Words of wisdom
All too often we are guilty of forgetting what a wealth of knowledge and experience our elders can give us and as Wilfrid Laurier University turns one hundred years old, I couldn’t help but think of what its earliest graduates would have to say about the system they left behind that we are a part of. After all, in many cultures, religions and societies, elders are revered and celebrated.
I set out to interview some of Laurier’s oldest graduates, arriving at each alum’s residence in turn, finding each one that still resided in the area lived almost more independently than the last.
Their stories of being educated at my beloved university may have been upwards of 50 years old, however I couldn’t help but connect them directly to my time at Laurier.
Although the campus has undergone a dramatic change from the one-building “Old Main”, which housed everything from the cafeteria to the gymnasium, classrooms and everything in between, little had been altered in terms of each former students’ thoughts on their education.
“Everything changes. Nothing stays the same,” said 95-year-old Doris Ritter, who attended Waterloo College in 1934 but never graduated. Despite her original claim, it became clear that while the style of teaching, class sizes and layout of the institution, its name, affiliation with the church and programs had been altered, added to and revamped, many of the lessons from Ritter and the other alumni I interviewed transcended the decades between their graduations and my own.
My first interview was with Dwight Kellerman, from the graduating class of 1937. He explained that his post-secondary education taught him the discipline that carried him through life.
When I visited Ritter at her home for my second interview I was shocked to discover her still living alone, despite being legally blind and well into her nineties.
She credited her bold independence to the time she spent at the institution.
Third came Reginald Haney, who I visited at the law firm in the city that he runs to this day. A graduate of the class of 1951, his main advice revolved around encouraging students to continue their education – an apt message considering his numerous degrees from a master’s in history to a degree in law.
Finally, Delton Glebe, former student graduating in 1947 and faculty member had great insights into the changing of teaching styles and the attitudes of students, which haven’t changed so dramatically over the course of over half a century.
Despite graduating in the early days of Waterloo College, their testimonials easily resonate with each one of us. Whether it’s the struggle to find employment, fund our educations or balance our social lives, their advice is infinitely invaluable; their legacy of learning is to be revered and cherished. And so I sat in front of each alumni in turn, asking them to relay their experiences and thoughts on the whether they had ended up completing their degrees or not. I wondered how they had gotten to where they were and how old Waterloo College fit into the history of their successes.
The numerous degress that lined the wall behind his large desk in his Waterloo office made it clear that he valued post-secondary education greatly. Haney explicitly expressed the importance that Waterloo College had when it was created.
At the time Haney attended the school, education was not necessarily more highly valued, but an importance was put upon it because of its high cost. Waterloo College provided a cheap alternative for many who could attend the school and live at home because as Haney pointed out, there were far fewer institutions to attend at the time. Considering that the cost of higher education is a large problem for today’s student, Haney encouraged today’s youth to pursue learning even if it means going into a bit of debt.
“An investment in your education is about as good of an investment as you can make,” said Haney.
It wasn’t just the cost that worried many, but the value of their degree once they exited university – a concern not uncommon amongst students nowadays.
“I found out that whatever you learned at Waterloo College, it wouldn’t get you a job anywhere,” said Ritter, pointing out that although this was largely a result of her sex, other classmates and graduates had trouble finding jobs despite their higher education.
Ritter’s concerns were reflected everywhere I looked on our campus today. Professors tell today’s student that an undergraduate degree won’t get you a job, that one must complete a master’s degree to succeed in today’s highly competitive economy.
Kellerman faced a different kind of problem. When he graduated, the depression had made jobs scarce.
“When I graduated, that summer I walked the streets of Waterloo to just about any business to find a job,” he said.
Haney had a positive experience not unlike Ritter, as he managed to garner life skills from the early parts of his education.
“I think I got a lot of confidence when I was at Waterloo College,” said Haney.
“There were fairly small classes, you were invited to participate, you weren’t in the back row in classes of 200 people and where you didn’t know the professor. If you weren’t there the professor knew.”
Despite the struggle to find a job, Ritter said her self-taught skills, the result of endless hard work doing night shifts at a Bell telephone switchboard, were what made her successful.
“There’s no limit to what you can do if you’re going to study – no limit to the books you can read,” said Ritter.
I feel as though I’ve learned something, and it’s not exactly what I set out to learn. In fact, it was exactly what my parents had told me. Never failing to always rear its ugly head, work ethic appeared to be the motivator of successful Laurier graduates – no matter what part of the century it was that they attended the school.
“Make the most of it, “ said Kellerman, who admitted that he didn’t always work as hard as he should have and attended social engagements instead. “Work as hard as you can.”
“I’ve never regretted going to Waterloo College,” reflected Kellerman. Sitting next to a stack of old Keystone yearbooks and newspaper clippings, he said nowadays he can sit and watch the news and read the daily paper – exercises he credited to his higher education.
None of the alumni could tell me their secret of how they had lived so long, been so independent and successful. Time after time they would ask me what exactly it was I wanted to know.
“I think the main thing is to be active and be interested in everything – I never stopped being interested in everything,” said Ritter.
“I’ve just lived an ordinary life,” said Kellerman when I phoned to request an
interview. However, for us, reflecting back on a century of graduates from our institution, Kellerman can teach us a lot about what it means to be a student, no matter what the timeframe.
I think I’ve learned the key to success after my graduation – I need to work hard and continue my studies long after I leave the classroom. I feel rejuvenated and enthused until Ritter reminds me that I have yet to discover as much as I think I have.
“Oh dear, you’ve got something to learn yet, I’ll tell you.”