Wallace – "the principled Principal"
For Queen’s alumni who came of age in the WWII era, the passing of the years has not dimmed their fond memories of Principal Robert C. Wallace.
In many ways, he's the stuff of legends. Principal Robert Charles Wallace was both a geologist and geographer who explored northern Manitoba by dogsled and canoe while discovering, documenting, and helping the government make use of the area’s vast mineral wealth. He counted among his friends prospectors and others who would not, as he put it, “measure up to the conventional standards of morality.”
Wallace was the first scientist to be Principal of Queen’s (there would not be another until biologist Bill Leggett in 1994), but he oversaw the establishment of schools, departments and institutes in many fields: Nursing, Physical Health and Education (now Kinesiology), Graduate Studies, Industrial Relations, Local Government, English for Francophone students, and the Biological Research Station at Lake Opinicon.
Most importantly, during his 15-year tenure (1936-51), “R.C.” – as colleagues referred to him – saw Queen’s through some of its most difficult times: the lean final years of the Great Depression, the short-staffed turmoil of WWII, and the beginning of the Cold War – the latter being a period during which he staunchly defended academic and religious freedoms of students and faculty alike. Noting this, Queen’s historian Fred Gibson, BA’42, MA’44, LLD’91, wrote that Wallace “should be forever honoured by the friends of Queen’s University and by that larger company of those who believe in freedom under the law.”
Beloved, admired, and fondly known as “Wallace of Queen’s,” he was made for this place, people said; Queen’s had claimed him as an honorary grad as early as 1930.
Even after 65 years, Alfred Bader, Sc’45, Arts’46, MSc’47, LLD’86, is one of Wallace’s most steadfast admirers. He recently donated a million dollars to endow a scholarship for refugees in Wallace’s name. “When I think of Principal Wallace, I think of the Book of Amos, 5:24,” says Bader: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Bader has a very personal reason to be thankful to Wallace. As a young Jewish refugee from Austria via England and an internment camp in Quebec, Bader was refused admission to McGill and U of T because they had quotas for Jewish students, something Queen’s never had. While the Board of Trustees did consider quotas and similar measures, such as personal interviews for all Jewish students and higher grade requirements, under Wallace’s leadership such restrictions were dismissed as “discriminatory and objectionable.”
When the teenaged Alfred arrived on campus in the fall of 1941, Colonel Hubert Stetham, the former director of Internment Operations, wrote a letter to the Whig-Standard demanding that “enemy aliens” be kicked out of Queen’s. Registrar Jean Royce, BA’30, LLD’68, then spoke personally to Bader, assuring him that Principal Wallace had no intention of even considering Stetham’s demands. Such a stance was absolutely typical of Wallace.
So much about Wallace makes him stand out in the history of the University and the memories of alumni. His academic expansion was accompanied by new construction: buildings for Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, the Students’ Memorial Union, Adelaide Hall residence, and Clark Hall for Tech Supplies and books. Enrolment doubled. He made particular efforts to assist soldiers returning from war (appointing the also-legendary “A.M. Padre” Laverty, LLD’91), but wanted to ensure that Queen’s didn’t grow so large that it became impersonal.
Wallace was born in 1881 on the Orkney Islands (home of his wife, too), and studied both in Scotland and Germany, earning MA, BSc, DSc, and PhD degrees and a Carnegie Fellowship. He came to Canada in 1910 to lecture in geology and mineralogy at the University of Manitoba, and became department head two years later. He was concurrently government Commissioner for Northern Manitoba, a member of the Dominion Geological Survey and later Manitoba’s Commissioner of Mines, hence his canoe and dog sled adventures.
In 1928, he became President of the University of Alberta where, among other things, he founded the Banff School of Fine Arts.
During his years at Queen’s, Wallace became known as a national leader in education and was instrumental in the shaping of UNESCO. After his retirement, he became the executive director of Arctic Institute of North America, among several scholarly and scientific affiliations. In all, he received 20 honorary doctorates.
Controversially, Wallace, like many academics of the ‘30s, was also interested in the study of eugenics. While at Alberta, he had published a 1934 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal entitled “The Quality of the Human Stock,” stating that “the moral foundation to the science … is that life must be protected and saved, no matter how inferior in physical or mental quality that life may be.” Wallace noted with concern that the educated classes generally had smaller families and “we are rapidly breeding out quality.” He had concluded that “If life is sacred, it is all the more important that life from the first be of high quality.”
Despite holding such views, Wallace did not see himself as dwelling in an ivory tower. In a 1955 Queen’s Quarterly article entitled “As I Look Back,” Wallace described his belief in people of all walks of life. “We are all given at least one talent, if not more. I have not found anyone in all my wanderings who was not in some regard better than I am, and from whom I could not learn something,” he wrote.
A Colleague's View of Wallace
Principal Wallace is a man of deeply spiritual nature; he is an elder in Chalmers United Church, Kingston, and unless something prevents, he is in his pew every Sunday morning. The remainder of the day is reserved for rest and thought. He does not give or accept Sunday invitations.
His personal habits are simple and abstemious. He smokes little, uses no alcohol, and is always unpretentious. …
There is great kindness in him. Before Church every Sunday morning and sometimes oftener, he visits the students and staff who may be in hospital. … He writes letters of sympathy promptly and feelingly, not as a formality but as a natural human act. He is completely unselfish.
From Wallace of Queen's (1951) By W.E. McNeill, his Vice-Principal
“One becomes the more deeply impressed, as the years go past, with the great reservoir of goodwill and kindliness which exists in human nature. Generosity is a much greater force than selfishness or envy, or jealousy. … The doctrine of the essential wickedness of human nature has no place either in my philosophy or in my experience. The good is much greater than the evil, and in all but relatively few cases, prevails and gives life its character. … No conscious effort toward betterment, whether individual or collective, is ever lost. It is held on the lap of time.”
Principal Wallace retired from Queen’s in 1951, when he was 70, but still worked hard attending conferences and meetings, visiting alumni, speaking and writing, crisscrossing the country by airplane in a way none of his predecessors had. He died January 29, 1955.
His conscious efforts toward the betterment of Queen’s and those around him will not be lost, nor will his memory as Wallace of Queen’s, “the principled Principal”.