Chapter 4. University Life
I owe my intellectual life to an unusually dedicated social worker. The Shinamans entirely failed to comprehend my potential. “As soon as you finish high school,” Joe warned, “you’re going to get a job and pay full board here, or find somewhere else to live.”
Children’s Aid records for 1951 resonate with a humdrum tone: “Johnny, now 19 years of age, and his brother David, two years younger, have been in this home for ten years... Mrs. Shinaman says: ‘Johnny’s future is clear: he’s a working boy, already experienced. He’s been an office boy; now he’s working in a printing plant. My husband got him the job.’ ”
“But I want to be an architect! ” I pleaded with my worker. Orca huffed: “He can’t afford university, and we can’t afford to send him.” Her bitterness was exacerbated by late-life diabetes, which she blamed on the stress occasioned by “caring for the boys all these years.”
Suddenly, in March 1952, the CAS record springs to life with urgency. A new social worker was assigned to my case. It is too late to thank her; when I finally got my CAS records at the age of sixty, she was dead. But in 1952 her interest in my future was intense. Bypassing Orca, she phoned to encourage me: “Apply for a bursary they’re available for boys like you.”
Orca’s reaction was instant fury. “I won’t be gone round like that” she fumed, and compelled Joe to denounce the new worker to her supervisor. In turn, the supervisor records (after contacting me): “Johnny says Orca’s thinking is more emotional than logical, and nothing that happens in that house disturbs his school work. Johnny insists: I live two separate lives.” The supervisor concludes diplomatically: “The boys’ behaviour is too controlled by foster mother, but it is too late to move them from this home, which they now consider to be theirs.”
May 1952: My new worker writes: “Johnny has won a scholarship awarded by Ontario for one of the highest standings in the province.” But studying Architecture would not be easy. The cost was greater than Joe’s annual salary. Even my few hundred dollars in savings were not in my control. As my worker noted: “His foster mother does his banking so he is not sure how much he has.”
Now the Shinamans’ double-dipping came to light: “Worker has learned that Johnny is paying fo. mo. $5 a week to add to the board of $7 a week she is receiving from the agency.” I was paying all year round, out of summer and part-time earnings.
My new worker helped me submit an application to the Dominion Bursary Programme. I was rejected, because the Shinamans’ income was rated sufficient to borrow the money to put a boy through college. My worker contacted the Programme and explained that I was not an adopted son: “He’s boarding there, paying his own way with some help from the CAS.” The committee reconsidered and I got my bursary $500 the maximum amount awarded.
Next my worker convinced the University College Registrar to interview me. Registrar McWilliams was one of the sweetest men I ever met. Every wrinkle of his aging face exuded good will. He listened to my life story for 30 minutes and waived my tuition fees. That was worth $400. The CAS promised to look after my medical and dental bills and allowed my clothing allowance to continue. If I saved every penny from my summer job, and worked part-time after classes each school day, I would just be able to make it through one college year and into another summer job.
Orca and Joe reluctantly agreed that I could live with them while attending university provided I paid $50 a month board (the market rate at that time). Their demand obliterated my last shred of loyalty. I began to repulse every effort to “parent” me. Eventually Joe got his dander up.
Memory still preserves that crisis of May 1952, but fortunately my worker also recorded it. Orca and Joe both phoned and, in the worker’s words: “Mr. and Mrs. Shinaman insist that Johnny must be removed from their home immediately. I attempted to interpret to them the nervous strain that even a good student is under during final exams. I know from friends with children that the whole family sighs with relief when the exams are over. I asked if they would consider allowing him to remain until he completes his exams, and they acquiesced to this suggestion.”
Since the CAS was legally responsible for me until age 21, my worker made inquiries about moving me, but a few days later she writes that the Shinamans reversed themselves. They would allow me to remain as a boarder, but terminated responsibility as foster parents. In retrospect, I feel some pity for their bewilderment. They had no idea what to do with an ugly duckling turned star scholar.
My CAS record ends on my twenty-first birthday, August 24, 1954. I am recorded as a skinny “6 feet tall and 133 pounds,” and the worker continues: “Johnny dropped in for an official leave-taking. I told him that the correspondence in the record showed that his grandfather was well educated, and the fact that his mother was unable to go home was due to the objection of his grandfather’s second wife. Johnny seems content to leave his background behind him. This case may be closed.”
Actually, I told her to burn the files. I had my own life to live. Happily she did not do so, and I have the privilege of reading these accounts a lifetime later.
If they wanted my money the Shinamans had no choice but to allow me an autonomous life. I came and went as I pleased. I became an atheist. I joined the CCF, a radical political party opposite to their conservative choice. I refused to be cheap labour. If they assigned household chores or repairs they must pay me a fair wage.
I never had a real father, but I have learned that the boy is father to the man. My true father is little Johnny, an astonishing survivor, and I love him dearly.
Self-discovery at university
I did not enter Architecture because I realized almost too late that I was not good enough: I would become a Chief Draftsman, but never an Architect. After reading an article on the newly developing social sciences (by Stuart Chase in Reader’s Digest) , I chose to enrol there instead.
My first professors left a lifelong impression. Marcus Long began his philosophy course by thundering against the shibboleths of conventional wisdom. "I’m going to find whatever beliefs you hold most sacred and expose them to the bright light of logical analysis." Leo Zakuta, with droll wit, seduced me into the delights of sociology. “Frosty” Steer, a comic, self-mocking psychologist, promised to reveal the tricks our senses play on us but I hoped he’d help me comprehend the tragedies of my childhood.
Fortunately I was too marginal, too much Shrimp and Brain, to be caught up in standard forms of teenage rebellion gangs and delinquency. My anger festered for years, waiting for a legitimate eruption in newspaper columns, in pamphlets and protest marches and sit-ins.
