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Remembering "Bertha's boys"

Remembering "Bertha's boys"

Before there were campus residences, most male students lived in the boarding houses that were found on the streets adjacent to the campus. For many of the students, away from home for the first time, these experiences were memorable, and lifetimes friendships were forged, as the son of one 1930s alumnus recounts.
[photo of former Union Street houses]Former Union Street houses, now located on
Alfred Street.

My dad, H.P. “Herb” Dickey, BSc’30, was one of the inaugural inductees in 1980 to the new Queen’s Football Hall of Fame. Like many male students from those days, he lived in a boarding house at 139 Union Street, one of a row of frame houses near the corner of Alfred and Union Streets.

Dad was just one of the notables living at that address during the ’20s and into the ‘30s. Howie Carter, BA’30, MD’36, one of the Tricolour football stars of the day—the Intercollegiate champions of 1929—was one of my dad’s a housemates. Dad remembered him well and fondly. He had similar memories of their very special landlady. Bertha Bailey was an exceptional spinster who played mother to all her “charges.”

My dad’s last two years at Queen’s were much enhanced by living in the friendly and never-boring atmosphere of “139.”

When he returned in 1980 to take up residence in the Kingston area, he was interested in seeing the physical appearance of his beloved alma mater, 139 Union Street, and its surroundings. It was difficult for him to recognize the campus as compared to how it had been in the late 1920s. The housing, especially along the once-stately University Ave., appeared to him to be slum-like.

The one bright spot was the group of frame houses, 135 to 139 Union Street, which were well kept and in sharp contrast to the general area. Dad noticed what seemed to be a memorial stone and plaque placed in front of 139 and thought, “How appropriate for the University to recognize Bertha and her Boys.” The ones she had shepherded so carefully through good times and bad, while they were away from home at Queens. One day he stopped to see what suitable tribute had been paid.

To his disappointment, bordering on utter dismay, he found not a word about that remarkable landlady, or about any of the distinguished procession of Queen’s graduates from her home, or any of the things he'd cherished over his years there. The inscription just read: “Regional Award of Honour for Heritage Preservation.”

In lieu of a proper plaque or monument of recognition, he decided to tell me about his memories of “Bertha and her Boys.” What follows is a recounting of what my dad told me.

“None of the Boys ever learned much about Bertha’s early life. It was understood that she was a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, had graduated from Queen’s [with a BA in 1910—Ed.], had never married, electing to care for one of her aging parents. She then lived along until 1927 when a final-year Arts student asked her for a room.

“The experience must have been satisfactory, for the next year she went into the rooming house business.
“Howie Carter came from Sarnia and A. Gerry Racey, BA’32, from Montreal were her first tenants, getting the large front room. Herb Merritt, BSc’31, and my father, who hailed from Hamilton, settled into a double room just behind the stairway, while Ted Teskey from Sarnia and Freddie Weldon from Toronto had singles in the rear recesses of the house. Bertha occupied the downstairs.

Intellectual debates on such weighty subjects as the comparative merits of Queen’s co-eds versus town girls and equally stimulating and urgent topics often went on until late in the night.

“We were a cosmopolitan group representing Applied Science, Arts, and Meds. All of us were serious about the main purpose of their being at Queen’s, but each of us was capable and interested in every facet of campus life. All studied and participated in sports, social events, and extracurricular activities. In the late evenings we would listen for Bertha’s call: ‘Oh, boys! Would you like something to eat?’ Then down the stairs we would come to enjoy banana cream pie, cookies, or anything else that Bertha had made that day. This was all well received as the boarding house fare was not what one might have been accustomed to at home.

“We formed a hockey team they called ‘Bertha Bailey’s Battling Bearcats.’ Our team played valiantly, but not too well, against the other house teams at the old Jock Harty Arena, which was located on Arch Street, where Humphrey Hall now stands.

“Intellectual debates on such weighty subjects as the comparative merits of Queen’s co-eds versus town girls and equally stimulating and urgent topics often went on until late in the night.

“What was life at Queen’s like in those days? I suspect that the nearly unanimous answer from those who were there would be ‘Wonderful!’ With only three faculties form some 2,500 students and passing other classes when walking across campus between lectures, virtually everyone got to know, at least casually, a large part of the student population.

“We did not have to contend with world-shaking movements dealing with such issues as reproductive rights, nuclear disarmament, or social responsibility. We were unaware of the plight of Third World Countries or of a possible population explosion. We had no inkling of the coming Holocaust, the most devastating war of all time, or of the atomic bomb. There wasn't tile time or the inclination for street parties. The closest we came to a protest was the student strike when the Senate usurped the prerogative of the Student Government.

