Today I am wrapping up another satisfying week of chancellor activity at the University of Calgary. I so much enjoy the role. Each day on campus puts me in touch with stalwart citizens, inspiring students and cutting-edge researchers. For example, this week I telecon’d with the chancellors from Alberta’s two other major universities to discuss a future initiative; I brainstormed with hundreds of other Calgarians over dinner to consider how the world is going to feed 9 billion people in the year 2050; and I met with board colleagues to approve the university’s new five-year strategic plan. I even had afternoon tea with two colleagues at the Palliser Hotel (it’s a tough job but somebody needs to do it!)
By far the most heartwarming aspect of my week, however, was receiving the following letter from Ms. Christine Laing. Christine is one of the university’s lawyers who works in our Public Interest Law Clinic. The story that she tells about her great-grandmother touched my heart. After meeting with her this week, Christine graciously allowed me to share the letter with you. This is what Christine wrote:
I have a strange request.
I am the staff lawyer at the Public Interest Law Clinic at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law. I am new to the position. When I started my job in January, my family reminded me that my great grandmother, Louise Vogel Johnston, sat on the University of Calgary Senate.
I started looking for information on her senatorship, which lead me to your colleague Anna Shannon. You have an amazing colleague. She personally went through archives on my behalf, and took time to write me with the results. It must have been a lot of work, and I’m touched by her effort.
Anna’s research revealed that on Wednesday March 15, 1967, the Chancellor of the University welcomed my great grandmother to her first meeting as a Senator at the University of Calgary. At the time, only 8 of the 53 senators were women, and she was among them. Next week marks 50 years to the day. It’s even a Wednesday. Amazing.
Great Grandma is a towering figure in my family’s lore. She is our touchstone of persistence and diplomacy. She campaigned to bring electricity and health care to rural Alberta, wrote about the importance of fair divorce laws and helping aboriginal youth long before it was popular, and worked to advance women in society … all while raising four boys on a remote farm in southern Alberta. We even have a story (myth?) that she personally persuaded Ernest Manning of the merits of universal health care on a flight from Ottawa to Calgary.
Now, I admit I’m not fully versed on the University’s structure yet. When I read Anna’s paperwork last night, I got curious and looked up who our Chancellor was. I laughed out loud to find our current Chancellor is an astronaut. You see, astronauts figure prominently in my favourite memory of Great Grandma Louise.
I’m a farm kid. When I was about ten, I became star crazy. Sleeping outside, memorizing the constellations, the whole bit. Instead of dissuading me, my grandpa (Louise’s son) found a used eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector and learned how to use it with me. He would stand outside with me in his frozen farm yard and listen to me prattle on about nebulae and double stars and such until Baba would call us inside out of fear we would catch our death.
When I was about fourteen, I was sitting on the carpet in Great Grandma’s living room (at the 35 Holly Street address that Anna so kindly dug up and passed on to me) when she asked me what I intended to do when I grew up. With the gravity only a teenager can deliver, I blithely informed her that I wanted to be an astronaut. She didn’t skip a beat. She didn’t raise an eyebrow. She told me that was a wonderful plan and that she believed I would do it. And every time I saw or spoke to her after that, she asked me if I was still interested, and how my plans were coming. She never once gave me a knowing smile or asked me to consider whether what I wanted was realistic.
She died when I was seventeen. Childhood passions change, and I have kids of my own now. It took me a long time to realize what it must have been like for a woman who had worked as hard as she had for equality – who was grown and married before women were considered “persons” under Canadian law – to have a great granddaughter at her feet who fully and unquestioningly believed that she could become an astronaut. Times change, and she helped change them.
When I looked you up yesterday, I also saw your tweets about remarkable women. My great grandma was undoubtedly one of those. Which is why I’m reaching out to you directly.
Next Wednesday, March 15th, would you or someone from the Chancellor’s office be willing to call my grandpa? He’s 85 now. His hearing isn’t perfect, but he’s still really sharp. And there are few times over the past ten years that he hasn’t choked up just a little when we talk about his mom. I think he would be chuffed to know that the University of Calgary remembers her and thinks enough of her to mark the occasion.
I know you have a demanding and busy job, and this is just a private lark. But if you are willing to indulge it you would make an old man and his granddaughter unreasonably happy. (And I’d get to repay grandpa for some of those hours he spent freezing his tail off under the stars with me.)
Please consider it and let me know.
Staff Lawyer, Public Interest Law Clinic
University of Calgary
(And in case you are wondering – yes, I did phone Christine’s grandfather – we had a delightful chat. – RT)