With a name that could be straight out of a Harry Potter book, Adolphus Egerton Ryerson doesn’t sound like a prime candidate for the founding of a “normal” school.
But believe it or not, that’s exactly how Ryerson University got its start.
In 1852, our school’s namesake opened the first “Normal School of Upper Canada” on a rural patch of swampy land called St. James Square. There, Ryerson provided formal training for teachers and established educational norms — hence its name. Even 160 years later, the Normal School’s facade remains at the heart of our campus, serving as the entrance to the underground Recreation and Athletics Centre.
Rising out of the Kerr Hall Quad, the gym’s entrance is not the only part of Ryerson that’s a bit weird. After being established as an educational training facility, it went on to serve as a training ground for air force pilots and veterans in the years before and after the Second World War. With each new incarnation, Ryerson’s quirks multiplied.
By the time it was reinvented as the Ryerson Institute of Technology (RIT) in 1948, its eclectic course offerings included everything from architectural “draughting” to furniture crafts, jewelry, photography and even horology — otherwise known as clock making.
Despite the fact that RIT enrolment jumped from 250 to 2,000 in its first two years, the school itself didn’t quite manage to keep pace. The buildings that had housed fledgling teachers and air force pilots in the old days weren’t just a source of history — they were downright decrepit.
“The whole campus was a dump, and (our) building, an old army facility, was especially so,” says Isobel Warren, a novelist and journalism grad of ’58. “We had to tiptoe very carefully and in single file up to the second floor classrooms, because the steps sometimes collapsed under us.”
Still, student life flourished at Ryerson despite the facilities. Many of the student groups that popped up — newspapers, a student union, a glee club, a riding club — will be familiar to those enrolled today. But over the years, our campus has also given rise to plenty of less-predictable extracurriculars — putting the school practically on par with the exploits of Harry Potter’s pals at Hogwarts.
Chariot Races and the “Lamp of Learning”
One of Ryerson’s more eclectic lost traditions has its roots in the Piazza Navonna, a city square in the heart of Rome. While Ryerson’s history may not be the stuff of legends, it seems at least some former faculty wanted to make it so.
In 1929, a man named G.D.W. McRae was wandering through the Piazza Navonna when he came across an ornate bronze lamp in a little shop. As it happened, the lamp was a hand-crafted product of the 16th century Italian Renaissance, and it was sitting on the site of the ancient chariot racing stadium, Circus Maximus.
In 1948, McRae, who had become the Ryerson Institute of Technology’s director of architectural technology, brought the lamp — and chariot races — to the school. Along with his students, McRae challenged the rest of the school to an annual chariot race. Students built and pulled their own chariots, and the lamp served as the victors’ trophy.
Eventually the lamp, engraved with the winning faculty’s names, was dubbed “The Lamp of Learning” and used in convocation ceremonies. The Lamp of Learning is now on display in the Ryerson University Archives, but unfortunately the only race to remain on campus is the daily race for class.
Parties for the Populace
Not all Ryerson’s festivities were sanctioned by the school administration. Unbeknownst to the school’s higher-ups, our campus once had a reputation among eligible young bachelors as quite the party spot.
That was thanks in large part to the bachelors themselves — including Dave Devall, a radio and television arts graduate of ’58.
“I used to run stags for guys who were in from out of town,” Devall says with a laugh. “We had guys in from Oshawa, a couple from Kitchener, Woodstock. These guys were rooming and boarding in Toronto.
“Well gee, by the time it got around to April, May, they were running pretty low on funds. So I got the bright idea that I would run some stags to raise some money for these guys.”
While not strictly a campus event, the stags became somewhat notorious throughout the student populace. Devall and his friends would charge cover to help their fellow poor students get by.
“We raised some cash, and then that cash would be evenly distributed among the guys who were running short,” he says. “I mean, some of those guys and gals were down to a bowl of cereal and a loaf of bread for a week. Even in those times it was tough going. That’s something I’ve never told anybody else, but I organized those.”
A couple of Devall’s Toronto police department friends would stand in as bouncers, and some of the events were so popular they had to turn people away.
“We were careful that it didn’t reflect on the school,” Devall adds. “Nobody knew where we were from. In fact, if anybody asked we’d say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re from University of Toronto.’”
The original Miss Ryerson … a man?
While there are plenty of women on Ryerson’s campus today, that hasn’t always been the case. In 1950, according to campus yearbook The Ryersonia, girls in first-year courses at the school were outnumbered nine to one.
That might have posed a problem for the organizers of the school’s “beauties” pageant, but they took it in stride. That year, contestants for the title of “Miss Ryerson” were exclusively male, and the coveted title was awarded to Miss Wayne Campbell of the school of interior design.
The following year, Miss Pat Robinson of furniture arts became the first campus queen of the female variety. But even after taking ownership of the beauty pageant, women had to fight to be included in other activities on and off-campus.
Warren remembers being shut out of the school’s band practices in the 1950s by the dean of applied arts, Al Sauro.
“I was furious with Mr. