"A dance every weekend"
Donalda McGeachy, Arts'42, reminisces about her student days at Queen's.
Queen’s was a very different place when Donalda (Campbell) McGeachy, Arts’42, first arrived in 1939. Female students lived exclusively in Ban Righ and adhered to a 10 p.m. curfew on weeknights. It was the Big Band era, and “there was a dance every weekend in Grant Hall,” she recalls. The student body was small -- only 1,800 men and 300 women -- and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We had dates running out our ears,” Donalda remembers with a laugh. “We were always busy.”
Today, 70 years after graduating from Queen’s, Donalda is penning a memoir of her life that includes memories of her university years. “I’m very grateful every day for having gone to Queen’s because of the friendships I’ve made,” she says.
Donalda was born and raised in Pelly, Saskatchewan, a rural village of just 250 people. “Tinned salmon was considered a luxury,” she recalls, and her family lived a “pioneer life” without cars or running water.
Her father, Milton Campbell, was an MP for Saskatchewan’s Mackenzie constituency from 1921 to 1933. In 1933, Milton was appointed Vice-chair of the Tariff Board of Canada and the family moved to Ottawa. Donalda, then 13 years old, was sad to leave the natural beauty of her little prairie town. “In the wintertime, the snow looked like diamonds under the aurora borealis,” she remembers. “We didn’t have any streetlights, but you didn’t need them. It was so glorious, nobody would speak.”
But Ottawa, too, had its perks. For Donalda, a voracious reader, it was the Library of Parliament. “I was very excited because we didn’t have a library back home in Saskatchewan, and there were few books in people's homes.”
Milton and his wife, Hazel, valued education and prioritized university for their children. When it was Donalda’s turn, the choice was easy. “My three older brothers went to Queen’s,” she says of her siblings Henry George Campbell, BSc’35, James Douglas Campbell, BSc’39, and Richard Wallace Campbell, Arts’41. “It was just sort of there in the family.”
At Queen’s, Donalda studied English, psychology and politics. “Our life was really political,” she recalls. “Politics was my favourite class because I had sat in the visitors’ gallery in the House and heard my father’s speeches.”
She also played on the women’s basketball team, one of the many intercollegiate sports that were suspended in 1940-41 as the university faced the realities of World War II.
“They realized this wasn’t going to be a quick war, and men started to leave university,” Donalda says. Many of them never came back. Decades later, the memories still bring tears to her eyes.
“It was a very interesting time, but it was just so terrible,” she says of the loss of lives. “It’s something that I’ve never come to terms with.”
To commemorate their parents, Donalda and her brothers established the Campbell Memorial Bursaries, which gives preference to students from Saskatchewan.
“We’re very grateful that our parents wanted us to have an education,” she says. “We’ve been very fortunate to live freer lives because we went to university.”
Now 92, Donalda is in good health and keeps a busy schedule. The walls of her Toronto home are decorated with her paintings, a passion she discovered later in life. She describes art as “the nicest thing that’s happened to me besides Queen’s and my family.”
Her memoir is a collection of details of her early life, photographs and family recipes. Handwritten and neatly organized in brightly coloured folders, her stories paint a uniquely antiquated picture of Queen’s. “We had maids serving us. They had black uniforms with white aprons,” she says. She later offers, via email, another tidbit of the times: “The library was called the ‘lovers' club.’”
Donalda describes the memoir as a family project, and isn’t writing it with the express intent of publishing. “I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it,” she claims. Longevity, however, seems to be on her side: McGeachy’s brother Richard Wallace is 95. Their mother, Hazel, lived to 103. Being a grandmother of six and a great-grandmother of two has kept Donalda busy, and she hasn’t visited Queen’s in some time. But even 70 years later, as she writes her memoir, she makes it clear that Queen’s is never far from her mind.
“I didn’t realize it for a long time, but I’m finding more and more that the things I learned at Queen’s - from people, the professors, the courses I took, or playing basketball - have helped me so much in my life,” she says. “I love that team spirit.”