Jean Royce - Queen's University incarnate

Jean Royce

If you were a student at Queen’s between 1933 and 1968 you might have perceived the University Registrar, Jean I. Royce, as the University incarnate. Not only would she have signed your letter of admission, but she might have given you advice – wanted or unwanted, summoned you to her office to express her (temporary) disappointment and (future) expectations, helped you out of a predicament you felt was insoluble, or – especially if you were a high achieving female student – have been the sole person who encouraged you to apply for a scholarship for graduate school.

Two years after her retirement, she observed in a letter to then-Dean of Arts and Science Ronald Watts, LLD’84, that students commonly complain about how they are being given “the run around”, that no one shows concern for them, that there is no one who might give a true assessment of their quality, or who might be appealed to in circumstances that seemed unfair. In her own mind – and in those of countless students – Jean Royce had been that person. That was what the Registrar did.

  • Jean Royce with Pierre Trudeau

    When Jean Royce received an honorary degree from Queen’s on November 8, 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was also honoured. However, the audience gave Royce the loudest and most sustained ovation of the day.

The nature of her interventions in ­students’ lives shifted through the decades – from the lingering effects of the Great ­Depression, WWII and its aftermath, the golden ‘50s, to the revolutionary ’60s. Lester Anthes, BA’43, remembered the “kindness and special consideration given a struggling extramural student.” She seemed,” he wrote, “to understand some of the difficulties of following that route toward a degree.” Indeed, she would have.

Born into a poor working-class family in St. Thomas, Ontario, Jean longed to follow her brainy older sister Marion, who had won a rare scholarship to university. In 1925 Jean enrolled in a Queen’s extramural course while working full-time in the St. Thomas Library. It was tough; her marks were low, and in 1927 she quit the job and enrolled full-time at Queen’s. Her 1931 graduation yearbook profile presaged her own future (as well as the advice she would give students): “There is about her an eagerness, something of the gay and adventurous search for beauty and truth and the swift evanescent gleam.”

In 1934, Ben Scott, BA’38, MD’43, didn’t make the Jewish quota at McGill, and so he applied to Queen’s. “You cannot possible imagine,” he would later write, “with what heartache and desperation I applied to the Faculty of Arts and my utter disbelief when I was granted an interview with ‘The Registrar’ – Jean Royce. She was a MENSCH.”

On November 15, 1941, Jean admitted Alfred Bader, Sc’45, Arts’46, MSc’47, LLD’86, an Austrian teenager fresh from a Quebec internment camp. His gratitude to her and to the University has been amply displayed. As we can see from the late date of Bader’s admittance, the Registrar did not feel bound by the rules that she made, and students as successful as Bader only confirmed her judgments.

Retired Justice Kenneth Binks, Arts’48, never forgot the day that Jean Royce told him that Queen’s would be proud to have him. “I remember exactly what she said and the way she said it,” he recalls. Binks had been obliged to drop out of high school at 16 and had taken night courses to graduate.

James Martin, Com’47, wanted to return to Queen’s after the war despite his less than stellar record. Jean Royce wired his CO: “Please discharge James E. Martin.” He did, and Martin brought her flowers.

After failing first-year engineering Michael Humphries, Arts’52, found himself in Miss Royce’s office. “Mr. Humphries, Dean Ellis and I have come to the conclusion that the field of engineering in Canada would be better without you. What are we doing to do with you?” Arts, he thought, and so it was.

The bookends of Royce’s career reveal starkly the patriarchal society in which she lived. Principal Fyfe accompanied his announcement that she would succeed ­Alice King as Registrar with these words: “Those who detect in this succession an omen of matriarchy will be reassured by her imperturbable efficiency that the appointment was inevitable and would go far to justify any system of government.” In 1968, Principal J.A. Corry informed her that once she had trained her successor she was to retire. That registrar-in-training, a male, already enjoyed a higher salary than the incumbent, who had served for 35 years.

The consolation prize was an honorary doctorate. As she was hooded, the audience at the historic November 8, 1968, Convocation rose to give Jean Royce – long the most powerful woman at Queen’s – a standing ovation that was far louder and more sustained than that accorded such fellow honorees as PM Pierre Trudeau, longtime Ontario Premier William Davis, and writer Arthur Koestler.

Discreetly and silently, Royce remained loyal to Queen’s, serving in the 1970s as graduates’ rep on the Board of Trustees, for instance, and chairing the committee that established the Ban Righ Foundation. Half a century of loyalty to Queen’s was ­acknowledged when the 12-house residence complex on West Campus was named Jean Royce Hall.

Her life during and ­after her registrarship included lots of travel, books, music, art, friends, and family. But those are stories for another time.

Prof. Emerita Roberta Hamilton, Jean Royce’s ­biographer, is the author of the 2002 book Setting the Agenda: Jean Royce and the Shaping of Queen’s ­University.

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