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Dr. Henry Roper’s address at the President’s Dinner

Dr. Henry Roper's address at the President's Dinner

It is a pleasure to be here tonight. I am grateful to Dr. Barker for the opportunity to speak to you.

You, the graduates of 2009, are of course looking forward. In my case, the great honour of receiving an honorary degree has led to reflection upon the past. My sister-in-law sent me a birthday card last February. It shows a Confucius-like figure saying: “Inside every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” I am going to speak briefly what happened to King’s, and to me, after I came here in 1977, a period during which the College gained new vitality through the commitment of a remarkable group of people.

I was privileged to be part of this group. I came to King’s in mid-career, for I had held appointments in the history departments at two other universities. When I joined the Foundation Year Programme in its sixth year of operation, I did not know if it would last, for it had only 41 students, or whether I myself would survive. I had not read a lot of the material, and what I had read had been studied years before. So teaching in FYP for me was like beginning again, five years after completing my PhD. Fortunately, I had a life-jacket immediately to hand in Angus Johnston, who also began teaching in FYP in 1977 and whose office was next door to mine in the basement of Alexandra Hall. I was weakest on the Ancient World, about which, of course, he knows a great deal. I would pick Angus’ brains and then take out my frustrations in our epic matches on the ping-pong table set up in the Alex Hall laundry room. He endured the beatings I gave him with the same philosophic spirit that he brought to my questions on Plato and Sophocles. I also learned from my colleagues Colin Starnes, Robert Crouse, Wayne Hankey, Patrick Atherton and Tom Curran.

In those days, believe it or not, both students and professors smoked during lectures and tutorials. When Colin lectured, he would throw his cigarette butts into the fireplace of the old Haliburton Room. Wayne Hankey would sweep into the Haliburton Room wearing a gown and mortarboard, occasionally smoking a cigar.

The teaching staff of FYP until 1981 was exclusively male, and meetings to set questions and assign marks were punctuated by the occasional ad hominem insult and four-letter word. As well as improving the tone of these meetings, the inclusion of Kathleen Jaeger, Peggy Heller and later Elizabeth Edwards brought new intellectual vitality and perspectives to FYP. Kathleen became the first female Director in 1991 and Peggy is now in her second term at the helm, having first held the post when she replaced me in 1994. In the early 1980s, Pat Dixon joined us as secretary. Her capacity for hard work and above all her rapport with the students have been essential elements in FYP’s success.

King’s was demanding, exciting and fun, but I did not expect to stay, partly because of the salary, which I supplemented for a number of years by teaching courses at St. Mary’s. However, in 1978 the opportunity occurred for me to become Registrar, which I agreed to do on condition that I continue to teach half-time in FYP. I had never before considered becoming an administrator. One should never say never, for I came to enjoy it, particularly the contact I had with the students at a time when I could know most if not all of them personally. I remained in the job until 1987, when I was succeeded by Patricia Howison, who subsequently married Neil Robertson. Both Tricia and Neil have contributed greatly to King’s. In 1983, I added the position of Vice President to that of Registrar, although I still continued to teach half-time in FYP. I was obviously hooked, and had come to believe that we were trying to do something unique.

Whether as Registrar, Vice President or Director of FYP, I was closely associated with the School of Journalism, which got off to a rocky start during my first year as Registrar before becoming an essential part of the King’s fabric. I admired President John Godfrey’s phlegmatic attitude when the first director of Journalism resigned on one day’s notice in June of 1979. I thought we were dead in the water. Suddenly, in an extraordinary reversal of fortune, the distinguished journalist George Bain agreed to become Director, rescued the School, and put it on the map. His successors Walter Stewart, Eugene Meese, Michael Cobden, Stephen Kimber and Kim Kierans have proved worthy heirs of his legacy.

