Here, not There: Affordable and Accessible Education a Foundation of RDC

In September 1963 Margaret Parsons, chair of the Red Deer Public School Board, announced that the College would open in September 1964, even though we didn’t have a building, any equipment, or a library. The statement, though bold, wasn’t a spontaneous pronouncement of good intent. It came after thoughtful exploration into the feasibility of a College in Red Deer, which was an express desire from central Albertans.

With a growing student body at Lindsay Thurber Composite High as Red Deer and surrounding communities continued to grow, students who wanted to pursue further education had to leave home to attend University in Edmonton or Calgary for further education.  Costs to students leaving home for university were high.  Many students who couldn’t afford to make that leap looked for work right out of high school instead.

“Many children 17 years old are out working when they should still be in school,” Mrs. Parsons noted at the time. “Some work for a while with the intention of completing their schooling later but it is very difficult for them to go back. Many of them never go back.” i

The vision for Red Deer Junior College grew during a time of decreasing post-secondary funding from federal partners. With tuition for a year set at $300 for students at the U of A, Red Deer Public Schools’ board of governors determined to hold the fee for Red Deer Junior College students at $150.

In the early 60s the number of university students across Canada was surging. As a result, the federal government decreased funding of per student grants at the time (from $350 to less than $200 per student).ii  Despite the odds against it, low costs for students remained a priority for our founders and the public school board sought to ensure that education was affordable for all learners in the region.

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A Candle and a Piece of String

Even before Red Deer Junior College was founded, it was clear that success as an institution would come through partnership and buy-in from the community, especially from the school boards in central Alberta. Approval from the provincial government and the University of Alberta was also necessary to give the new College a green light.

Colleges were new to Alberta in the 1960s. The first College introduced to the province was Lethbridge Junior College which was founded in 1957 and opened in 1958 without a building and with an enrolment of 28 University students. An affiliate of the U of A, Lethbridge was an institution that offered first year programs that led to degrees for students to a wide geographical region of learners. The Board of Red Deer Junior College gained much experience from the Lethbridge experiment. iii 

In October of 1962, the Red Deer Public School Board appointed G. Harold Dawe, then the city’s school superintendent, to study the learning needs of central Alberta for collegiate programming and to project the number of students who would attend a college in Red Deer. With their eyes set on opening the junior college in September of 1964.iv

As Mr. Dawe sought input from the community about the need for a College, how the institution would operate and developed a five year plan to finance the school toward becoming its own campus, the concept of Red Deer having a University was already starting to take root in the fertile minds of central Albertans. “It is conceivable that in the future we may have a full-fledged university here,” wrote a reporter in February of 1963. v
In May of the same year, after visits to Lethbridge, consulting with a wide array of groups, including students and parents, and after extensive research, G.H. Dawe appeared before the junior colleges committee to get approval for our application to be affiliated with the U of A in order to exist as an institution.

Looking back on the presentation Dawe wrote, “We had no completed buildings, no library, an incomplete staff, but we did have a mulish stubbornness that the College would begin that fall.” vi  A lengthy debate ensued by the committee about the qualifications of staff and the facilities in Red Deer when Dr. Max Wyman, the future president of the University said, “We started the Science Department of the University of Alberta with a candle and a piece of string.  Let’s give them a chance.” vii

And it was then that Red Deer Junior College was approved in principle. A provisional board was established in July of 1963 representing the educational interests of the region. The provisional College Board was comprised of two representatives from Red Deer Public’s Board and one member from the boards of Red Deer, Lacombe, Ponoka and Mountainview counties as well as one from the Separate School Board.
After conducting surveys in the community, the Board estimated that in its inaugural year, the junior college would be attended by 70 students in September of 1964.

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Surpassing expectations… and capacity

Red Deer Junior College opened its doors in 1964, hoping to have 70 students enrolled. Attendance, however, far exceeded expectations.  We had 106 full-time students and 13 part time students. Of those enrolled, 24 were declared majors in the Arts, 28 in Science and 54 in Education.

