a clock.
 The feature began: “There isn’t a football team at the new Ryerson Institute of Technology on Gould St. There is no school tie and there are no dormitories. But apart from these few minor differences, Ontario’s most modern poly-technical school, officially opened this afternoon by Premier George Drew, has all the earmarks of a full-fledged university.
 No doubt U of T profs choked at that imagery. After all, some upstart with no campus and an aged complex surrounded by huts was called a full-fledged college, even if it was in the Tely and not that real paper for the academic world, the Globe.
The feature was speckled with errors, such as Ryerson was modelled after the Rochester Institute, and had 150 students and a staff of 60. It was also useful because it said there was room for 600 students, and practical experience would be considered in admission. The hours may be from 8.30 to 4.30 with no spares but there would be little homework because the system stressed the practical over the theoretical with little textbook work.
 It didn’t matter that Kerr had only one day of operation under his belt because he told the reporter Ryerson was a success because of all the promises for summer employment. He boasted that Electronics was the most popular course because it had “what is believed to be the first television camera in Canada, only part of the costly equipment needed in the course."
 Great publicity because it touched every point in his\ standard sermon: uniqueness, practicality, good equipment, industry support, and lots of jobs afterwards. Unfortunately it also left misconceptions about Ryerson being the right hand of industry with little use for textbooks. After all, Ryerson’s founding principles were that no industry could dominate and that every student had to take compulsory academic courses.
 Many students must have wished Ryerson really did have “little use” for textbooks as they made the annual costly September foray into the A and A store on Yonge. It served as Ryerson’s first bookstore, even keeping copies of the book lists for various courses behind the drawers of 78 records. And in the back, there was a soda fountain.
 The complexities of the novelty of Ryerson also proved slippery for a smaller Globe article the same day, but Kay Sandford fortunately hit on the angle that invested the new institute with traditions.
 “The Toronto Normal School, the seed plot of the Ontario educational system, will take on a new look and a new future today. The old buildings on Gould St., which have nurtured the spirit of Rev. Egerton Ryerson for 100 years, will be the home of the Ryerson Institute of Technology. As Ontario’s hub of the latest development in technical and vocational training, it may be a far cry from the famous educationist’s idea of higher learning, but it will be a lasting monument to the man who used his whole life teaching others how to live.”
 The Globe also said Ryerson would be “the right hand of industry” because it had training equipment worth $1.5 million. (A fortune in 1948 but probably a Kerr exaggeration.) The province’s only “polytechnical” school would have “60-odd courses,” the feature said. Another misconception that would haunt because there were actually 15 courses with 37 options, all supervised by the education department. What fed the confusion was that in the same buildings the same instructors gave shorter apprenticeship courses supervised by the labour department.
 The apprentices certainly helped Kerr meet his budget but their presence nurtured a PR disaster that tainted the main occupant of the Square as a trade school and hurt grads hunting employment. They certainly bugged Ryerson students who paid tuition when the apprenticeship students were paid an allowance to take the free training.
 Despite any confusion and flaws, the main coverage was that a bustling different school had opened where you could learn all about the chores of industry and then get a job. Ryerson was to enjoy a favourable “press.” Saturday Night was the first magazine to demonstrate this, devoting three pages and 14 photographs. It was helped later with all its grads in the media. But in 1948, most journalists had come up the hard way, climbing from copy boy to reporter to editor, and then they went to war. So Ryerson with its pragmatic history was more to their liking than the universities, which were just starting journalism schools.
 There were no major problems in the first year, although the lack of students hung like a pall. Kerr said: “It was quite an experience after the thousands upon thousands of rehab students. But it was expected because we knew that unless we were given six months to acquaint the public, enrolment would be small. So we had far too many teachers for the number of students.
 The largest class was in electronics, which had been popular in rehab days with a great demand and everyone getting jobs. The smallest was in printing, because school training in this area was new. The course wasn’t threatened because there was all that equipment and vets who had trained there earlier were now supportive voices in the industry.
 Everyone knew that they had to get the numbers up. Still, the happiest people in the first year were the instructors. It was a blessing for the survivors just to have a job. They knew they could handle anything that Kerr or the department or fate could throw at them.
And they handled it for 71 years as the student number grew 190 times even as the new barons of Ryerson ignored that it had all started with one old building that they rushed to destroy surrounded by dubious military buildings that no one wanted.
There was no hint as fall came in 1948 that this simple ceremony for something called RIOT would mark the beginning of the grandest accomplishment for a Square that has no rival in the country for what it has contributed to education and culture.
Why the guest of honour didn't even quite know what was being launched. Which, come to think of it, made it a typical political ceremony!

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