Reminiscences of a Well-Rounded Man, 1926-31: Malcolm F. McGregor
Malcolm McGregor, 1931.
Credit: UBC Archives (Record no. 1.1/12808)
Malcolm McGregor gave a valedictory address to the U.B.C. Classics Club in the spring of 1974, during his final term as Head of the Department of Classics. He entitled his talk "Reminiscences of an Autocrat," a reference to his twenty years of dominant leadership in the department. But before he reached that period of his life he looked back on his five years (1926-1931) at Point Grey as a undergraduate and graduate student, and at his activities both curricular and extra-curricular.
I ask you to return with me to September, 1926, when, as a boy of sixteen who had been urged in high school to avoid the University, for which he was not fitted, I appeared in the Registrar's office of the University of British Columbia. Travel had been by streetcar from downtown to Tenth and Sasamat ($.07), thence by bus to the site of the present  bookstore ($.03). Registration in that Golden Age was a simple process, administered wholly by people, in my case by the Registrar himself, unimpeded by the expensive and prolonged inefficiency of machines.
For the freshman, two courses had already been printed, inexorably, on the appropriate card: English 1, Mathematics 1. The normal student then added a language (required), a science (required), and ONE elective. But I was not normal, and I found the single escape: one could take three languages and postpone the science. I thus resumed my study of Latin, French, and Greek (in that Age Greek was offered in the best high schools, such as King George). All these courses were numbered "One" and presumed continuous earlier study. The Department of Classics was not designed to teach Latin to beginners; for the ambitious, Greekless Greek A, which did not merit the dignity of a number, offered a belated opportunity for salvation.
The enrollment of the University when I came up was about 1,600, distributed among three Faculties, Arts, Applied Science, and Agriculture. Two permanent buildings graced the Campus: the Library (the centrepiece of the present structure) and Science (the basic section, of "college Gothic," of our Chemistry Building). The others were semipermanent: Arts (which is now Mathematics), Applied Science (now Geology-Geography), Agriculture (still existing just south of Mathematics), the Auditorium (which also housed the single-roomed Bookstore, the Ubyssey, and the "Caf"), and Administration (recently named, by an aesthetic Board of Governors, the Main Mall North Administration Building; then giving shelter to the Registrar and the President). To the north of the Auditorium as far as Lower Marine Drive lay a vast expanse of undressed surface where the few plutocrats parked their lonely automobiles. Apart from an old barn and fields for the cattle on the south side, the rest was virgin forest, nice for walks with one's companion in the spring — or summer or winter. In the 1930s, when we could not afford to cut the grass, cows grazed in the area between Arts and the Library.
The photograph of the cows has been superimposed on one of the Library, but the event it depicts did occur.
Credit: UBC Archives (Record no. 1.1/1004)
In those days we knew the professors and the professors, unsegregated by Departments, knew one another. The Faculty, I suppose, included scholars; but to us — and to themselves, I suspect — they were teachers. There may have been some bad teachers: I did not meet one.
The Ciceronian Liberal
Lemuel Fergus Robertson, a Maritimer, occupied the Classical Head’s chair the day the University opened in 1915. He was given the formal title in 1920 and held it until 1941. He was tall, with a shining pate and a formidable bearing. Without variation, he wore a thin red tie; it was generally believed that he owned only one tie, purchased the day he donned the toga virilis. My own belief is that he replaced it every few years — or at least had it cleaned and ironed.
Robertson was a Ciceronian Liberal; rumor, which sometimes exaggerates, had it that in his courses one overtly worshiped Marcus Tullius Cicero and William Lyon Mackenzie King or one failed. In any case, Robertson provided my introduction to Canadian politics — which is merely another illustration of the versatility of the Classicist who can recognize the present in the past. I learned more than this. He first instructed me in the art of writing Latin. With him I also read Homer and listened to his account of life on the farm on Prince Edward Island and admired the dexterity of the devoted young Classicist who milked the cow with one hand and held his text of Homer in the other. He was ambidextrous.
He introduced me to Seneca, that model of hypocrisy who so richly earned his fate, if not for his past, then for his tragedies. Asked on the examination to discuss Seneca's view of pagan gods, I discoursed upon the Roman attitude to barbarian practices such as Christianity, which was, I thought (reasonably, I still believe), pagan to a Roman. It did not occur to me that Robertson could designate Roman gods as pagan. Robertson approved of Seneca and delivered many a grave sermon based on a Senecan text. Seneca, of course, was revealed as a God-fearing Liberal, who had spent his youth in the pure atmosphere of the farm on Prince Edward Island.
