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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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What U of T alumnus first sank his teeth into journalism at the student paper?

Answer As editor-in-chief of The Varsity in 1957, the late Peter Gzowski began a career that would touch millions around the world.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

During the 1950s, the Students' Administrative Council concentrated on student activities, such as running dances, organizing "snow queen" contests, and producing various publications such as the Varsity and the university year book Torontonensis. The Varsity editors, including Wendy Michener and Peter Gzowski, produced lively and controversial issues. In March 1952, the Varsity editor Barbara Browne, the news editor Ian Montagnes, and all senior staff members resigned when SAC suspended publication of The Varsity following a "gag issue" containing part of Sidney Smith's last annual report, in which he had complained about the lack of proper training in English at the high school level and stated a need for remedial English instruction.

Varsity staff members Peter Gzowski and Michael Cassidy in 1956. Gzowski became the editor-in-chief the following year.

The Varsity simply substituted the word "sex" for the word "English" in the story, and the rest followed. Although "standards have been stiffened," The Varsity reported, more or less using Smith's exact words, there was a high failure rate in an examination "designed to test the student's knowledge of punctuation, range, and ability," and the result was "frustration and a weakening of confidence."

"I have no faith," Smith is quoted as saying, "that teaching in technique will provide a magic cure. The saving virtues must be scholarship and a passion for the subject."

The University's disciplinary body found the material "in shockingly bad taste." This was one of the great controversies of the decade. It would probably pass unnoticed today.

For the most part, SAC was not involved in wider issues until the late 1950s, when it investigated ways of combating discrimination on the campus, an issue that had arisen in 1959 when a black woman student was denied entry into a sorority. This type of social concern intensified in the 1960s.

In many respects, the 1950s were like the 1880s and 1890s, enlivened by drinking and student pranks, particularly surrounding initiations. The Varsity is full of stories about clashes between various student bodies and run-ins with the police.

Seventeen engineering students were arrested for causing damage to the TTC during Frosh Week.

In 1951, for example, Trinity frosh were sent on a scavenger hunt, one item to be obtained being a streetcar advertising sign. Seventeen students were arrested for causing damage to the property of the TTC. A month later, some students, allegedly engineers, painted the word "Skule" on arts buildings throughout the campus. Principal F.C.A. Jeanneret of University College said that he could not remember "a worse case of vandalism in all my years at the University."

In 1953, women frosh from Victoria were taken by bus to the stockyards in the west end of the city, heavily sprayed with perfume, and, after each had had one shoe removed, required to find their way back to Vic on their own. In the course of the event, eight windows of the bus were broken. When Hal Jackman was sworn in as the University's thirtieth chancellor in 1997, he reminisced about "swiping" the chancellor's chair in the early 1950s to be used for the annual picture of Burwash Hall students. "I don't want you to think that I spent all my university days doing this kind of thing," he said, "although it did seem to take quite a bit of time."

Hal Jackman recalled once "swiping" the Chancellor's chair.

And so it continued throughout the decade. A three-hour battle between Trinity and Wycliffe students ended in a bonfire and the arrival of three fire trucks. The next year, UC students dumped eighteen cans of garbage over Trinity's front steps. One of the perpetrators was quoted as saying, "We felt it was time one of the Arts Colleges did something." Football weekends gave rise to a number of stories - a thirty-minute melee around the goal posts at a Varsity-Queen's game in Kingston in which five Queen's students were injured, and a train trip from a McGill game in which windows were broken and silverware stolen. A particularly serious incident occurred in the fall of 1954, when hundreds of engineering frosh, to the accompaniment of the engineering cannon and the Lady Godiva Memorial Band, were sent on a "tour" of the campus. They entered UC looking for material that could form part of a later auction. In the course of the raid, the UC registrar, Professor W.J. McAndrew, was injured.

"Any question of retaliation," UC Lit president Marty Friedland was quoted as saying, self-righteously, would be "as juvenile as the entire incident itself." It was a sobering experience for everyone. The constitution of the engineering society was suspended for several months, and the society was fined $4,000. Shortly after the event, however, many engineering students were commended for taking part in the clean-up after Hurricane Hazel. By 1957, part of the engineers' initiation activity involved cleaning up debris in High Park.

Gzowski, of course, went on to a sterling career in Canadian print, radio and TV. He passed away last week. Prankster Hal Jackman is now Chancellor of the University of Toronto. UC student body president Marty Friedland is the university's official historian. And The Varsity, Canada's largest-circulation student newspaper, is still irreverent.

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