Oral History - MacLachlan, John D.





JANUARY 29, 1985


John MacLachlan worked for 28 years on the campus at Guelph and was President of the OAC during the period when the three founding colleges, OAC, OVC and MAC Institute became, first, the Federated Colleges and then the University of Guelph. Probably no President of the OAC witnessed greater changes since its founding in 1874.

Raised on a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario, John taught school and worked towards his degree at Queens, followed by a Master's and Doctorate at Harvard. John finally came to Guelph in 1939.

He relates his experiences coping with the very large classes following WWII and then the initial contacts with the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture in Toronto. His recollections lead eventually to the foundation of the University of Guelph and some of the problems encountered during this time. All faculty and staff, for example, changed from being civil servants in the Ontario government to University of Guelph employees. He relates some of the problems encountered, some of the gains made, and some of the humorous situations. The University of Guelph grew from 2,200 students to over 12,000 during his time.

P: This is an interview with Dr. John Douglas MacLachlan, by Harvey Pettit, on November 13 1986, for the University of Guelph, Alumni Association, Alumni-In- Action group. Dr. MacLachlan is being interviewed in his home, located on Oxford St. in Guelph. Dr.MacLachlan spent 28 years on the campus of the University of Guelph. As an OAC faculty member, president of the OAC and president of the University of Guelph, during the period that the three founding colleges, OAC, OVC and Macdonald Institute became the base for the development of the University of Guelph. It has been stated that no president of the Ontario Agricultural College since it's founding in 1874, witnessed greater changes during his term of office than did Dr. MacLachlan. Dr. MacLachlan celebrated his 80th birthday this past summer. It is my pleasure to interview Dr. MacLachlan and to record his eventful career.

P: Were you born and raised in Ontario?

M: Yes, I was raised in Burritts Rapids which is in Eastern Ontario on a large dairy farm.

P: While growing up did you consider a college education?

M: I certainly did because I was not enthusiastic about dairy farming at the time. And, yes quite definitely so, as soon as I got my grade thirteen.

P: Why did you not enroll at the Ontario Agricultural College?

M: I want to give credit to Queen's University and a program they had. When I finished grade thirteen, I decided to go teach school for awhile. I went to Ottawa to a normal school, which is now called teachers college, and taught for three years. Queen's had a program whereby teachers could get full credit towards a degree while they were teaching; by correspondence courses in the winter, and attending summer school July and August on the campus. During those three years, I completed the first two years of my BA degree, which I couldn't have done elsewhere that I knew of. I went into Queen’s then for two years and got my degree. Queen’s had the influence there, because I didn't have much money and this was the way to get my degree.

P: After you received your undergraduate degree at Queen's did you continue post-graduate studies?

M: Yes, at Harvard University for a Masters and a Doctorate degrees. But I was then leading towards Botany.

P: After you obtained your PhD. degree at Harvard did you become involved in teaching and research?

M: Yes that was going to be my favourite program or career. One year after ­finishing at Harvard I went on a fellowship in Jamaica, from Harvard, designing an educational program for their school of agriculture. Then came finding a position for a career. My first position was at Clemson in South Carolina at an agricultural and mechanical arts, A and M college. Stayed there for three years. Then I looked for a place in Canada somewhere, and I came to the OAC. I asked myself several times why I was attracted to agricultural places. First it was Clemson and then OAC because I wasn't very enthusiastic about dairy farming. The answer to my mind was that I was familiar with this area of study and working profession. I felt more at home there then I might in some others. And I think it was just familiarity that attracted me not only to Clemson but also to the OAC.

P: What year did you accept an appointment at the Botany department in OAC?

M: 1950-No, '48 as the head of the department and two years later as the president.

P: What year did you start at OAC? What was the first year?

M: '39, September '39 just before the war started.

P: Who was president of the OAC at the time of your appointment?

M: Dr. G. I. Christie.

P: I well remember Dr. Christie because he was appointed president of OAC in 1928, in June 1928, and I registered as a freshman in September 1928 at OAC. Just a few days after your appointment, Canada declared war against Germany. Did this affect the Guelph campus during the period of the war?

M: Well I can assure you I had no impact on the war against Germany. The impact on campus--was two. There were two of them. The forces came in and took over most of the campus for training period. Chain link fences were put up around a large portion of the campus, but the teaching facilities were left free to us, they were outside the fence. And we continued the same program in teaching, but the number of students decreased because the boys were going over with the military, to the war.

P: You mentioned that you were appointed head of the Department of Botany in 1948. Who was head prior to your appointment?

M: Professor Howitt. You remember Howitt in the Botany Department?

P: Yes, yes he taught when I was a student. Then you mentioned about being appointed president of the OAC in 1950.

M: Right.

P: Did you have any regrets leaving the teaching and research to become an


M: Oh, theoretically, minor regrets. I loved teaching and was fascinated with research. I found as an administrative chair I spent much time, too much time I thought, at meetings, meetings, meetings. And then maybe the rest of the day spent dealing with faculty and staff problems. I couldn't find that I could measure what I had really accomplished for the day. I'd go home and say what did I accomplish today? It was hard to tell. Those were minor because I liked my teaching and so on, but in the end, no, no regrets.

P: Just prior to your appointment as president of the OAC, Dr. John Kenneth Galbraith, an OAC graduate, criticized the OAC in the press. Comments such as; "Horse and buggy teaching at OAC, instead of scientific research", "Defense from politics is needed in OAC". He advocated appointment of a board of govenors. Were you concerned about the criticism?

M: Not particularly, in other words, Galbraith was talking from his experiences

as a student here on the campus. There had been many changes since he was here. There was some resentment; others like myself said well if he does stir up something to improve the situation, well, we'll do it.

P: Following the end of the war, WW II, and during the fifties what was the trend of student enrollment?

M: Oh, that was a frantic period because of so many vets coming back, returning boys from the war came back, coming to OAC. And we had to improvise classrooms, labs, dormitories, it was a frantic period. I don't know any better word and I have to give Dr. Reek, who came up when Dr. Christie became ill, credit for all the work he did in managing that. He was formerly the Minister of Agriculture in Toronto.

P: Well, did that influx of students continue on in the fifties?

M: Yes. We had accommodated them, and the increase continued but the pressure wasn't on us like it was in the beginning there at all. We put in facilities overnight practically to accommodate them.

P: Now OAC was in competition with all the other colleges in the province and what steps were taken to attract top students to Guelph?

M: New scholarships were provided for the top students, there were faculty brought on who were in the field of research, this appealed to students and particularly those who were going on to graduate school programs, mainly those were covered.

P: What scientific research was carried on at that time, and was it recognized by the National Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Department of Agriculture?

M: Scientific research with different emphasis, but not downgrading the applied research of the various departments, no. It was just in addition to it. And at first the National Research Council, there was not much contact but as we grew in our research program and graduate school, National Research Council did recognize us. The Department of Agriculture sure, they recognized us right through and they gave us money for scientific research the same as the applied research.

P : Am I correct that was the time when the Agricultural Institute of Agriculture was formed in Toronto?

M: Yes.

P: Why did the department of Agriculture appoint an advisory board for each of the three founding colleges, OAC, OVC and the Macdonald Institute?

M: That was motivated by Colonel Kennedy, then the Minister of Agriculture. And there was considerable money coming onto campus to finance the three colleges. He had no direct contact, so he decided to make an advisory board as an area in between the president and the minister, somebody he could talk to. I think that was what it was.

P: Who was the first chairman of the OAC advisory board?

M: First chairman was Fred Presant.

P: And he was an OAC graduate?

M: OAC graduate in 1923 and he stayed on year after year, twenty years on advisory boards and boards of regents and board of governors.

P: That’s quite a record.

M: It is.

P: Was there any discussion by alumni, faculty and government personnel in the fifties

regarding university status for the three founding colleges?

M: There may have been discussions among the alumni and faculty, but my contact was with the two departments in Toronto. That is the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture. At that time the provincial government decided that we must have some new universities in the future. And that's when we got Brock in the Niagara area, that’s when we got Trent in Peterborough, that’s when we got Carleton in Ottawa. But Queen's Park and Department of Education looked at Guelph with appealing eyes in that instead of starting in an open field somewhere to put up a university, or buying up blocks in an urban district, here was a campus all set up, a thousand acres, a power plant that covered the campus services and all the rest of them, the water, sewage and everything else. All they had to do was build some buildings around it and name it a university and get some faculty. It was of high appeal to the Department of Education, and I would be called out every once in awhile to check this design concept put together, lets have it, we're going to have a university there. Then I go over to Agriculture and they were very reluctant to do anything. It is natural that they had a fear that if they had a university with at least a thousand students, the old OAC would be just drowned out and disappear. That was a frustrating period for me. We pushed back and pushed back from the front. But in the end things fell into place, and agriculture is as strong as it ever was and perhaps much stronger then it ever was before. And the fears of the unknown had disappeared.

P: So there wasn't one hundred percent agreement then between all parties that a university should be started at Guelph at that time?

M: Well by parties you mean...

P: Well like government and the faculty and the alumni...