I have said that FYP was demanding but also fun. Parties became an important part of the King’s experience. In 1981, we held a masquerade, one of Colin’s brilliant ideas. Everyone, students and faculty, came in costume as a character in FYP. It was a huge success. The students were extraordinarily inventive. One of them was God, with a cardboard contraption on his head containing a glowing light bulb, visible through little apertures labelled “Father,” “Sonand “Holy Spirit.” Colin played a medieval jester, and acted the role to the hilt, bounding around making rude remarks to the students and faculty gathered in the Haliburton Room. Wayne Hankey, of course, attended as a prince of the church. My memory is uncertain, but was Angus Odysseus, his dog George, who was always with him on those days, standing in for the hero’s faithful pooch Argus? Or was Angus Oedipus? For my part, I put on one of my wife Phoebe’s woolen mini-dresses from the 1960s along with a pair of her black panty hose and was delighted when Robert Crouse immediately recognized me as Machiavelli.

By the early 1980s. FYP and the School of Journalism had achieved stability under Colin Starnes and George Bain. Our problem was getting the word out to prospective students about the interesting developments at the College. This was very difficult. It is understandable that high school students and their parents hesitate to take a chance on new ventures such as FYP and the fledgling School of Journalism. Building up enrolment was a slow process, but interest in King’s began to accelerate in the mid 1980s due to a number of factors. The first was our success in attracting students through high school visits. We did not have a recruiter as such, but divided up the schools we wanted to visit amongst ourselves. Most high school students and many guidance counsellors thought we were off the wall, but the kids in whom we were interested, ie those intrigued by us, got to meet a real live faculty member. Angus was a terrific visitor. For several years he travelled the Maritimes on our behalf, doing far more than the rest of us, one of his many services to King’s.

Another factor that made a difference was the involvement in FYP of George Grant, who has recently come back into the news through his nephew Michael Ignatieff’s criticism of his best-known book Lament for a Nation. Grant returned Dalhousie from McMaster in 1980. I was co-ordinator of section V of FYP, ie. the nineteenth century, and asked him to lecture on Nietzsche. Grant was then at the height of his celebrity as a public intellectual and was also a mesmeric classroom performer, whose annual lecture became a FYP highlight until his death in 1988. His interest in the College, coupled with his name in our calendars and brochures, gave us credibility, particularly in Ontario, where interest in King’s began to grow. Another famous person whose participation made a difference was the painter Alex Colville. Angus had known him at Mount Allison and persuaded him to give a bi-annual lecture on art at King’s. Colville always talked about his own ongoing work, opening a window into the thinking of this remarkable artist. I was fascinated by his lectures and I think the students were, too. When Walter Kemp joined our Faculty in 1985, we acquired our own artist-in-residence. His lectures on music became a hugely popular FYP tradition.

Lastly there was what I would call the Frum effect. One day in the mid 1980s, Linda Frum turned up in my office to ask about King’s. We had a long talk and then I took her to the SCR, along with Patrick Atherton, professor of Classics and a founder of FYP, for sherry and further conversation. I suppose it was the sherry, for in her book on Canadian universities, the SCR, then much shabbier than it is today, became an elegant oak panelled room and yours truly an Oxford-type don with an impeccable English accent. More importantly, however, she gave King’s and its programmes a rave review in her best-selling book, asserting that we were running the best first-year programme in Canada. By the end of the 1980s, King’s was becoming nationally known. Since then, the College has not looked back.

I want to end with a very brief comment about the purpose of universities. I believe that universities should be subversive, places where everyone is challenged on an ongoing basis to think again and again about what they know. Universities are not in the first instance about research, or remedying injustices, however important these pursuits may be. They are about students and faculty alike being transformed, in the words of that great subversive, St. Paul, “by the renewing of your mind.” Through study and dialectic we come to understand what we truly love, and, perhaps, catch a glimpse of the path we wish to follow in life.

I hope that you have experienced moments of transformation during your years at King’s, and wish you Godspeed on your journey.

At the May 14, 2009, Encaenia, King’s honoured Dr. Henry Roper, also known as “Mr. King’s,” with the degree of Doctor of Canon Law.