In the second term of the same course — the population comprised twenty-four women and me — we met Robertson's Juvenal. I think immediately and vividly of the most famous fish in all literature, the turbot, a delicacy to be avoided, for a turbot on the table marks the diner as an inbred glutton. The combination of Juvenal and Robertson taught me much about life and revealed many of woman's artful devices of which I had been ignorant. The passage on the use of pumice by Roman women inspired a condemnatory sermon on the removal of hair from the limbs, a perversion of which I had been unaware, one that caused me acute embarrassment in that company, especially since the professor normally addressed himself to the women and ignored me. Certain crude passages of the text were thoughtfully omitted as likely to offend me. The effects of that course linger. Today I worry when one of my colleagues teaches Juvenal. Does he point out that Domitian, transferred to a Canadian setting, would be a Conservative Prime Minister? Does he identify Juvenal as a fundamentalist Liberal pastor who, after a youth spent milking on Prince Edward Island, threatened a degenerate world with the fires of Hell?
During my candidature for the M.A. — I was alone — I read Cicero's Letters under Robertson's tutelage. It was one of the lasting experiences of my academic life. I have encountered greater scholars than Robertson, I have read Cicero's works, I have heard papers about him, I have studied books and essays on him. But I cannot name a man who has equaled Robertson's mastery, his understanding, his subtle appreciation of a statesman who believed desperately in a losing cause. For years afterwards the acta diurna of Republican Rome from 65 to 45 B.C. remained as firmly engraved on my memory as the mason's letters on the stele.
The Scholar of the Department
Otis Johnson Todd reached Vancouver from the United States in 1918. By 1926 he had become Canadian and adopted Association Football as his recreation. As Honorary President of the Varsity Football Club he seldom missed a game, attaining eventually a reputation that won him the presidency of the Dominion Football Association. He had nothing but scorn for what he called "armball," that gladiatorial combat that has eliminated sport from American campuses every Saturday afternoon in the autumn, and from the American home on Sundays. We, in Canada, indulge in an imitation. Todd succeeded Robertson as Head in 1941 and remained in the Chair until his retirement in 1949.
My introduction to Todd came in Latin 1, where we read Cicero's de senectute. This lugubrious essay may be suited to the elderly and introspective philosopher; it is not suited to lively and impressionable young men and women at the beginnings of their undergraduate careers. At the end of our servitude I made a vow: I should never read the de senectute again. I have kept my vow.
Todd was the scholar of the department. He contributed regularly to the journals, he translated Xenophon's Symposium and Apology for the Loeb Classical Library, and, while I was a student, completed his Index Aristophaneus, which has remained a standard work. His solemn and preoccupied mien hid the sharp and mischievous wit that we came to know in (and outside) the classroom. Todd took me through my first Greek play, the Prometheus of Aischylos, the deep end of the tragic pool. This initial confrontation with the intricacies of a flexible language taught me how to use Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon.
McGregor’s love affair with Liddell and Scott continued, as this photograph from 1957 attests.
Credit: UBC Archives (Record no. 5.1/3897)
At a higher level, now possessing the knowledge and scepticism of the fourth-year student, I registered for Todd’s course in tragedy and comedy and thus encountered Aristophanes. While Todd did not match the uncensored earthiness of the young moderns, he nevertheless, in the more restricted milieu of the 1920s, gave us a term of genuine Aristophanic comedy that I have not forgotten. We read every line; of course, we did not translate every line.
In my graduate year (1930-31) Todd optimistically agreed to steer me through Aristotle's Poetics. In November he called it off, on the grounds that he could not find the necessary time. My own opinion is that he considered the attempt to instill in me a comprehension of Aristotle’s more philosophical style a completely hopeless task.
In 1938 I published my first major paper ("The Last Campaign of Kleon and the Athenian Calendar in 422/1 B.C.," AJP 59  145-168), a study of a controversial epigraphic and calendrical problem that required (at pp. 152-153) exhaustive analysis of a Greek pluperfect indicative (dielelunto) coupled with the preposition mekhri in the first chapter of Thucydides’ fifth book. I sent reprints to my three masters in British Columbia. From two I received congratulatory replies. From Todd I received a learned and very useful commentary, with full references, on the uses of the Greek pluperfect and the meaning of the preposition, a response characteristic of his learning and his kindness.
Todd gave Canada six sons and a daughter. Five of the sons played football, three of them as members of the Varsity team in my last season (1929-30).
The UBC Soccer Club (senior squad) 1930-31. Back row: O. J. Todd (2nd. from the left), Malcolm McGregor (in the center in the goalie’s jersey). Front row (2nd. and 3rd. from the left): Alan and David Todd, two of O.J. Todd’s sons.
Credit: The Totem 1930-31 p. 170.
The eldest son, Duncan, embarrassed the family by engaging in "armball." Eventually, he must have acquired money, because he retired to the wilds of Scotland as the Laird of a Castle. The daughter sat as a classmate in a number of advanced classes in Greek.