M: Oh yes, well even faculty, they were concerned about their own future. I mean there were civil servants which had to be transferred over. There was a vested interest here which came up periodically. But after awhile it was all settled down.

P: It seemed by 1960 that you accepted the responsibility to effect the change from college to university. Was that the time that you thought that well, now is the time to go ahead and really construct the...

M: Well now the time was somewhat dictated by the Department of Education. They thought this was the time to get this place set up for a university. And I was sort of the middle man in there, at that stage. I guess I accepted the responsibility as far as I was concerned. But I can't say that I was fully responsible. I had a great deal of help from the Board and many people in setting the program up for a university.

P: In June 1962, Bill 49 was proclaimed by the Ontario government, Federated Colleges of the Ontario Department of Agriculture. What administrative changes took place at this time?

M: That was about the most awkward name to be given to any campus, "Federated Colleges of the Ontario Department of Agriculture". The reason for it dealt with the Department of Agriculture, was that so many different areas in the three colleges had to be coordinated- put together. We had three registrars offices, three business affairs office, three libraries, three of this, three of that. They had to be co-ordinated and put together. What year would we get this done before the university, because once it's here these things have to be done anyway. There was only two years of it, but nobody liked it. It was accomplished though.

P : Who were the first Deans?

M: Well, I was called the President of the OAC, Dean is a very distinct term now. Rick Richards took over from there, Trevor Jones at the Vet College, Margaret McReady at the Mac Institute, and on the arts side was Murdo McKinnon in Wellington College.

F: Following Bill 49, what necessary changes were required before university status could be considered?

M: Under the Ministry of Agriculture, all our buildings all our services and so on were provided by the department of public works. All personnel, faculty and staff so on, were civil servants. They had a vested interest in their future and it took a little bit of discussion to get by that stage of fear of the unknown, that they are not going to lose out that much, you can't blame anybody for that. They didn't lose out either.

P: Then the faculty and all the staff would have to be changed from civil servants to university employees.

M: That’s right. In fact all the staff became university employees. The pension system that we had under the department of agriculture, the civil service one, the money was transferred over to the university. Sick leave was transferred, it was all transferred.

P: You mentioned physical assets, were there many buildings under construction or on the drawing board at that time?

M: There were buildings just as mental concepts, there were buildings on paper, there were buildings being built. The whole gamut. The idea do we need the buildings being constructed, it was a busy time on campus that way.

P: In May 1964, Bill 133 was proclaimed by the Ontario government, which established the University of Guelph, Board of Governors and the right for the university to confer its own degrees.

M: Yes, well the Board of Governors assumed control as soon as it became a university. Before that many members on there to be the Board of Governors, but we still had the other side of the picture, civil servants, public works to change over. But really when Bill 133 was declared, the Board of Governors took full responsibility.

P: I guess there is one thing we should mention that maybe everybody wouldn't remember, that prior to this bill all the degrees at Guelph were conferred by the University of Toronto.

M: Oh yes, OAC, MAC and OVC were affiliates, academic affiliates of the University of Toronto. And I was on the senate to represent the OAC. That’s the University of Toronto Senate.

P: Do you remember how many were on the Board of Governors to start with?

M: About 15, I wouldn’t say exactly 15, but somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15. In our appointments we tried to cover various aspects of their advisory capacity. That is somebody like Moff Woodside, the late Moff Woodside from the University of Toronto for the academic side, someone like Thornbrough from Massey-Ferguson, a big business man type. It was spread out to take in the various facets of the university operation.

P: Well some of the board of governors would be alumni of OVC, OAC and Mac Institute?

M: Yes. And the government was going to name two at large by themselves. Other than that the board named them.

P: You mentioned earlier about Fred Presant being the first chairman of the advisory board. I assume that Fred was also one of the first Board of Governors?

M: Yes.

P: Who was the first Chancellor of the University of Guelph?

M: George Drew.

P: You attended many convocations, first as President of OAC, later as President of the University of Guelph. There must have been occasions that were particularly special in your mind.

