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Remembering a favourite professor

Famous Canadians tell us how one professor changed their life.



Many of us can remember a professor whose dynamic classes, words of encouragement or simply the way they led their life changed how we think, or pointed us in a different direction from the path we’d imagined taking. We asked a few prominent Canadians to tell us about a professor who left an indelible impression on their lives. Here’s what they said.

Louis Fortier
Professor of oceanography, Université Laval, and scientific director of ArcticNet

I must have met Bill [William C.] Leggett around 1975, when aquatic sciences – and environmental sciences in general – were in their infancy in Quebec. I was an undergraduate working for the summer on the floating wrecks chartered by GIROQ (now Québec-Océan) to conduct marine research in the St. Lawrence estuary.

Bill was a dynamic young professor of biology at McGill University. His talent to plan, cut through red tape, simplify situations, do a lot with little, build enduring relationships based on friendship, make tough calls and, in general, to get things going, was impressive – not to mention his ability to fix the carburetor of the old truck we used for fieldwork. His organizational skills soon earned him the nickname Business Bill and propelled him up the academic ladder (eventually to principal of Queen’s University in 1994), but his increasing administrative responsibilities did not thwart his passion for discovery, publication and training hordes of students.

In 1979, Bill accepted me as a PhD candidate. While most scientific knowledge must be acquired through your own reading, study, experimentation, and data collection and analysis, there are some things you can only learn from a mentor like Bill: entrepreneurial spirit, pragmatic leadership and the drive to use the system strategically to build ever-larger research capacity in the field. By his example, Bill inculcated in his students the notion that the sky is the limit, and that big collaborative science can be achieved – and at times can even be fun and rewarding. In this new Anthropocene era, where the challenges we face as scientists are daunting and command large integrated research efforts, that is a precious and timely lesson.

Samantha Nutt

Medical doctor and founder and executive director of War Child Canada

I was extremely fortunate to have spent my undergraduate years in McMaster University’s special arts and science program. Many of the program’s inspiring professors had such a formative impact on my life and career that we remain friends to this day. That the program exists at all, however, is a credit to its creator and program director, Herbert M. Jenkins (now professor emeritus).

In my last year of high school, I popped into the program office during a tour of the university. I had been offered a scholarship to study drama and 19th century Romantic English literature in the U.K. I was also applying to McMaster’s arts and science program, but was worried about my chances of being accepted. He said: “If you accept this scholarship program, I will tell you right now, it will only enhance your application. And if you are applying this year and you get in, I will hold your position. Take the opportunity – it is something that will stay with you for the rest of your life.” He was right. I matured so much in that one year that by the time I came back to university, I was really ready to start working and apply myself.

The following year I was in one of the program’s foundation courses, and Dr. Jenkins was my academic supervisor. The course was continentally based and I was in the Africa group. My interest and passion for human rights started there – with his encouragement, I did research on the devastating impact of medical apartheid in South Africa. My growing interest in the connection between health and human rights led me to later apply to medical school. I can trace my decision to do humanitarian work in war zones to the ideas we debated and explored in those classrooms, and to the personal encouragement that professors like Dr. Jenkins gave me.

John Baker

President and CEO of D2L (formerly Desire2Learn), a learning management systems company based in Waterloo, Ontario

One of the many great teachers who inspired me was a professor at the University of Waterloo, where I graduated with a degree in systems design. Ed Jernigan taught me signals and systems. It was a class where you needed to work hard to stay on track. Some of the key concepts around feedback loops and predictive feedback provided the initial spark of inspiration for D2L learning analytics. Dr. Jernigan and I have stayed in touch over the years. He invites me back to talk with students supported by SHAD [a Canadian charity that offers enrichment to gifted high school students] and to learn from Knowledge Integration, a new cross-disciplinary program at the university. It’s relationships with teachers and professors like Ed that have helped me attain my successes in life. I thank them all!

Linden MacIntyre

Broadcast journalist and novelist

I had the good fortune to study English literature under the late Father R.J. MacSween at St. Francis Xavier University during the 1960s. He deserves a lot of credit for the way my working life unfolded, but not for the reasons one might assume. Father MacSween let me know, very early on and in no uncertain terms, that I couldn’t write worth a damn, certainly not the kind of writing that mattered to him: creative writing, poetry and fiction. He taught me the difference between emotion and sentiment and the importance, for a writer, of the kind of personal confidence that can only come from knowledge of the subject you undertake to write about. With that in mind, I decided to turn to journalism. The essence of journalism is in the gathering of information, and you don’t need a lot of writing talent to tell a story about something you’ve just listened to or witnessed.

Over time, I reported many human crises and conflict situations. I eventually realized that I was only making use of a fraction of the information and hardly any of the insight I was acquiring as a journalist. Then I remembered something else I took away from Father MacSween’s English class: the quality of literature is to a great extent based upon the truth we find in the stories and poetry that originate in experience and survive as part of our cultural memory. I decided to try to process some of my ideas and some of my accumulated knowledge through the medium of fiction, by creating stories about people we might be able to recognize as family or friends or neighbours – people who have been directly or indirectly affected by all the tragic tendencies that come with human nature. And so I started writing fiction that is mostly true.