More than 800 guests attended the official opening of College in the Fall of 1964, filling the auditorium at Lindsay Thurber Composite High School.viii  An academic procession of students, faculty and guests of honour opened the ceremony where it was declared ambitiously by Mrs. Parsons that “the institution would have the status of a degree granting university within 10 years.”  ix

The first classes were held in a new wing of the Lindsay Thurber Composite High School that was built to house the College.  For the first three years of operation, the Red Deer Public School District hired all College staff.
Very early in our history, it was clear that we would soon outgrow the environment in which we were founded. Even as the doors to the new wing at Thurber were opening, school trustee C.R. Morton told the Red Deer Advocate that “it could be that within two years we will have a spade in the ground”x  for the College’s own campus.

The Board proactively sought suitable land for the College to find its permanent home and set a threshold of 200 students as the size at which the move to our own facility would be triggered. An opportunity materialized for the School District to purchase land from Mr. Lawrence Banting, who farmed on nearly 300 acres between Highway 2A and the newly constructed Highway 2.  The School District purchased the land, sold it to the City, which in turn donated 130 acres – valued at $130,000 – to the College. RDC bought an additional 84 acres. xi

The high school grew at the same time as the College and accommodating all classes for both learning bodies became a significant challenge in the four years that the College was housed at Thurber.  Despite the crowding of high school students, as Thurber and RDC continued to grow in those 4 years, there was in what G. H. Dawe wrote to a colleague years later, an excellent spirit of cooperation. xii

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Time to Move

In 1964, our second year of operation, the provincial government surprised the leadership team at Red Deer Junior College when Education Minister R. H. McKinnon announced it had approved a $3.3 million complex of its own. xiii  Mrs. Parsons had been given unofficial word from the government that plans would move ahead a week before. The application for funds to build a campus had been before the ministry for some time, but the approval was received with surprise and excitement nonetheless: Red Deer would have its own College campus!

By this time, the student population had already grown to 144 students and in the following year expected nearly 170 students to attend, approaching the threshold of student bodies that Thurber could accommodate.
The initial plans were ambitious and forward thinking. From the outset, the College had a vision to steward the cultural development of the region and proposed a 500 seat Fine Arts theatre with the goal of eventually developing a fine arts department.  xiv

The government agreed to pay 90 per cent of a proposed $3.3 million plan, which was the Board’s first estimate for building costs. Projected costs soared after more in depth consultation with staff, students and community stakeholders. After consultation, it was proposed to add an additional 26,000 square feet of learning space.

Projected costs increased to more than $4.7 million and the provincial government balked at the figure. Ultimately, the government agreed to a budget of roughly $4 million, and when all was said and done, the plans for a Fine Arts theatre, a student lounge, a third floor to the academic wing and a refrigeration unit had to be set aside. Growth in the student population demanded the need for all other parts of the proposal.

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How’d You Do It?

“The growth cannot stop. It must reach upwards and outwards into a variety of programs if the educational needs of this part of the province are to be met.” xv  These were the words of G. H. Dawe in September of 1970 as he considered the future of Red Deer College and of post-secondary education in our region.

By 1969, Red Deer College was already becoming a model institution nationally and various school boards sought advice from Red Deer just as we sought advice from Lethbridge a decade earlier.  

In a letter to a school district in British Columbia, responding to a query about how Red Deer Junior College was established and found its stride, G. H. Dawe outlined just how much the College had grown in five short years.

At first [we] had a heavy emphasis upon the university work transferable to the university in Alberta.  However, once established, the college [has] broadened [programs] to include many programs that are not transferable to university…. Plans are underway for additional programs of non-transferable courses. At the same time, the college has received permission to offer second-year university work and at present is working in the preparation of courses that will include second-year courses in arts and science.  These courses are the second-year of the University of Alberta and as you probably know, they are the second of the three-year pass programs for a B.A. degree and B.Sc degree.” xvi

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Student-Centred, from the start: RDC’s philosophy

In a heartfelt and philosophical address to students in 1965’s inaugural issue of Legacy, the annual student yearbook, Dean Peter Raffa put in words the approach to learning at RDC that has existed ever since our founding. Raffa wrote that students who were given the opportunity to pursue higher education incurred “a particular responsibility to acquire a love of knowledge for its own sake” xvii and urged students to strive for wisdom, experience and embracing a lifestyle of learning that would lead to true personal satisfaction:

With knowledge accumulating so rapidly that we call it an explosion, I hope that you continue your formal education as long as possible and perhaps even more important, that during your years in higher education you cultivate… ‘a habit leading to self-education,’ so that your taste for learning will continue as long as you live. Our knowledge however, should not be used selfishly, but should be directed at serving our fellow man…. May you always be worthy to be considered a scholar and a lady or gentleman. xviii

What’s striking about the culture of Red Deer College from its inception is the relationship between student and instructor. A legacy of the education provided here is that learners leave with the experience of genuine community; instructors who are experts in their field of study are also friends to student. This was the same then as it is now.

