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In memoriam: Principal Emeritus Ronald L. Watts

In memoriam: Principal Emeritus Ronald L. Watts

Ronald Lampman Watts, the 15th principal of Queen’s University, died Oct. 9.  Dr. Watts, professor from 1955 to 2015 and principal from 1974 to 1984, was also one of Canada’s leading
experts on federalism. 

[campus image]
[Ron Watts]
Ronald Lampman Watts, the 15th principal of Queen’s University, died Oct. 9. Dr. Watts, professor from 1955 to 2015 and principal from 1974 to 1984, was also one of Canada’s leading
experts on federalism.

Among Ron Watts’ many stellar attributes, one stands out: he was really, really good in so many diverse areas. It is, therefore, not surprising that his professional and administrative skills are universally admired. Sometimes, I believe, they overshadowed other equally or even more important aspects of his personality. He was not only a top academic, a top administrator and a top policy specialist, but also a profoundly humane being, deeply sensitive to the personal and collective challenges and miseries of others. This awareness was not worn ostentatiously on his sleeve but underlay everything he did, whether as teacher, policy maker, administrator or friend.

Underneath the erudite scholar, there was an exceptional human being – immensely kind and generous. No one seeking his advice (and there were a great many of us) was ever denied nor dismissed without the most serious consideration.

Ron frequently dealt with students and colleagues from other than Canadian or western cultures. His openness to and empathy for diverse and divergent societies strengthened his ability to understand them and to identify with their problems. Furthermore, it reinforced his penchant for collaborating closely with colleagues domiciled in the countries he studied and advised. He thus easily escaped the curse of many Western scholars: their parochial and ethnocentric limitations.

While Ron welcomed innovation he was a prudent and cautious man. When, as principal, he brought me back to Queen’s after I served a stint in government service, I sought permission to teach until I was 70 years old, rather than the usual 65. He agreed. When I received his official letter specifying the terms of my appointment, I read, with some amusement, that this provision would remain in force only so long as both parties agreed that I was still capable of carrying out my duties. Very sensible. Very Ron.

Ron was greatly concerned with the quality of residence life. He had served as don of one of the Queen’s houses. In these activities he greatly benefited, as he did in so many of his other tasks, from the maginative, and energetic but unobtrusive collaboration of the indefatigable Donna.

What was his style? Isaiah Berlin, a fellow Oxonian, made a famous distinction between the fox and the hedgehog. The former, the fox, knows many things, whereas the latter, the hedgehog, knows one important thing.

Was Ron a fox or a hedgehog? His peerless command of everything to do with intergovernmental relations places him squarely among the hedgehogs. Nevertheless, his training in accountancy, as well as his mastery of political philosophy and political science, and his commanding knowledge of so much around him at home and abroad, also make him a fox. The conclusion is inescapable: he was a brilliant hedgefox.

This versatility, added to the tolerance, kindness and generosity he displayed so often, made him a scholar, administrator and pedagogue unequalled among his colleagues.

Sometimes even a tired cliché hits the spot. Such is the case now. Ron Watts was a scholar and a gentleman, to be sure. But he was a truly model scholar and the quintessential

John Meisel, Professor Emeritus (Political Studies) 
Dr. Meisel gave this eulogy at the memorial service for Dr. Watts in October.

Dr. Ronald L. Watts was the principal of Queen’s University in the autumn of 1975 when I had the good fortune to begin my studies there. Over the next few years, he grew into a mentor and a friend, and memories of my time spent with him were brought to mind by his recent passing.

Dr. Watts exemplified all that is best in a great university. He was deeply concerned with the welfare of his students. He began the analysis of every issue facing Queen’s with a consideration of how a decision would affect the student experience at Queen’s. At the welcoming ceremony for frosh in Grant Hall, he meant it when he said (as was later hilariously mimicked by another student) that if we saw him walking down University Avenue, we should stick our hand out and say “hi.” Many did, and many in his political studies courses benefited from extra time with the principal talking over the complexities of federalism, of which he was an expert.