Tim Cook

Historian, Canadian War Museum, and author

As the son of two professors, both with PhDs in history, I of course set off for my undergraduate degree at Trent University aching to do anything except history. My first two years in Peterborough saw me majoring in varsity rugby, but in my third year I was fortunate to encounter Stuart Robson (now professor emeritus). His class on the Second World War awakened in me an excitement in unraveling the complexities of nations and individuals at war. Compassionate, intelligent and funny, Stuart spoke from his well-crafted set-piece lectures, offered twice a week at 8:30 a.m. The classes were usually full.

Stuart believed in the importance of tutorials. He structured his course so that in addition to giving lectures, he met with his considerable number of students once every three weeks to read a paper and receive commentary. No other professor did this at Trent, as far as I know, for it required the professor to hold tutorials from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. During these 90-minute meetings, I read and discussed my paper, was challenged over interpretations and learned to speak intelligently about sources. One did not come unprepared.

Alex MacKenzie

Researcher of inherited diseases, professor of pediatrics, University of Ottawa, and senior scientist, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario

I first encountered the late J. Gordin Kaplan teaching his third-year molecular biology course at the University of Ottawa in 1973. An indifferent student meandering indifferently through the undergraduate curriculum with no particular destination in mind, I came late to his second class (having missed the first) to encounter Dr. Gordin beautifully outlining Jacob and Monod’s then fairly recent work on the bacterial lactose operon – work that established many of the key principles of gene regulation.

An elegant man, Dr. Gordin had the delivery of a Shakespearean actor, albeit one with a distinctly New York accent, a fierce gaze and a wonderful sense of timing. A lover of all things Gallic and frequently bedecked in a cravat and beret, he gave lectures that were performances. I remember him pausing to stare at the floor mid-sentence for emphasis before delivering the intellectual coup de grace concerning a particular aspect of the operon theory, describing how the genes that make up all forms of life are controlled. Through his eloquent mastery, the elegance and simplicity of the then-nascent world of molecular biology shone forth. He had me from negative repressor.

I did an honours project with Dr. Gordin the following year, then shipped off under his guidance to his friend Lou Siminovitch in the University of Toronto medical genetic department where, after a brief detour into medical school, I completed a doctorate under Jeremy Carver. To this day, I have been, more or less, tilling the same DNA furrow that Dr. Gordin laid out so beautifully on that September afternoon more than 40 years ago.

Carole Beaulieu

Editor-in-chief and publisher of L’actualité

Carman Cumming taught print journalism at Carleton University when I began studying for a bachelor of journalism in 1979. I still quote him profusely. In many ways, he inspired and shaped the journalist I have become. Misspelling a name or getting a number wrong was a capital offence in Professor Cumming’s book – and in my book, too. We had to get the story, get it fast and get it right! I treasured his classes, even though I failed them at first.

When I entered Carleton, I was a young French-speaking Montrealer who was determined to become a journalist but had never studied in English before. In French, I was an A student who loved writing and was pretty good at it. In English, my first assignments earned me E’s. I was desperate. And Professor Cumming was kind. He told me I had an eye for detail and an ear for a quote, but I did not hear the music of the English language. He suggested I study the Globe and Mail every night. I did, and my marks began to improve.

Professor Cumming had humour and class, and he demanded the best of us. Years later, when I edit copy and coach young writers, I can hear myself say the French version of some of the advice he gave us. I hope I am as clear, as inspiring and as kind as he was.

Ron James

Comedian and writer

Raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city rich in three centuries of military tradition, not to mention uncles and relatives who’d served in the Second World War, I had a natural inclination toward the subject of history. During high school, I consistently failed at math but was at the top of my class in history, so I chose that as my major at Acadia University.

As a wide-eyed freshman in 1975, I was unaware of how much a professor’s passion for their subject could make or break a course. Where one academic could turn an hour-long class into an exercise of coma-inducing boredom, another could elevate the subject clear off the page. In my sophomore year, I discovered the latter: Professor [James L.] Stokesbury (1934 – 1995). His consummate intellectual embrace of those tectonic conflicts of the 20th century, coupled with a “common man’s” touch, allowed him to articulate the myriad complexities of the world wars with such passion and verve that his was the most sought-after history class in the BA program. Professor Stokesbury made what some regard as the pedantic study of dead guys come alive.

Sparrow McGowan
Sparrow McGowan is a freelance journalist, writer and editor based in Ottawa.
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  1. Linda Kealey / August 5, 2015 at 15:06

    All these accounts are very interesting; I especially appreciate the ‘hats off’ to good historians who inspired the writers as I am also an historian. I was, however, disappointed that none of the examples of inspiring professors were women. As a grad student I was inspired by the teaching of women’s history at the University of Toronto. Jill Ker Conway and Natalie Zemon Davis started such a course in the early 70s, one of the first in Canada, and mentored many a graduate (and undergraduate) interested in the field. Both were lively and engaged teachers and researchers who challenged us to think about and make sense of women’s experiences in whatever period or geographical location we wanted to study. Perhaps readers will wish to continue this feature with additional comments about inspiring women professors!

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