The ghosts of convocations past

The ghosts of convocations past McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 10, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 16
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > May 10, 2001 > The ghosts of convocations past

The ghosts of convocations past

Photo Thomas Neill Cream, the only McGill graduate ever to be featured in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in Britain, was hanged as a convicted murderer.
PHOTO: McGill University Archives

Approximately 5,000 students have completed their McGill degrees and many of them will soon be attending convocation ceremonies to listen to stirring words delivered by the likes of Queen's University principal William Leggett, the CBC's Mark Starowicz and business leader/engineer/art world mover and shaker Bernard Lamarre.

In anticipation of all the caps and gowns that will soon be spotted on campus, we thumbed through the archives to turn up some interesting notes and comments from McGill convocations over the years.

Somebody wasn't paying attention

When Thomas Neill Cream graduated with a medical degree in 1876, one of his professors, Dr Thomas Roddick, the man who would introduce antiseptic practices to Montreal hospitals, gave the convocation address.

"I stand here, gentlemen, on this account more than on any other to implore you in the name and for the sake of this great University ... to pursue a course of prudence, sobriety and honour."

Cream was soon busy doing the exact opposite. Chances are he is the only McGill graduate ever to be featured in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in Britain.

In 1881, he was convicted of poisoning the husband of his mistress and sentenced to life in prison. Somehow he managed to be freed after only 10 years.

Within a year of his release, he was hanged after being found guilty of murdering four prostitutes with poison -- a fifth intended victim wisely decided against taking the pills he offered her and testified against him.

He is strongly suspected of three more murders including that of his wife. Accounts say his dying words were, "I am Jack the..." a reference to his contemporary, Jack the Ripper. But Cream was in prison during the Ripper's reign of terror. A vain showoff whose big mouth put the police on his trail and led to his downfall, Cream apparently wanted the credit for the more famous murderer's crimes.

Photo At a unique convocation ceremony in 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (second from left) and U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (being gowned) received McGill degrees.
PHOTO: McGill University War Records

Quick, hide the McGill Jazz Orchestra!

Speaking at a 1927 convocation, Professor Harry Crane Perrin, McGill's first dean of music, shared his feelings about what his students shouldn't be studying.

"In the present craze for jazz and for musical stunts of all kinds, it cannot be the policy of our institution or any similar institution to follow it along that line, any more than it can be its policy to recognize as worthy successors of classic compositions the rubbish which is being published as music every day, and which ... is just as much to be condemned as jazz for its deleterious effect on public taste. There was never more need than at the present time for a strong lead by an educational institution such as ours..."

If there is a VCR in heaven, we suspect Perrin isn't using it to watch Ken Burns' "Jazz."

Getting dumber with wisdom

"Finally, filling this convocation office, I believe it is contingent upon me to offer some advice to the students assembled here. Well, the truth is when I was your age I was in no need of advice. I knew everything. My world was filled with certitudes.

"But when you get to be my age, you realize you know nothing. Doubts are the unhappy rule."

Award-winning author Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Barney's Version) speaking at a McGill convocation last year.

By the time this introduction is over, I'll be halfway through my next degree

Prince Edward was awarded an honorary LL.D in 1919. The introduction was a doozy.

"To His Royal Highness Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, in the Peerage of Scotland, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland..."

Photo Sir Wilfrid Laurier as a McGill law student in 1864. He later went on to become one of Canada's most respected prime ministers.
PHOTO: Public Archives of Canada

Thanks for the BA, but it's not enough

In 1888, as a member of the first group of women ever to earn a BA from the University -- the only degree McGill allowed them to study for -- Octavia Ritchie gave the valedictory address for the women.

"The doors of the Faculty of Arts were opened four years ago; those of [the Faculty of] Medicine remain closed. When will they be opened?"

Some in the audience responded with shouts of "Never!" and "Shame!" but the women had earned plenty of admirers at McGill thanks to their top marks and classy conduct.

The Old McGill yearbook included an anonymous ode to McGill's first female graduates. Here is an excerpt:

"You're a modern production," the young man said,
"And a skirt it is true that you wear -
Yet in the exams you all come out ahead!
Do you think, with your sex, it is fair?"
"Long ago," said the girl, "I was under your thumb,
And was thought not to have any brain:
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have some -
It's amusing the prizes to gain!"

Darned good question

"For those of you receiving degrees ... what can I tell you about the long-term value of your years of hard work? What's the payoff for the all-nighters, the food at the union, the trudges up Peel Street in Montreal snowstorms, the McGill Daily?"

McGill graduate Steven Pinker musing about the sacrifices made in the pursuit of a McGill degree during a convocation address in 1999. Pinker, a best-selling author (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works) and a cognitive scientist, answered his own question in this fashion:

"To debauch your mind with learning, to make the familiar seem strange, to get you to ask questions about why things are the way they are as opposed to some other way they could be."

Darned good advice

"What advice can I give to a graduating class? The most important advice is to find a career doing something that you love. Life does have, and will continue to have, its ups and downs. If your work matters to you beyond bringing home a paycheque, then that will help you through the difficult times."

Nobel Prize-winning Canadian scientist Michael Smith, giving a convocation address in 1995.

I can't get tickets to the U2 concert. Let's give them honorary degrees!

When opera star Maureen Forrester was awarded an honorary degree in 1982, the contralto eschewed making a speech, treating the audience instead to a 10-minute performance featuring excerpts from works by Handel and Schubert.

In the presence of greatness

"I was appalled at the thought of speaking before the two most famous orators in the world," wrote Principal F. Cyril James when McGill awarded honorary degrees in 1944 to U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill during a special Quebec City ceremony. The two leaders were in Quebec to plan the final Second World War military assaults on Nazi Germany and its ally, Japan.

Photo Garbed in graduation regalia, students pose for photos by the Three Bares statue on the McGill campus.

This guy has potential

In 1864, the valedictorian for the graduating class of law students was a tall, thin fellow who startled his audience by delivering his speech entirely in French. "I say it is to our glory that the struggles of race are ended on Canadian soil," he said, perhaps a little over-optimistically, of relations between French and English Canadians. "Mighty nations, indeed, might well come to us to seek a lesson in justice and humanity."

His gift for grand words would come in handy later on in life when Wilfrid Laurier went on to become one of Canada's most respected prime ministers. Laurier is given much of the credit for building a Liberal Party capable of appealing to both English and French voters.

What's this about my loins?

"You will be confronted by an organized conspiracy which will try to make you believe that the world is governed by the idea of wealth for wealth's sake, and that all means which lead to the accumulation of that wealth are, if not laudable, at least expedient. You will live and eat and move and have your being in a world dominated by that thought. Some of you will probably succumb to the poison of it.

"One day you'll meet someone for whom [money] means very little. I suggest that you watch him closely, for he will demonstrate to you that money dominates everybody except the man who does not want money. But be sure that, whenever and wherever you meet him, his little finger will be thicker than your loins."

Nobel Prize-winning author (Kim, The Jungle Book) Rudyard Kipling giving a convocation address in 1907.

And that's what convocations are all about

"Convocation is not a perfunctory occasion, a pro forma distribution of parchments. It is one of those exceptional moments when time stands briefly still, so that your alma mater can say to you publicly, 'I have tested you, and found you worthy.'"

Victor Goldbloom, a former Quebec cabinet minister and Canada's former official languages commissioner, speaking at a 1992 convocation.

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