Unlike presidents of other universities, the principal of Queen’s is a teacher as well as an administrator. Dr. Watts was convinced of the importance of this for the grounding it gave him in the academic life of the university.

Dr. Watts also had enormous respect for his students. He meant it when he asked us to look to our left and right at welcoming and realize we were sitting between people who would be the leaders of Canadian society at the dawn of the 21st century. Heady expectations borne out of firm confidence in a group of 18 year olds.

He set a quiet example of academic excellence for us to follow. He didn’t talk about his accomplishments: advising governments across Canada and around the globe about federal structures, he just did it. Indeed he was uncomfortable with the phrase “world-class,” and striving for it as if it were an achievable designation either for himself or Queen’s. He believed simply that if you “produced good work,” without pretense, the world would notice, and the designations would follow. Not bad advice.

Dr. Watts approached student leaders with profound civility, and a remarkable sense of partnership that set the tone for the university. He made time to meet once a week with student leaders, just to check in on what issues were of particular concern to the students of the university, and offer whatever help he could. He saw us as on the same team, determined to do our best for Queen’s and for post-secondary education in Canada. He instilled in us through example the commitment to public service so central to George Grant’s vision for Queen’s.

Finally, he loved our university and all things tricolour: None more than the Golden Gaels football team. As a result of holding some elected positions, I attended meetings in Ottawa and Toronto with Dr. Watts. He would invariably offer to take me in the car that was his preferred means of transport, driven by dear old Mr. Teeple. We would often return to Kingston on Saturday afternoon when the Gaels were playing. He knew the broadcast radius of CFRC, the campus radio station which carried the games, to the kilometre, and would gently say, “Mr. Teeple, could you please turn the radio to CFRC, and let’s see how our boys are doing.” None was more pleased with Queen’s 1978 Vanier Cup win than Dr. Watts.

Ron couldn’t have had a better partner in all of this than Donna: equally caring for students, and equally committed to the university and to Canada. She was a perfect partner: supremely welcoming to all who visited their residence at Summerhill, endlessly tolerant of meetings that ran late, able to carry on the most knowledgeable conversation about the challenges facing Canada, and to do so with a humour and wit as to make it clear that contribution to the life of the country was the expected result of a university education.

The next time I do an Oil Thigh or cheer on the Gaels, I will think of Principal Watts.

A great Canadian and, to use a phrase from another era, a great Queen’s Man. Cha Gheill, Ron!

By Hugh Christie, Artsci'78, Law'81

Why was I so saddened on hearing of the death of Dr. Ronald Watts, when I scarcely knew him? He was the tutor of my first-year philosophy class in 1652-53, during which he answered our hesitant questions with a graciousness, elaboration of detail, and dignity far surpassing the quality of those questions.

My husband, Fred Wien, says that one of the worst days of his life was when he showed up for a philosophy exam a day late. Dr. Watts, his tutor, (who later taught him in depth about Canadian federalism) managed to find a graceful solution. Dr. Watts hooded me when I graduated in 1654 with a general Arts degree, and I was glad it was him. But why? Over the years, I heard him speak several times, and was impressed each time with his impeccable organization, and the high quality of both content and delivery. There was something to aspire to, but how does so little contact add up to being influenced by someone?

For me, he stood for integrity of purpose and being, for quality in the way he conducted his life as a professor, for dignified treatment of the young, for grace. He was always there in my mind, a generation ahead of me, associated with my time at Queen’s, teaching me how to live without my awareness of it – onesty, ethical encounters, and a supportive professional kindness for those coming along. He stood as an example of the high quality Queen’s had to offer, an example of how to live a good life, how to contribute at the highest levels to one’s society.

A fine mind, a good heart, the moral compass of integrity: it added up to a profound impact he never knew he had. I suspect I am not alone.

Carol Anne Wien, Arts'65
Professor Emerita, Faculty of Education, York University

Fred Wien, Arts’66
Professor Emeritus, Dalhousie University


[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1-2016]