85 years seen weekly through the eyes of The Cord

In the midst of Wilfrid Laurier University’s centennial celebrations, featuring fifty-foot banners and warm feelings surrounding this institution’s century of existence, the humble campus newspaper – published continually since 1926 – has reached a milestone of its own.

Friday Sept. 23 will mark 85 years since the first College Cord was published.

Rather than simply commemorate that this publication has reached a ripe old age, it’s worth exploring how The Cord, and those who have been at the helm of the paper through the decades, can give insight into the character of the university as it transitioned from a Lutheran seminary to Waterloo College, to Waterloo Lutheran University and eventually its current state in 1973.

Julia Hendry, who works in the university archives and special collections, said that the bound copies of The Cord are perhaps the most widely used resource by those studying the history of the university, especially in the nostalgic rush of the centennial celebrations.

“We have a lot of records of the senate and board of governors going back to the opening of the university, but that gives you just the perspective of the university administration,” she explained. “It’s great to have this consistent record of what the students were thinking and doing.”

“You certainly see in the very early Cords the pervasiveness of the Lutheran church and then you see a change as the university becomes more secular, you get a pretty good impression – at least if you read between the lines a little bit – of the students’ social life going back to the beginning.”

Let’s get involved

Editors at a campus newspaper are ostensibly privy to more of the goings-on of the university than an average student, simply because their job is to care about and ensure the paper covers such things.

Among the former Cord Editor-in-Chiefs (EICs) that surfaced in the course of researching this story, all had different reasons for getting involved at the student newspaper.

Tonu Aun, who held the position for two years beginning in 1969, found himself in the job because someone needed to step up and run the newspaper after the previous editor quit midway through the year.

“I just took over because no one else was about to,” he said. “It was just fun, that’s why I got into it, but it was a little bit hard at that time because everyone quit and now suddenly I had to put out this newspaper once a week.”

Barry Ries, the EIC for the 1978-79 year returned to Laurier to run the newspaper after his application to journalism school was declined. “Let’s face it, it was a rag,” he said. “We ran not very interesting stories that were not very well done for the most part.”

“The sports guy just kind of wandered in and the entertainment guy would show up if he felt like it, I spent a lot of time in the Turret drinking.” Ries got in to j-school, and years later returned to Laurier where he now works in the Research Office.

Aun remembered the art of keeping up morale in the office during his tenure as EIC. “You deal with a volunteer staff and try and keep everybody happy,” he said. “At that time, I put the paper to bed on Thursday night and I’d be at the printers all night trying to get it all pasted together.”

“On Friday, I’d bring in a couple of bottles of wine and drink with my staff. The dean was just across the way and he sort of ignored the whole thing, but that was how I kept the staff slightly motivated,” he explained.

“Perhaps that’s not how it’s done today.”

Formative years

Going back to the 1950s, when the school was Waterloo College and Bill Cowls was one of the paper’s co-Editors, The Cord had strayed away for a time from strictly reporting on campus news and had become more of an arts magazine, featuring poetry and short stories.

Cowls, more than 50 years removed from his stint as Editor, still expressed regret that students’ didn’t really connect to the paper during this period and he felt that not many actually read it. He suggested that it might have been on the verge of extinction.

“Nobody was interested in it,” he said. “I should have found out why people weren’t interested. I could have led it from what it was to something like it was in the past prior to that, but different. It should have spoken to more students.”

The decision was made the following year to revert to the straight news reporting format that The Cord had held in its earliest years and retains today.

Had The Cord been reporting much news at the time, the major topic of conversation on campus was the debate over whether to create what would become the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union of today.

“In those years there was very little controversy, I think the most controversial thing though was the students’ union,” Cowls said. “We were asked to discuss and vote on whether we wanted part of our tuition going towards a students’ union – in other words have our tuition raised.”

“Many people were against it,” he continued, noting that these sorts of decisions were part of forming the institution as it, oddly enough, tried to catch up to the new university down the street. “The university was just beginning to see itself in a larger sense than simply a small college in North Waterloo.”

“We were on the cusp of growing, that’s the way I think of it now.”

Aun noted that when he attended the school in the late 1960s, the campus had a bit of a left wing streak, perhaps tied to the burgeoning student protest movement of the time. The university – still Waterloo Lutheran in name – had few of the trappings of a church-administrated institution.

With the University of Waterloo’s (UW) founding by former Waterloo College faculty in the late 1950s, the relationship between the two schools on University Avenue was still being forged. In fact, The Cord was briefly the newspaper of both institutions during UW’s early years.

“There was a lot of political stuff going on between the two,” Aun said of the neighbouring universities in his time as EIC. “UW was going their route and there were some trying to keep [Waterloo Lutheran] as a religious university, but it wasn’t going to happen. Other than the seminary it was completely secular.”

Fred Nichols, a fixture on campus since the early 1960s and dean of students between 1967 and 1997, said that in his first years at the school, the prominence of religion on campus was more apparent.

“We were a Lutheran university. If a girl got in some kind of boy trouble or thought she was pregnant or something like that, what they would do then was give her some passages in the Bible or something,” Nichols said. “That was kind of the therapy.”

