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In the early 1970s, when John Abbott College first took up residence at McGill University's Macdonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, the two schools teamed up to form the Clansmen football team.
The team is now long gone but a slice of lore that the Macdonald contingent brought to the field has endured and inspired a ritual of remembrance in honour of members of the Mac community who died at war.
It was the Mac Clansmen who told their gridiron compatriots about the significance of the 44 oak trees around the campus football field. The trees had been planted and dedicated in 1931 to symbolize not only the supreme sacrifice of 34 young men from Macdonald College and Macdonald College High School who lost their lives in World War I, but also of the sacrifice of all 357 who left to take part in the war effort. The extra 10 trees were planted to line the entire perimeter of the field.
"The Mac guys were all aware of it. It's one of those things that's been on my mind from the get-go, so I thought it was a story worth bringing to the attention of the younger generation," said Lou Chapman, who now works as an academic advisor at John Abbott College and has introduced a new tradition as head coach of the John Abbott College Islanders men's football team.
"When we're at a home game, we come together under one of the oak trees and say a prayer," he explained. "It's become a bit of a ritual for us and as long as I'm head coach, it's something we'll continue to do." The players also sport the number "44" on their helmets, as a further reminder of the trees and what they represent.
Mike Schofield, a member of the Clansmen football team from 1972 to 1974 and now president of the Macdonald branch of the McGill Alumni Association, hopes a permanent memorial unveiled this week — at what is now the John Abbott College athletic field — will breathe new life into the story of the trees.
"Those of us who went to Mac were more inclined to be aware of the college and campus history," said Schofield, adding that the new monument, which includes a mounted plaque explaining the Macdonald community's wartime contribution, "is a wonderful thing that hopefully will help keep the story alive and spread it beyond those of us who used that field."