In the 35 years from the Great Depression to the 1960s, virtually every undergraduate coming to Queen’s received “a Jean Royce letter” – notification of their acceptance from the university registrar. With a deft human touch, the meticulous registrar tracked the subsequent performance of those she brought to Queen’s, and few ever forgot the experience.
Born in St. Thomas into a blue-collar family, Miss Royce began at Queen’s as an extramural student in 1925. Two years later, she switched to full-time, becoming active on campus in the Student Christian Movement, the Debating Society and the Levana Society.
While working to make ends meet in the library, Miss Royce caught the attention of university registrar Alice King. A few years after graduating, she received an offer from Miss King to return to her alma mater as assistant registrar. Her salary was $1,200.
When Miss King died in 1933, Miss Royce took over. She was a perfectionist, annually combing through hundreds of applications and mentally cataloging the strengths and ambitions of Queen’s would-be students. Her dedication to institution and student alike was unflagging. In the words of her biographer Roberta Hamilton, Miss Royce “worked like a human dynamo six days a week for all but six weeks of the year.”
Her judgment combined compassion with equity. In 1942, when a young Jewish refugee from war-torn Europe, Alfred Bader, sought admission after being rebuffed at McGill and Toronto, Miss Royce opened Queen’s door. Dr. Bader never forgot the kindness.
Miss Royce was one of the few women of power on Queen’s male-dominated campus. A small number of women professors in the Arts and Science Faculty and the School of Nursing, plus the Dean of Women, gave women only a marginal voice in campus affairs. Miss Royce resisted this culture, making her office an enclave of female achievement. Moreover, by serving as secretary to crucial bodies such as the library curators and the Arts and Science Faculty, Miss Royce extended her influence.
In the 1960s, Queen’s tripled in size to 10,000 students. This growth strained the registrar’s office and it was no longer possible for Miss Royce to personally vet each applicant.
She retired in 1968, and that autumn, the university awarded Miss Royce an honorary degree in recognition of her decades of service. The graduating class gave her a standing ovation and the alumni elected her to the Board of Trustees.