That first crop of students noted that their first year at RDC was much different from their previous twelve years at school, a year they described as “very remarkable, strange, [and] satisfying.” xix
Pete Weddell, the first president of the College student body wrote about what he considered the most important element to the inaugural year’s success: “The fine people employed here as our professors, and the administrators… [they] will be remembered as friends and guides to our desired future success.” xx

A high level of autonomy was given to Red Deer College students from the start, something that was the envy of College campuses across the country. Randy Harper, editor of the 1969 edition of the Legacy yearbook, writing to future students who would work in student government, noted that to “encourage individualism; responsibility was given to the student body. We had control of our own affairs and the administration conferred with the students on the majority of College proceedings.”  xxi

While at times communication breakdowns occurred, Harper charged future students to appreciate their autonomy and encouraged students not to take the responsibility given to them for granted, emphasizing that through cooperation, students and administration would iron out details.  “To appreciate the position we enjoyed,” he wrote, “one must look to the positions of other student bodies throughout Canada. We have what they are fighting for!”

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Our Faculty, our friends

Reading through the biographies of the original instructors, written by College students of the Legacy staff, there is a real sense of the camaraderie on the campus. The twelve original faculty boasted impressive resumes with 32 designations shared among them: 2 diplomas, 17 degrees, 10 Masters and 3 Ph. D’s. xxii

Mr. Charles Campbell was a decorated war hero, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his navigating abilities during the Second World War. Two faculty members in particular had an aptitude for linguistics. Dean Raffa could read, write and speak eight languages while Welsh born French instructor Donald Watkins spoke four European languages and one African dialect.

With active extra-curricular lives, the original faculty at RDC held a wide range of interests, from  literature, gardening and music, to sport and travel.  The instructors also had a sense of humor. Mr. Robert Bennett admitted that he found the Chemistry equipment “excellent for making coffee, straining Coke, or heating vegetable soup.” xxiii  Mr. John Long wrote that he decided on music as a career “while in the Royal Artillery (exchanging one noise for another)”. xxiv

There was also a strong sense of provincial pride. Miss Roberta Wilson, the College Librarian, was proud that she obtained most of her education in the region, and was a self-described “Alberta product.” xxv
Among the decisions that first council instituted were the College colours of grey and gold. The student body also selected a “suitable” motto xxvi —To Greater Things Through Learning—along with a “dashing” crest. The students’ council suggested and formed student clubs, put into office an Athletics board and developed and adopted a constitution.

Weddell noted that in the process of formalizing those initial decisions throughout the first academic year, “considerable discussion, debate, and hot argument has taken place in some of our meetings.”  xxvii
Healthy, robust debate and passionate engagement energized RDC. A true sense of school spirit seemed to emanate from the hallways of the College’s wing at Thurber and as the student body reflected on the first year of College life. As the students looked to the future, they intentionally passed the torch to the students who would follow them:

The future students of the Red Deer Junior College are not to be forgotten here. To them we give our “Legacy” to uphold as they will, in a manner which will bring credit to themselves, their professors, and the College. xxviii

Raffa, who would later become the College’s first president, serving until February of 1971 when he resigned, was highly regarded by students and faculty alike and was given a fine tribute by the student body when he resigned.

“In large measure,” wrote the Legacy team in 1971, “Mr. Raffa was responsible for the philosophy on which the College was founded – that of recognizing each student and instructor as an individual with each one of equal worth. The same philosophy put Red Deer on the map and contributed to the phenomenal growth of the College and the fact that the College now is able to offer second year courses.” xxix

The students during Raffa’s era remembered him as the “President with the kind heart and open ear,” and bid him farewell with a true sense of the debt of gratitude owed to him by the wider community for “the years of service which he so willing gave, but, inevitably, what he gained in terms of satisfaction, he lost in terms of personal health – this is the price which leadership all too often pays.” xxx

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The Library at the heart of student learning

It has always been about more than the books.  Life at RDC has always focused on learning, but it also a place where people connect, make lifelong friendships and support each other in their pursuits to achieve future goals.  