"This was more of a lark than a serious matter for most of the participants, but it did get some attention in the press, and brought in [famous electrical engineer] R.O. Sweezey, of Beauharnois [power dam] fame, as a mediator.

“Other than first-year women, who were required to live in Ban Righ Hall, nearly all students slept in rooming houses and ate at boarding houses These dwellings were well-maintained by the owners, and the area around the University was always presentable.

“The cultural highlight of each year was the Queen’s Frolic, held downtown at the Grand Theatre and well attended by students and townspeople alike. My most vivid recollection was of Bubs Britton, perched on a grand piano, singing ‘Ain’t She Sweet.’

“Then there was the Car Barn Fire when Queen's men rallied in force to help evacuate nearby homes and businesses. Some questioned the effectiveness of this help.

“There were favorite places such as the Superior Restaurant for ice cream, and Peter Lee’s Grand Cafe for evening snacks. Peter, a handsome and well-educated Chinese gentleman who presided over the cash register, was ever-ready to discuss sports or other college affairs with all comers. And over at the Capital Theatre, Ernie Smithies gave members of the senior football team season passes.

“The football games at the old Richardson Stadium, with covered stands for the elite and open stands for the rest, brought a special meaning to the Queen’s Spirit. All the seating was close enough to the playing field for the spectators to become involved in the game. As for the action--it is said the forward pass opened up the game. In my memory, the many end runs and broken-field punt returns, with limited interference, compared most favorably with watching entire games to see a limited number of completed or spectacular forward passes. As a matter of fact he couldn't understand the justification for the continuous roar from the fans at the Super Bowl or other televised games when for so much of the time not a thing was taking place on the field.\

“Then there were the basketball games followed by tag dances, in the old gym, later used as the Hydraulics Lab. These were great fun.

Bertha Bailey lived until August 1974. Her Boys would often drop in to see her when they were in town, and she invariably would make each of them believe he had been her favourite.

“How did Bertha's Boys fare after graduating from Queen’s?

“Howie Carter married Jean, his high school sweetheart, and became a well-loved and successful family physician in Sarnia. Later he and Jean, a qualified nurse, moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they built and operated a nursing home. After taking State examinations, Howie lead an active life in the medical community there. Howie died in 1980.

“Gerry Racey decided that Applied Science was not his cup of tea so returned to Montreal graduating in Dentistry from the McGill. He maintained a Queen’s connection by marrying Phyllis Leggett, BA’31. They settled in Montreal where Gerry developed into an outstanding dentist and became a faculty member at both McGill and the University of Montreal The Raceys retired to St. Anicet, Quebec.

“Dwight Simmons graduated in Mechanical Engineering in 1932 and married Flo Frost, BA’29, who as a student had lived with her uncle, Professor Harold Jolliffe, BA’24, on Frontenac Street, just a couple of blocks away from Bertha’s. Dwight’s career with Imperial Oil went up the ladder to a directorship. Then he took early retirement to fulfill a lifetime ambition. The Simmons bought a boat naming it the St. Clair, and for some eight years they lived on board and traveled the Mediterranean the Caribbean and waters between. They entertained many of their longtime friends at various ports and on cruises. After going from the St. Clair to a houseboat, the Simmons spent their winters at Cape Coral Florida and summers on the St. Lawrence River near Gananoque.

“Harry Marritt graduated in Mining Engineering in 1931 and married Mildred, a Winnipeg girl. They spent many years in Tanzania, first at the Geita Goldfield and later Harry managed Williamson’s diamond mines. Returning to Canada, Harry was active in the development of uranium mining at Elliot Lake. He died of a heart attack in 1965, in the prime of his life. Mildred lived in Toronto afterward and spent much of her time traveling.

“Freddie Warren fancied himself something of a lover and bore some resemblance to the film star Ronald Coleman, and it was generally believed that he trimmed his moustache and patterned certain mannerisms to promote the likeness. Freddy finished in Arts and became a teacher and football coach at Malvern Collegiate in Toronto. I am sorry to say that I lost track of Freddie before his death in 1969.

“As for myself, I graduated in Mining Engineering, and I married Dorothy, a Kingston high school girl I met at a basketball dance. We lived in many locations across Canada. When I became semi-retired in the mid-1950s, I headquartered my consulting business and Dorothy and I made our home in the village of Sydenham, just north of Kingston until the early 1990s. During this phase of my career, I traveled extensively all over the world.

“Bertha Bailey lived until August 1974. Her Boys would often drop in to see her when they were in town, and she invariably would make each of them believe he had been her favourite. It could be quite touching and often brought tears to Bertha’s eyes as she and her visitor sat and reminisced about the good old days. But I am very sure she had the same sincere routine for all the other alumni who over the years enjoyed the privilege of rooming at 139 Union Street.

Peter Dickey lives in Kingston, ON.