Gentleman, soldier, statesman
For Robertson and Todd I was, and I still am, filled with an awesome and grateful admiration. My hero, however, was Harry Tremayne Logan. He was appointed to the Faculty as one of the originals in 1915, but spent the next three years in France with the Canadian Machine Gun Corps. Later, his academic career was interrupted by a twelve-year term (1937-49) as Principal of Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School, a post that took him to Vancouver Island, Great Britain, and Australia before he returned in 1949 to head the Department until 1954. He continued to teach effectively until in 1968 he reached 80 years, when he retired ... at his own request.
Logan had been a Rhodes Scholar, the kind of man Cecil Rhodes must have had in mind: gentleman, soldier, statesman. He possessed that extraordinary capacity for understanding the student, for thinking with him, for treating him as an individual, that is the indelible stamp within the Master Teacher. It was Logan, I am sure, who taught me to appreciate the poems of Vergil. Curiously, I think first of the Eclogues and the Georgics. Logan had a feeling for the landscape and the soil, a feeling that he imparted to us all.
By the time I entered my fourth year, I was confident of my ability to read Greek. Then came Thucydides. Logan the soldier laid siege to Syracuse and I think that I have never reached a more thorough understanding of Book VII than in 1929, when the Master Teacher interpreted the Master Historian. The vicissitudes of the Athenians and of the decent, slow-witted Nikians have remained unforgettable. I know why, in a different context some years later, I chose Thucydides as my special author, to the horror of my contemporaries.
Logan possessed a philosophical turn of mind, which accounts in part for the fact that by choice he guided the young through Plato's Republic until the year of his retirement. My mind is not philosophical, although I have met the major Greek and Roman philosophical writers on their own ground. But, again, it is Logan's patient and sympathetic exposition to which I most often glance back.
In that Age the responsibilities of a Department of Classics were rooted firmly in the Greek and Roman authors — in Greek and in Latin. The mere thought of ancient literature in translation would have been as repellent, as horrifying, as anarchistic, as placing students on committees, or allowing women to smoke in public — wearing trousers! Greek and Roman History, however, occupied a position of respect, partly, perhaps, because the teaching fell to Logan, and partly, I am sure, because Cicero would have approved.
Logan’s lectures were delivered quietly and grippingly, without rhetoric but with a precise choice of diction and a skillful variation of tone to produce emphasis. He paced slowly to and fro, a pernicious habit, you may say, unless you have watched an exciting rally in tennis or have experienced a similar spectacle elsewhere. And always we were aware that he knew these people whose achievements he was discussing. "Men make the city," said Nikias; "men make history," said Logan. Three words: they are the essential to comprehension. Logan it was who taught me that History includes all the achievements of man. I must have become a disciple, for during my graduate year I read Tacitus with him at his house and under his direction I wrote what I then thought was a historical thesis, Rome and Germany. The safe and uninspired title hides a florid passage, one of many florid passages, portraying Arminius as a hero fighting against fearful odds.
Outside the classroom and between the posts
When I came up in 1926 1 stood about 5' 7" and weighed 130 lbs. (dressed). In those halcyon days each entering student underwent a thorough physical examination. The doctor upon whom I waited found his task simple: there was not much to examine. As he concluded, he asked, with a sneer, "And what are you going to do, my boy, except study?" "I am going to play football," I replied stoutly. "For Varsity no doubt?" was his witty response, as he roared with laughter and I stalked out with an attempt at dignity, an impossible goal when one is still buttoning one's trousers. After all, I considered myself a goalkeeper, although, it is true, I could not reach the crossbar. But between my first and second years 1 suddenly rose to 6'0" — with no gain in weight; and for four years, as I patrolled the sometimes vast distance — 8 yards — between the posts proudly wearing the Blue and Gold of Varsity, I often thought of that miserable medico and his cheap humor.
Normally, Todd paced the sidelines, grave and dispassionate as a scholar should be. Frequently, he was joined by Monsieur E.E. Delavault, a volatile and exuberant Professor of French, in whose classes I sat. Delavault brought the French spirit to the game, not always to the taste of the referee. One afternoon, in a close match at Trimble Park, I made a sensational save of a penalty shot; any dive to my left merited the adjective. At half-time Delavault rushed on the field, embraced me firmly with both hands, and kissed each cheek, warmly and wetly. In my helpless condition, I happened to catch a glimpse of Todd. I have never seen a look of such utter and revolted disgust on a man's face. Katharsis displayed on a football field was un-British.