From the start, the Library has been a lively place that has shaped the culture of inclusiveness and the history of our institution.  The book collection in our first iteration of the Library, when we operated out of Lindsay Thurber, barely exceeded the number of volumes some instructors kept in their office.

The land grant and provincial funding that enabled the College to move to its own permanent location changed all of that by 1968.  The Library was the first building to open when the College moved.  The Head Librarian was Vince Richards and with his three staff, he personally unpacked a collection that had grown to 8,000 volumes.

Designed in a circle and lit by a sky light in the centre with a few pot lights around it, study areas and books were arranged around a mezzanine, opening to the floor below.  The skylight was a wonderful source of light during the day, but as soon as winter came and the days got short that changed.  In the early morning and by early afternoon people could barely see the titles on the books!

Large halogen lights were installed to brighten up the Library, but it became apparent quite quickly that the space was not sufficient for the College which, year after year, continued to rapidly grow.

Students were supported by a professional and enthusiastic Library staff who always embraced new technology and found ways to acquire learning resources for students.  “I remember one supporter asking when I thought we would finally have enough periodicals,” reflected former Head Librarian Mary Lou Armstrong after her retirement. “I guess we can stop subscribing when people stopped learning,” was her response.  xxxi

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Of Mice and Men, literally

There are a few humorous anecdotes that emerged from the Library and spread around campus. Each Fall a large population of mice gravitated to the Library along with students, drawn to the warmth of the space and leaving behind the grain fields that surrounded the campus. The little creatures were enough to keep students and staff on edge.

However, winter day a boa constrictor from the Biology department got loose.  It found its way to the Library and went on an eating binge.  It culled the mouse infestation in the air ducts.  The nerves of staff and students alike were further frayed until the slithering creature was found.

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i  - “No Increase In Grants Disappoints School Board,” Red Deer Advocate. 17 March 1964. Retrieved from Red Deer MAG Archives
ii -  ibid
iii -  “Lethbridge Key to City’s Junior College,” Al Forrest. Red Deer Advocate. October 23, 1962.
iv - “Junior College Joint District Operation,” Al Forrest. Red Deer Advocate, October 24, 1962.
v  - “College Plan Explained,” Red Deer Advocate. February 20, 1963.
vi - History of Red Deer College,” G. H. Dawe. September 9, 1970. College Archives. P. 3
vii - Ibid, p. 3
viii - “Opening,” Legacy 1965. Volume 1. 1965.
ix - Gowans, Paul. “The Red Deer Junior College Years at LTCHS,” Legacy, Date Unknown.
x - “Junior College Will Open Doors Sept. 23” Red Deer Advocate, August 26, 1964. Red Deer Museum Archives.
xi - “College Campus Acquires 84 more acres in City,” Red Deer Advocate. April 5, 1966.
xii - Letter from Mr. G. H. Dawe to Mr. A. K. Mutter. November 18, 1969. RDC Archives. P. 1
xiii - “Govt. Agrees City’s Junior College Plan,” Red Deer Advocate. No date found. RD Museum Archives.
xiv - “College to Cost Over $3,300,000,” Red Deer Advocate. September 24, 1966. RD Museum Archives.
xv - History, p. 4
xvi - Letter, p. 2
xvii - Raffa, Peter. “Dean’s Message,” Legacy 1965. Volume 1. 1965.
xviii - ibid
xix - Weddell, Pete. “President’s Message,” Legacy 1965. Volume 1.
xx - ibid
xxi - Harper, Randy. “Editor’s Note,” Legacy 1969. Volume 6?
xxii - Ibid, “Faculty”
xxiii - ibid
xxiv - ibid
xxv - ibid
xxvii - ibid
xxviii - Ibid “Dedication”
xxix - “A Dedication to Our First President,” Legacy, Date Unknown.
xxx - Ibid
xxxi - Library Information Commons. Legacy booklet. C. 2003.