Nichols’ office was across the hall from The Cord’s in what is now the university’s Health Services, and he said he got to know those at the paper, as he did most students, very well over the years.

“I’ve got to admit that the student editors were never afraid of the university. If students want something bad enough, they’re going to get it,” he said. “The editors were always fair, even if they thought the university was being unfair with a faculty member or on an issue. They weren’t afraid to speak their piece.”

Visible in editorial content during this period are mentions of the war in Vietnam, striking workers and turmoil in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nichols noted that one Cord EIC during the protest era had a particular radical streak, including wielding a torch while participating in a riot outside the women’s residence Conrad Hall during a power outage. Male students, who were not permitted to enter the building at all at the time, tried to storm the residence while the power was out, prompting the police and Dean Nichols to rush to the scene.

Aun, who stepped in to the role out of a sense that someone had to do it, recalled some tumultuous times as EIC. In 1970, as the October Crisis took hold in Quebec, The Cord had a story related to the situation ready for print before a decision by the prime minister threw a wrench in things.

“The biggest hassle was when Trudeau put the War Measures Act in place,” Aun said, referring to the temporary suspension of Canadian civil liberties imposed during the crisis that allowed the arrest without cause of suspected terrorists in Quebec. “We had a whole story and needed to pull it at the last second because the lawyers got into it and said, ‘gee, you’re going to go to jail.’”

Gradual transformation

When Cowls attended Waterloo College, the environment was drastically different from even the most optimistic evaluations of Laurier’s small school mentality today.

“I went through honours English and philosophy and in my English courses I never had more than ten kids,” he said. “It was small, it was intimate, you could know everybody there and that was a precious, precious thing that’s not possible to do anymore.”

Cowls fondly recalled the conversations and debates in what then passed for the Concourse arbitrated by Geoffrey Adams, a professor at the time. Selecting a topic of interest, he noted the arguments and discussion over Canadian involvement in the 1956 Suez Crisis.

The School of Business and Economics, the formation of which The Cord reported in Sept. 1966, began to take a larger role as the university shed some of its roots as an arts college.

“Business was certainly the dominant program,” Ries said of the late 1970s. “Much more so than I think it is now. The faculty of business has declined proportionally, arts has just mushroomed, science was nothing back then – it’s changed academically for sure.”

Ries also noted a shift in dominant political bent on campus to more right wing by the time he was at the university. “I can safely say it was conservative,” he said. “It was different than Guelph and Waterloo.”

Moving to the late 1980s, when Patrick Brethour began his undergrad at Laurier and got involved with publications during Frosh Week, the paper had an iffy relationship with the students’ union, which it was technically still affiliated with, and the university.

“I always liked writing and it was a fun place to hang out,” Brethour said. “[It was] slightly disreputable and all the more fun for it.”

“There were the usual shenanigans,” he added, citing specifically that there had been threats to remove papers from the stands because some at the university did not agree with the content.

The negotiations to make The Cord autonomous from the students’ union were started during Brethour’s year as Cord EIC, 1992.

In terms of the character of campus, Brethour explained that the exponential growth that characterized Laurier for much of recent memory had not quite begun at that point and it retained its small school reputation.

“It was a small school in many ways, it had the pluses and minuses of a small town,” he said. The state of campus politics at the time was interesting, he mentioned. “It was sort of an odd time, there was a fairly active Young Conservative component on campus but there was also a vocal hard left component as well. There was not a lot of middle ground among those that were vocal.”

Brandon Currie was an editor at the paper in the early 2000s and EIC in 2005-06. He explained the perspective that editors at the paper have of campus that may be different from other students.

“You look at campus trends in a way that other students don’t — the administration have all kinds of people that look at how the identity of the school is being transformed and how to position it,” he said. “As an editor, it’s your job to look at those things in a critical light.” He added that the propensity of Cord staff to take slightly longer than the typical four years to complete their degrees provides them with all the more insight.

The Laurier Currie reported on and attended has undergone a visible transition in his eyes, beginning around the turn of the century. “Laurier grew up, for lack of a better term, while I was there,” he said. “It kind of stepped into the world a bit more.”

He explained that the beginning of Laurier International, greater focus on international events after Sept. 11, 2001 as well as Laurier’s initiatives in nations like China helped define the university a bit more. “It dropped that high school mentality it had back in 2000,” he added.

Ries, who has observed the transformation of the university off and on for nearly 40 years, gave his assessment of the future. “So long as we are near Toronto and our reputation is okay, we should be fine,” he said. “There’s going to be growth — maybe more than we need.”

As the campus and student body continues to grow, Cowls’ response to whether he had returned to campus since graduating from Waterloo College in 1959 seemed especially poignant.

“I’ve only been back once,” he said, recalling an alumni event not long ago. “The bigness of [the university] overwhelmed me, the complexity of it overwhelmed me,” he explained. “Not that I was lost or anything, but the phrase ‘culture shock’ comes to mind.”

“I felt very strongly when I left that I was part of an era that was not there anymore and there was nothing left at the college that spoke to me anymore. I felt my age.”

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