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How I became a university professor

Pre-school Childhood

These were happy times in a small Saskatchewan town.  Immersed in my mother’s large extended family, I had both cousins and neighbourhood kids as childhood friends.

First to Third Grades

A very negative first grade experience left me hating school and repelled by the notions of reading and writing.  My family’s moving from Saskatchewan to British Columbia, then living briefly in 3 different towns before settling in the town of Kamloops, meant brief stints in 3 schools, in each of which I was the unhappy, poorly performing, outsider with no friends.

Third to Sixth Grades

My third to fifth grade classes in Kamloops were, literally, divided into two groups: good students and poor students.  Grouped in separate rows at the left side of the room, the poor students were often dealt with separately by the teacher and often given less demanding tasks.  I accepted my status as one of the “dumb” students.
           During Fourth Grade the building of a new district high school commenced on vacant land not far away.  On the way  home from school and I often went to watch the single bulldozer engaged in levelling the site.  Soon the operator allowed me to ride on beside him as he worked.  Operating such a huge machine, by oneself, as it altered the face of the Earth, seemed to me the ideal occupation.  Becoming a bulldozer operator became my goal.  My parents were not pleased, but I persisted.
           A saint named Art Stevenson taught me fifth grade.  The first teacher to take an interest in me, he gave many suggestions — including studying and reading on my own.  By this time I had learned to read, at least minimally.  At Stevenson’s suggestion, I took Lassie Come Home out of the School Library.  Almost overnight I became a keen reader.  Towards the end of the year, Stevenson told me that in Sixth Grade I would no longer be at the left side of the room.  It must have been about that same time, speaking slowly and distinctly, that he told me “You can do anything you want to do.” 
    I did well in Sixth Grade.

High School: Seventh to Twelfth Grades

The six years went quickly.  Now I knew I could do well - and I did.  By tenth grade I was getting the top mark in at least half of my 5 or 6 courses.  I became school friends with 4 or 5 other top students, and was active on the track team and the school paper.  In our final year my fellow students in the two groups chose me as captain of the track team and editor of the school paper.  In addition, I was elected president of the high school student council; while my fellow graduating students chose me as class valedictorian.   
    Apart from school, I’d become interested in Canadian politics, admiring our local Member of Parliament, Davie Fulton, a Rhodes Scholar who, like my father, had been an Army Officer overseas.  Fulton became a cabinet minister when his Progressive Conservative Party gained power.  By this time I’d joined the Young Conservatives of Canada, becoming President of the local branch.  In the following years I kept in touch with Fulton — and remained a party member.

From Bulldozing to Forestry to Political Science

For reasons I cannot now comprehend, I remained stubbornly intent on becoming a bulldozer operator rather than going on to university.  As the trades school’s bulldozer course did not start until November, I took the only summer job advertised on the high school’s bulletin board — as assistant in the Research Division of the British Columbia Forest Service.
    Assigned to a team composed of two doctoral candidates in Forestry at UBC, I spent the summer travelling over much of BC assisting them in assessing tree health and diversity.  Each team member planned to become a professor (and in fact did so).  Priding themselves on their academic/scientific approach, and aghast at my bulldozer plans, they set about persuading me of the value, excitement, and satisfaction of their approach. 
    They succeeded, not least because they themselves were excellent role models.   By summer’s end my plan was to enter university, to study Forest Science, and to become a professional forester.  As it was too late to apply to enter university that year, the team facilitated my being kept on employed in the Research Division for the ensuing year.  I entered the University of British Columbia in 1957.

First Year at UBC: the Felling of Forestry

Students entered the UBC Forestry Faculty after three years in Arts and Science.  First-year A&S students were required to take 5 year-long courses, including English, a foreign language, at least one Science and at least two other Arts courses.  It was only at this point that I took full note of one forbidding fact: entering Forestry required two prior Chemistry courses.  In high school I had taken and enjoyed biology but avoided chemistry, knowing I would dislike it.  There was never another subject I avoided in this way.   Because of the this chemistry factor, I realized in my first days at UBC that Forestry could not be for me.  
     French would be my foreign language.  Because of my interest in politics, I chose introductory Political Science.  As my fifth course I chose Latin — in part because it fitted perfectly into the schedule of the other courses, but also because it seemed intriguing and I knew little about it.  As my science course I chose Zoology — it could lead to a career in Wildlife biology, which I knew I would enjoy but, wouldn’t you know it, here too chemistry courses would be required. 

Second to Fourth Years: Lawyer to Professor

In that first-year Political Science course, taught by David Corbett, an outstanding teacher and scholar, I found my true academic/intellectual interest — my getting the top mark in the class of more than 100 seemed confirmation.  Corbett encouraged me to continue in political science.   A regular BA in political science leads in most cases to public sector employment or to entry into professions such as law. For the next year or so my plan was to become a lawyer, to return to Kamloops to practice and, although I told no one, perhaps to proceed into politics.   In second year I took more political science courses and in third year entered the Department’s Honours Program.  
    However, as romance novels put it, fate would intervene.  In the first-year Latin course I had met SML.  Her interests were Math and English.  Her marks were as good as mine - her Latin mark was higher.  We dated a few times that year, and became closer in  following years. By the start of third year, SML had persuaded me to forget about becoming a lawyer and instead to become a Professor.  It was her firm view was that I would be better, and happier, as a professor than as a lawyer.  
    Regrettably, I remember no specific moment that I became fully persuaded — but without SML this utterly critical turning point in my life might well never have occurred.  Getting a law degree from UBC and commencing law practice in my own small home town would pose no problems.  In contrast, getting the graduate degrees to become a professor would be daunting, not least in the practical necessity of going to unfamiliar universities and cities, likely far away.  But, accompanied by SML, I would find it easy to face the unfamiliar, no matter how far away.

1961 SML — U of C —- WWF

During fourth year, I applied to the Canada Council for a financial scholarship, and applied to enter graduate programs at Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago.  Chicago was my first choice for 3 reasons:  its department had world-class faculty;  it had provided more faculty members than had any other department to the other top ten departments in the US;  SML’s favourite aunt was employed by U of C and had a large apartment close to it.  Without my knowledge, the UBC department nominated me for an American Woodrow Wilson Fellowship - these were for intending university faculty, covering both fees and living expenses for three years.  
    SML also applied to U of C.  She and I were both admitted.  I obtained the Canada Council Scholarship and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.  SML and I married in September 1961 and moved to Chicago.

Chicago 1961-64

I did well at Chicago.  In the first term of my first year, among the 34 M.A. students I was the only one to obtain a grade of A in every course.  In the following two years of required Ph.D. course work, I shared top overall marks with several others.  In third year the Department nominated me for a Congressional Fellowship.   Eight of these were awarded each year to nominees from some 90 universities across the United States.  I was the first Canadian to be nominated, and the first non-American to obtain a Fellowship.

Washington and Ottawa 1964-66

SML and I thus spent 1964-65 in Washington, where I obtained insights into the Congress and US politics unobtainable even to most American citizens.  For my Ph.D. dissertation research, I obtained a further Canada Council Scholarship, enabling us to live in Ottawa for a year for me to do my research.

University of British Columbia 1966-2006

In the mid-60s, Canadian universities, expanding rapidly to accommodate post-war baby boomers, had numerous faculty openings.  All 6 universities I applied to offered me positions.  I chose UBC.  In my absence the department had doubled in size.  I became the 13th in September 1966, retiring 40 years later - but officially remaining on faculty as Professor Emeritus.

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Created: February 17, 2018

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