I became best friends with Allan Millard. Fifty years later we’re still canoeing and camping together, and marching in anti-war demonstrations. Allan’s father was leader of the Steelworkers Union in Canada. Allan combined intellect with social conscience, and he was a polished social mixer. He helped improve my social skills, and in turn, when he ran for office in student government, I organized his campaign. He won.
Allan also introduced me to "classical music." This taste does not come easily to a working-class boy. Allan started with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I rejoiced, and reached for more. Soon I was listening to Mozart and Bach, Verdi and Handel. Playing classical music became another way of goading Joe, who never listened to "egghead stuff." Ironically, it brought me closer to Orca, who began to reveal her long-quelled love of fine music, even opera and ballet.
Socialism provided a perfect outlet for my childhood rage, fuelling scorn for the false consciousness of a working-class “father” who voted Conservative. As much from contempt of the Shinamans as from ideological conviction, I got involved in the election campaign of Joe Noseworthy, our local CCF candidate. I organized a neighbourhood CCF Youth Club by standing outside the local high school, recruiting members with pamphlets I created.
I still have my first pamphlet: a sheet of paper folded to make four pages, printed in green on white. Page 1: “Blow on this spot; if it turns blue, someday you'll be a millionaire. If not, the way to a better life for you is to ...” (here the reader must turn the page) “join other young people in the CCF youth.” There’s an artistic layout of drawings and paragraphs about Discussions, Socials, Good times together. Then (I later regretted) a red-baiting section: “STOP COMMUNISM: hunger and poverty must be banished from the earth. Guns alone cannot stop an idea. Only a better idea can do it.”
My first year at university ended with good grades; I even passed gymnasium, but failed swimming. Yes, in those days swimming was required to obtain a BA. I won a large scholarship which, combined with summer earnings, made it possible for me to stop working part-time in my second year.
Second-year students chose a major. I settled on psychology. Mistake! Second year was not the fun of Frosty Steer, but boring labs and rat experiments. I soon fell far behind. Classes could not compete for attention with my expanding extra-curricular activities.
I was elected to the provincial executive of the CCF Youth, where I met people who would eventually become major politicians. I began writing for The Varsity. I helped organize CCF politics on campus. I became a director of a co-operative summer camp, Three Arrows. I joined with Allan to found a Civil Liberties club on campus. To formalize my new life I changed my name from Johnny to John.
My most ambitious project was to gather a half-dozen fellow students to publish a leftwing newspaper, CAMPUS COMMENT. Mindful of the risks in those McCarthyite days, we announced its mandate not as a socialist voice, but as “affirming the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” My name was the only one in the first issue everyone else hid behind their initials.
Volume 1, Number 1 (we were optimistic!) names the editor as "JOHN H.R. LEE." Back in grade eight, I decided that Johnny Lee was not imposing enough. I added two middle names. When I left the CAS they surprised me with the fact that my mother had originally named me John Alan Lee, but I didn’t start using that name until I got my first passport in 1956.
I continued to publish and edit Campus Comment until graduation. Small stacks were distributed around campus at Varsity distribution sites. Over the years, Campus Comment steadily improved. Student authors grew more relaxed about including their full names. Allan's father donated paper with a printed masthead, complete with union label, and allowed us to use a professional Gestetner in the Steelworker's offices.
By Christmas of 1953 I was so far behind in psych assignments that I would surely fail my year. Could I rescue myself? I visited my sociology professor, S. D. Clark. He had taken a shine to me; perhaps he would pull some strings. Those were not the days of shopping periods and withdrawal dates and easy switches of credit courses. Every programme was in locked step: fail one course and you failed your year.
I persuaded Del Clark that I would make a better sociologist than psychologist, and he soon proved how much power he had on campus. I was allowed to drop my two worst psych courses and enrol, in January, in two courses already in mid-stream: economics and political science. Clark felt I had a good chance of “catching up” with the fall-term work.
After the final exams in May, I held my breath, waiting for the exam results. In those days, results were published in the newspapers the same day reports were mailed, so that most students learned from the newspapers whether they “passed” or not. Miraculously, I passed with First Class, and I won more scholarships. I fully justified Clark's faith in me.
I did have one failure. There seemed no way to escape the damned water. Swim classes at Hart House were in the nude. Any poor bastard who got a hard-on was instantly japed. My swimming had not improved since high school. I would lower myself at the shallow end, thrust my legs against the pool wall to launch myself into the middle, and dog-paddle in panic to the other end.
That summer I went searching for an obliging physician and got myself excused forever from academic swimming. My third year of university flew by, full of activity in clubs, production of Campus Comment, and leadership in the CCF Youth and Camp Three Arrows.
I managed to achieve first-class honours again and earn a reputation among my fellow students as a super-organized person. They even bought “Thermofax” copies of my lecture notes and textbook commentaries, and these sales were a welcome addition to my meagre income.
At home, Joe persuaded Orca that it was time to sell and move. Our solidly British neighbourhood was being "broken up" by immigrants. First it was Mr. Roycroft next door, selling to an “Eye-talian.” Joe railed about Roycroft's betrayal. Then old widow Gardiner on the other side. That was a big loss to me for years, I’d enjoyed growing vegetables at the far end of her garden.
In May of 1955 Joe announced his move to the suburbs. I was horrified. The new house was many miles from campus, much too far to travel by bicycle. I also lost my beloved rec room. And it would be totally impractical to keep the CCF Youth going among the high-school students of Oakwood Avenue.
It was time to leave the Shinamans. But where to go? My friends told me the man to see was Bob Miller. Even as I write this chapter fifty years later, Bob remains my oldest living benefactor. He changed many lives in his time; in 1955 he changed my life forever.
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