M: Yes I attended convocations in Toronto, as a representative to the Senate there. One thing that comes out in my mind, when you look at professors particularly, stoical types of people, they do have a sense of humor. I can remember one convocation at Simcoe Hall in Toronto in the evening. The honourary degree had been conferred, this chap got up to give an address, and he went on and on and on, in a monotonous voice. Something coming down through where I was sitting up on stage was a mortar board, and inside was a piece of paper. You put your name on this paper, give your time by the second that this character is going to stop talking and put twenty-five cents in. So this mortar board went all around like this. It was one of the Deans that did it to begin with, I didn't get the money back, I didn't guess right.[laughter]

There was one funny one here. In those days before the University, the President and various faculty from Toronto would come up for it, to confer our degrees. At one time we all had to go down to Toronto, they didn’t come up here to do it. Sidney Smith was president. I admired the man, he had a warmth about him that you couldn't find in very many people. Anyway, we were going about this in Latin and the Chancellor didn't come, he, Smith, was there in the Chancellor’s place. So he had to do the Latin presentations. It went through fine until it came down to conferring the degrees on those in absentia, those who weren't there. Somebody comes up to me before the chancellor and takes the degree. So Evans was registrar of Toronto, he came up and knelt. We got the hood put on, but instead of saying "admitto te etiam absenten ad gradum” Sidney Smith says “kiss me Joe”, and Joe says "I can't right here there are too many people around". So that’s how the students in absentia got their degrees conferred on that occasion.

P: The three-semester system was introduced as a replacement for the two-semester system. Why the three-semester system?

M: Well, when the University of Guelph was formed there was a tendency within the Universities for innovation. There was a three-semester system in Canada, in British Columbia, Simon Fraser. The only one of them at the University level. We thought people would ask is it better than a two-semester? So we said lets try it, and incorporated it into OAC and Mac; the Vet college was strictly on their own at that stage. And we tried it. Now it had over the years, strong points but also weak points_ It is still in operation after 30 years, its still holding, I don't know for how long it will hold.

P: That means that there are students on the campus during the summer months.

M: Yes. One other thing that appealed to the financiers and the minister of Agriculture was that many of these new buildings were all used the year round except the few days in between semesters. That’s the appeal, that if you've got a new building, its not going to sit there all summer with nothing in it, it'll have students in it. One advantage.

P: When the University was established a new college was formed on

campus and the name given to it was Wellington College. What courses of study were offered by the new college?

M: It was typical. Wellington College started out as a college of arts and science, and it was just the typical courses for university arts and science. There was a pressure at that time to break it all up into small faculties. And I thought well lets keep it consolidated to begin with, and then as we see the need open up the college of arts and open up the college of science and open up the college of so-on later. But the beginning it was straight arts and science.

P: Following the university status, there was an increase in the number of faculty, staff and administrative personnel. Was it difficult to obtain the necessary personnel?

M: No, I don't remember having any difficulties there. And I can't say why we didn't have any difficulties either. New university, and new programs, and so on, affected some people.

D: What was the student enrollment following the establishment of the university of Guelph?

M: It was something like 2,200-2,300 or something, at the conversion. Now it's around twelve thousand or something like this. It grew later.

P: Was there a maximum number for future years proposed at that time?

M: I can remember when John Robarts presented this in legislature. I was listening. He talked about having 18-20,000 students on the campus. I shuddered at the thought.

P: In 1966 you received a doctor of laws degree from the University of Toronto.

M: These honourary degrees are determined by the senate of the university- who the recipients are - presumably mine was connected to the fact that I participated in the development of the University of Guelph.

P: In June 1967, university faculty and staff, met in Memorial Hall to honour you, prior to your retirement June the 30. You were presented with the certificate with the J.D. MacLachlan scholarship.

M: Yes I had representation from the faculty, who proposed that we have a retirement dinner. Everybody would come. I thought that perhaps if we just took the same money and put it into a scholarship it would be around for some time, instead of being eaten up within an hour. And that’s what happened. The scholarship is open to all colleges to a top student coming in, a freshman.

P: Following your retirement from the university we expect that you continued to lead a very active life. What did you do?

M: Well the equivalent of at least two years I spent in Jamaica designing a new educational program for their school of agriculture. After that, my activities were confined to seeking out some place to go for the winter and exploring the country. Took in Florida, of course, and Aruba, around Mexico and back. The two I prized most were trips to the south seas down in the Philippines, the Samoas-there's Western Samoa. American Samoa. All those islands. To Bali. Two years in succession down through there and I enjoyed that. I’m glad I took it when I did. I wouldn't be taking it now. Spent the winter in Arizona. Several in B.C. There was a chap there and his wife who decided that that was too rough for them to stay there so they go to Hawaii. So we rented their condo –it’s much easier than here. Since then well, all I can say is we're very happy here at home. When you get to be an octogenarian you're not going to be taking any bigger steps unless you're feeling very well. But, quite happy at home.

P: Thank you Dr. MacLachlan for your memoirs. You will be remembered as the man whose energy and imagination, determination and leadership were instrumental in the founding of the University of Guelph. May you be blessed with good health and many more happy years.

M: Bless you. [Laughs].