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Queen's University

An unassuming pillar of strength

September 18, 2012

One of the things that struck me on meeting Peter Lougheed for the first time, a decade ago, was his modest stature. Given that he had been an Edmonton Eskimo in the 1950s, and later led the Alberta offence in an elongated political football game against Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government over the National Energy Program, this was a surprise. With the modest stature came a dignified but warm bearing. He had the ability immediately to set one at ease.

The late premier was Chancellor of Queen's University from 1996 to 2002. He was not a Queen's alumnus, but two of his four children had studied here (one of them, Joe, was until recently a Queen's trustee whom I now count as a friend); and Queen's parents often acquire by association the same fierce appreciation of our university that their offspring gain naturally.

It seemed an out-of-the-box appointment nonetheless -- a Westerner, and a major politician at that. The previous chancellor, Agnes Benidickson, was a beloved figure who had exercised that role from 1980 (when she succeeded former Governor- General Roland Michener) to 1996, so Mr. Lougheed had some very big shoes to fill. On the other hand, Queen's has also had a strong tradition of appointing prominent national figures to the post, from Sir Sandford Fleming (creator of the CP railway and of International Standard Time) in Principal George Monro Grant's day through former Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden and ex- Saskatchewan Premier Charles A. Dunning, up to our current chancellor, David Dodge. So, on reflection, it wasn't unusual at all.

The role of chancellor at Canadian universities, as in British ones, is a largely honorific one. The primary duty is to preside over a series of convocations twice a year at which degrees are awarded and full academic regalia worn. That is no mean feat in its own right. There are several thousand hands to shake and as someone who has occupied the left-hand seat on our Convocation platform, and observed our impressive current chancellor in action, I know that it is quite hard work, though one is of course energized by the pure joy and excitement in the room.

But the chancellorship is also very much what its occupant makes of it. Chancellors are full members of the Board of Trustees, and at Queen's have historically been co-equal with the Chair of the Board in providing advice and direction on behalf of the Board to the Principal. At Queen's, indeed, unlike other universities, it is the chancellor and not the Board Chair who leads the joint committee of Board and Senate that selects and reappoints principals. There is also a huge potential for our chancellors to engage in external relations -- to assist in making our case to governments, provincial and national, and to participate in fundraising. There's something about a visit from a formidable figure such as Peter Lougheed that disinclines one to say "no."

I did not know the former premier well (others, such as my predecessors principals Ronald Watts and William Leggett had a much greater familiarity with him), but we met several times over the last 10 years. Indeed, my own acquaintance with Mr. Lougheed -- he asked me to call him Peter on our first meeting, but I'm a bit old-fashioned when it comes to addressing my elders -- did not even occur when he was chancellor, nor ever in Ontario. His chancellorship fell during a period when I was living and working first in Halifax, then in Hamilton. The year 2002, however, found both of us in Alberta, me for the first time, him back home full time and freed again of the burdens of office (though scarcely "retired" in any meaningful sense given his enormous continued, if generally quiet and discreet, influence on the provincial stage, his work at the law firm Bennett Jones, and his role as a mentor to a new generation of Alberta politicians).

Mr. Lougheed was an alumnus of the Faculty of Arts (of which I was then dean) at the University of Alberta, and my personal contact with him occurred mainly over the course of several lunches held at the U of A, where there are major scholarships in his name. Every year Mr. and Mrs. Lougheed would make the trek up to Edmonton for the day to spend a leisurely lunch with recipients of their scholarship; I attended most of these, and had the opportunity then and on a few other occasions to speak with the former premier/former chancellor of my own alma mater.

Some people have a remarkable memory for names and faces; Mr. Lougheed met hundreds every year, but he never failed to recall our conversations from previous years. We last spoke just over a year ago when, in my current role, I was attending a Queen's alumni event in Calgary with my wife. He did not look well, but he did come out to the event, and as soon as he saw me walked over to say hello and ask how things were going in my still-new post.

As always, one could not help but be impressed by his unassuming manner and calm: was this the "Blue-eyed Sheik" who had stood up for his province and who had also been a key player in the 1981-82 constitutional settlement? Was this the architect of modern Alberta? Already 74 at the time of our first meeting, he had aged quite gracefully, though I did note he had slowed down considerably by the time of that last encounter.

But you could still sense the continued passion for his home province, manifested publicly on those relatively few occasions when he weighed in on an issue because he thought things, provincially or nationally, were going off the rails. One could also easily detect in his words that quality which earned him his widely recognized titles of "best premier of the past four decades" and even "best Prime Minister we never had": the sincerity of his devotion to the principle that strong provinces can co-exist and flourish within and to the benefit of a larger democratic federation.

Was Peter Lougheed an Albertan first or a Canadian first? I never asked him, but I dare say he would have regarded it as a nonsensical question. Canada, not just Alberta, has a Lougheed legacy; Queen's, a national institution continually blessed with a great many students from Alberta, is grateful to have had the benefit of his wisdom for several years, and I for one am glad that even for a short time I had the benefit of his acquaintance.

Daniel Woolf  is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen's University.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000