Leaving McGill: Telling tales out of school

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McGill Reporter
May 27, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 17
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 36: 2003-2004 > May 27, 2004 > Preparing for convocation > Leaving McGill: Telling tales out of school

Leaving McGill: Telling tales out of school

Bill Gates doesn't have one. Neither did Mother Theresa. On the other hand, Osama Bin Laden and serial killer Ted Bundy each earned one.

Illustration of graduates followin one path and a non-graduate choosing another
Sherwin Tija

As the saying goes, it isn't what you have, it's what you do with it, and that holds true for university degrees. The thousands of graduates who will convocate this year can rightly take pride in their accomplishment, but not everyone who enrolls at McGill finds it necessary to pursue their degree to completion.

Many a famous McGill-ian's resume includes a mention that they "attended" McGill, an important fudge.

Many of these near-alumni ended up in professions where a diploma doesn't count for much, like the entertainment industry.

One such famous non-graduate was actor Hume Cronyn, who made his name in a number of Hitchcock films and in Cocoon. In his biography, Cronyn remembers being sent to McGill to learn law, with the expectation that he would return to work in the family business upon graduation.

No such luck: While at McGill in the early '30s, Cronyn frequented theatres, bars and other houses of ill repute, but rarely his classes. His time at McGill is distinguished as the place where he caught the acting bug -- and the clap.

He had loved Stephen Leacock's novels, but found the economics professor's lectures "dry and tedious." He spent most of his time on campus in the Player's Theatre and the Red and White Revue.

When not on stage, Cronyn spent much of his time with Flo, who operated a discreet operation for gentlemen with extramarital appetites on Milton Street. When not "upstairs," Cronyn would hang out in Flo's kitchen, drinking tea. It upstairs at Flo's that he caught a bad case of gonorrhea.

The affliction put an end to Cronyn's already-rare classroom appearances. Certain a career in law was not for him, Cronyn convinced his parents to allow him to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. From there, it was a short step to Broadway and fame -- and goodbye, Leacock.

Cronyn may not have thought that highly of his famous professor, but William Drummond didn't make much of an impression on Sir William Osler. Drummond achieved fame near the turn of the last century as a poet, writing verse in the dialect of French-Canadian English. His first popular poem, "The wreck of the Julie Plante" gives an example of his style: "On wan dark night on Lac St. Pierre, / de win' she blow, blow, blow, / An' de crew of de wood scow "Julie Plante" / Got scar't an' run below / For de win' she blow lak hurricane / bimeby she blow some more, / An' de scow bus' up on Lac St. Pierre / Wan arpent from de shore."

He achieved great fame with his rhymes, and after his death a reading of his poetry was held in London, with Osler as the speaker of honour.

"In an introductory speech, he remarked that he remembered William Henry Drummond as a brilliant and most lovable personality, but at the same time one of the least studious in his class," recalled Drummond's wife, May Isobel Harvey, some years later.

"When Sir William discovered that I was in the audience, he was covered with embarrassment and begged me to believe that had he known I was present, he would never had told tales out of school."

Drummond dropped out of McGill, but he did eventually finish his medical degree at Bishop's University, and became a popular and dedicated general practitioner in Montreal.

Drummond wasn't alone in choosing medicine as a backup career. More recently, Evan Adams broke his father's heart in the mid-'80s when he decided to give up his studies in biochemistry to pursue acting.

Born and raised on the Sliammon Reserve north of Vancouver, Adams felt isolated on campus, at a time when McGill had few resources for aboriginal students.

He caught the acting bug by accident when a casting agent saw him on the street and asked him if he was a thespian.

"I don't know why I lied," he says, but the decision led to him starring in the movie Smoke Signals. He did return to school, albeit the University of Calgary, and is now an actual doctor -- and he can play one on TV.

"It doesn't hurt to take a break and go off and see the world. That's a form of education, too. If I hadn't left McGill, I wouldn't have what I have now. I really love that part of my life. I love being an actor," he said.

When Adam Bly left McGill, he had already established himself as an able scientist. He had been working with the National Research Council on cancer research since he was 15.

He decided to leave McGill in order to pursue his dream. In 2002 he created a splash with the slick-new magazine SEED, which is described as "science-couture." With a contributor list that includes a number of Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, the magazine is on sale in 15 countries, with a North American circulation of 150,000 and a staff of 20.

"I think there are certain passions, skills and talents, that university can be a place to spark them. I was fortunate in that I went into it knowing what I wanted to do, and it was a natural segue to embark on my own," said Bly.

Does Bly regret not completing his degree? Not really.

"Once you leave, it's a fait accompli," he said. "The only thing I would regret is not having the forced opportunity to read things that are not in my own discipline. One day I'll have to read some art history."

You can drop out of a science degree to become a publisher, but you can't drop out of medical school to become a doctor, for instance. On the other hand, you can drop out of a music degree and become a musician -- and a very successful one at that.

"It's not like engineering. A music degree is not a license to practice music," said music dean Don McLean.

His faculty has a relatively low throughput at the undergraduate level. There are a few reasons for this, he explains.

"You have to ask why do people go into music? Well, the answer for a lot of people, is hormones. They liked high-school band, and they had a crush on the trumpet player, and they wanted to continue. Then they get here and find out the person sitting next to them is ten times better than they'll ever be and they realize they won't be able to compete," he said.

The other reason music loses a lot of people is because they're just that good. One student McLean knows of didn't graduate because she missed her final recital -- because she had an audition for a professional gig. Maria Popescu has done quite well without a diploma, performing Berlioz's Les Troyens at La Scala in Milan. Opera singer Suzie LeBlanc abandoned her music degree when she accepted a gig with the Vancouver-based New World Consort, and went on to a carreer from there. And alt-pop musician Rufus Wainwright "briefly" studied composition at McGill, before dropping out to sign a record deal with Dreamworks.

McLean wishes them all godspeed, but notes that although their lack of a degree hasn't hurt their careers, it does make some things difficult for his faculty. He points out that when students don't graduate, they don't get that little form from Alumni that allows the faculty to keep in touch with them.

Nonetheless, degree or not, the relationship to former students remains strong.

"These people get from us what they need whether they graduate or not," he said. "Some of our best ambassadors do not have degrees."

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