Friday, September 15, 2017

What the University of Winnipeg Means to Me

Personal reflections on the 50th anniversary of 
the University of Winnipeg
receiving its Charter from the Province of Manitoba.

I come from a long line of people who earned their living with their hands, by the sweat of their brows – farmers, carpenters, weavers, and mechanics mostly. There was also a brewer or two and at least one outright bootlegger. Save for members of the clergy who pop up every few generations, and a couple of scholars in the dim reaches of the past, I don’t have many ancestors who went on to higher learning after having convinced their priest or pastor that they were worthy of being confirmed, which generally meant demonstrating they were literate.

I have one 5th-great-grandfather who attended the University of Copenhagen to study art and another who attended cathedral school for the same purpose. One 3rd-great-grandfather studied agriculture, also at the University of Copenhagen, and another in the same generation attended theological school. My father studied commerce at the University of Manitoba and he had two uncles who were college educated, both of them teachers, along with a few of his cousins. That’s pretty much it. Over the span of two centuries, there wasn’t much in my family to suggest that higher education would be my destiny, although I assumed from an early age that I would attend university.

Wesley Hall, heart of the University of Winnipeg campus.
Although I recall looking at the brochures of a few universities, I somehow always knew that I would study at the University of Winnipeg. It was certainly conveniently located – about a 15-minute bus ride from my childhood home – and it seemed the least intimidating for someone who had spent most of his childhood attending a smaller school, but it was my great-uncle and godfather, Axel Vopnfjord, who had the greatest influence on my decision. Uncle Axel graduated from Wesley College, one of the founding colleges of the University of Winnipeg, in the class of 1923. Next to my father, he was pretty much the wisest person I knew at the time.

It helped that the university was still home to a high school and that students who enrolled there were allowed to also enrol in university courses. Having fallen just short of graduating from St. James Collegiate, I completed the last part of grade 12 at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate while beginning my university studies. I planned to study political science on my way to law school, but I became drawn towards anthropology instead. Sadly, my father died suddenly during my first year at university and the stress of earning a living was added to the usual challenges faced by any student. Looking back, I realize I was depressed. During my second year, I stopped attending classes and began working fulltime. 

I married, became active in the Unitarian church, gave up politics (for a while), lost one job when the company I worked for was sold, and started another in a completely different field. My minister, John S. Gilbert, tried to convince me that my gifts would never be fully realized unless I returned to school. Four years after leaving school, I returned to classes by enrolling in “Western Thought in the Making,” which was taught by Mac Watts. By the end of the term, I had switched my major once again, this time to religious studies, and embarked upon the long journey of earning a degree while working fulltime. Ten years after I started, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree and proceeded immediately to a master’s program. 

Once again, the path proved to be circuitous but, after another nine years, I received my Master of Divinity degree, having also graduated from the certificate in theology program along the way. All told, I’ve graduated from the University of Winnipeg four times, earned two academic medals, and benefited from bursaries, scholarships, and the forbearance of my wife, Cindy. 

Along the way, my professors influenced me deeply – Tom Graham and Carl Ridd, John Badertscher and Kay Stone, Harry Loewen and George Epp, Paul Trudinger and Eleanor Stebner, Harold King and Mac Watts, and several others. If anyone had mapped out the journey for me beforehand, I never would have started, but my experience as a student at the University of Winnipeg shaped me profoundly and I wouldn’t have become the person I am without it.

Years after graduating, I returned as a volunteer for the University of Winnipeg Alumni Association and was honoured to have served as its president. It is now my privilege to serve on the Board of Regents. Beyond contributing to the University of Winnipeg Foundation, these are small but tangible ways for me to express my gratitude for the incomparable education I received, the patience and support of my beloved professors, and the countless ways in which the university transformed my life for the better.

This post appears as the editorial in the September 15, 2017 issue of