Well outside the classroom
My many non-academic recreations included membership in the Society of Thoth, a secret organization that imposed an awesome and terrifying ceremony of initiation and practiced an arcane ritual. I can say no more, since members swore to keep their oaths of secrecy until the iron should float (classical influences were often at work). I mention the Society of Thothbecause my membership led to my thespian career.
Each year Homecoming was celebrated by a Theatre-Night in the Auditorium when the various classes and societies contributed numbers to the long show. In my day the epic pantomime produced by the Society of Thoth won a scintillating acclaim. The Society, I should have observed, banned women from its mysteries but allowed a selected number of camp-followers to make costumes, apply make-up, and attend its more licentious functions.
I began in a humble way, as a Hawaiian dancing girl, and the reviewers ignored my performance. Harry Logan did not. He visited the dressing-room to shake my hand and it took him three days to remove the paint from his hands. As Robertson gazed at my face the following week he made it clear that my activity had been un-Ciceronian.
Our next vehicle was Antony and Cleopatra, with Himie Koshevoy, the Keeper of the Baksheesh, starring as Antony, and one who is today  a well-known judge in the role of Cleopatra. I had been typecast — I think that is the professional jargon — as an Egyptian dancing girl. Logan did not shake my hand. This time my unrehearsed stage-business — you see, I remember the vocabulary — brought deafening applause. Toward the close, as the dancers responded violently to the eastern music, my left attachment slipped its moorings and landed on the trumpet-player's instrument. So impressed were the critics by our moving interpretation that we were invited to join the vaudeville show at the Pantages Theatre on Hastings Street the following week. We accepted.
Finally, I reached stardom: I played the lead in Helen of Troy. Now, I am a modest man and I must not yield to boastful temptation. I shall report merely that I was sensational. Never had the audience viewed such spectacular realism. Of course, we of the theatre have our own secrets and, after so many years, it will do no harm to reveal the lengths to which a seasoned actor will go to achieve perfection.
As Troy burned, Helen was to stand at the walls tearing her long and beautiful and blonde hair. The walls were high and Helen was to balance on top of a rather degenerate ladder that was to be held in place by a high-ranking member of the Society, the Torturer-in-Chief, who is now Professor of Economics at a well-known university. In rehearsal all went well, although no zenith of emotion was reached. On Homecoming Night, however, the holder of the ladder, unrehearsed, had attained a state of meandering absence of mind. Consequently, as the flames rose accompanied by musical crescendo, the holder swayed, the ladder swayed, Helen swayed; the sheer terror of the intensely moving scene, heightened by the falling strands of golden hair, conveyed itself to the audience. At last, amid smoke and flame, the curtain fell. And so did I.
The Pub, the office of the Ubyssey, provided headquarters for aspiring journalists and writers, as well as, secretly, for the Society of Thoth. The Pub comprised one room in the northeast corner of the Auditorium. The premises are now called the Offices of the Summer Session. Here I toiled for five years, eventually reaching the chair of Sports Editor, which I occupied for two years. This incumbency allowed me to give front-page space to the exciting activities of the Football Club, at the expense, to be sure, of a semi-weekly battle with the Senior Editors. I was most successful when the Editor-in-Chief was a Rugby man. I made a deal. Football and Rugby would alternate as the featured story.
You should not be thinking of the present Ubyssey as a parallel. We were fully literate, the Editor insisted on rigorous proofreading; and coverage of the University's activities, especially sport, was comprehensive. Our vocabulary did not require the assistance of obscenities, coarseness, and trite colloquialisms. Nor did we split infinitives or use "like" as a conjunction. In the Pub, hammering away at one of the two battered typewriters amid raucous disorder, I produced the final copy of my thesis.
In my final year, the Editor-in-Chief, Ron Grantham, was a serious and totally upright man, not wild enough for membership in the Society of Thoth, who, once having made a decision, could not be budged. That year the Ubyssey conducted an editorial campaign, in which I participated prominently, directed against the Dean of Women to lift the ban on women smoking in public. As a result, we were satisfyingly unpopular by the time the provincial budget came down. The President of the University, Leonard Sylvanus Klinck, alarmed by earlier comments, ordered the Editor to refrain from criticism of our benefactors in Victoria. The immediate response was a vigorous editorial written by the courageous Ron Grantham denouncing a parsimonious and anti-intellectual Government. In those utopian days authority did not hesitate: the President suspended the Editor from the University and banned the Ubyssey. There was no appeal from this non-negotiable edict.
Robertson could not really approve of these extra-curricular activities. After all, one cannot imagine Cicero relaxing as a gladiator in the arena. And Robertson had to tolerate the many non-classical interests of Todd and Logan. But he was a fair-minded man and I could read Latin, which was contrary to the proper order of nature. "O McGregor, McGregor," he sighed to me one Monday morning when I appeared with a black eye and without a front tooth, "Cicero never looked like that."