"They have big ideas and risk everything"

When George Bernard Shaw first received a copy of Professor R.A. Wilson's book, The Birth of Language, its author was completely unfamiliar to him. In a later preface to the book, Shaw admitted he began looking for Wilson where he naturally assumed he might be found: Oxford or Cambridge, Edinburgh or Dublin. It was with great surprise, Shaw wrote, that "I learnt that it was at Saskatoon, a place of which I had never heard, and that his university was that of Saskatchewan, which was [not] connected in my imagination...with a university apparently half a century ahead of Cambridge in science and of Oxford in common sense." Realising that "provincial Canada had drawn easily ahead of Pasteurized Pavloffed Freudized Europe, and made professors of men who were in the vanguard instead of among the stragglers and camp followers," Shaw "found myself considering seriously...whether I had not better end my days in Vancouver, if not in Saskatoon."

But building the University of Saskatchewan--and attracting those professors in the vanguard--of which Shaw wrote so glowingly, required enormous commitment. Shortly after accepting the position of the University's first president, Walter Murray "felt fearfully blue." In a letter to his wife Christina dated 23 August 1908, Murray wrote that "this task is too big for any man to attempt in his own strength" and acknowledged Christina's support: "all through you have forgotten yourself in order to keep me in good spirits." He warned her that"Alife will not be the old placid life" but nevertheless felt an obligation, if not a calling to the job: "I cannot believe that a mistake has been made," noting that "the responsibility came unsought."

Murray went on to describe the citizens of the province who were determined to build their university. He found them "very kind. Frank, free and devoid of any nonsense...they have big ideas and risk everything."

Like Shaw later, not everyone had Saskatchewan connected in their imagination with a great university. In his letters over the next few weeks, Murray spent considerable time preparing his wife for life in the west. "I am glad I came and I believe that you will be happy," he wrote on 25 August 1908. "Conditions are rapidly changing and the hardships of one year disappear before the luxuries of the next," adding later, apparently with some surprise, "today I saw a woman ride like a man on horseback through the town." In his letter of 30 August, Murray was quick to point out that "the people here are no more wild or woolly than those in Fredericton." He finally determined that "this is the place for us. No doubt there are many drawbacks but the air acts like a tonic, the people are alert and ready to help along."

When Saskatoon was finally chosen as the site for the new University, the Daily Phoenix reported the "Verdict Received With General Rejoicing by the Citizens--Glad News Followed by Bonfires and Bell Ringing.

Mr. Isbister, president of the Saskatoon Board of Trade, sent a telegram to Dr. Murray:
We are sincerely glad that you are coming to abide with us, and we await to greet you with genuine welcome and warm outstretched hand. We are confident that the dominion of Canada will yet owe to your strong effort and intellect many good and great men and women whose minds have been trained and whose characters moulded at the university here in our city. It is a proud thought.

 

But Walter Murray knew what type of commitment would be necessary to fulfill that hope. "Dear Mr. Isbister," he wrote, "the University will be the crowning glory of Saskatoon if the city will spare no efforts stop at no sacrifice in order to make the University strong, efficient and worthy of a great province."

Cheryl Avery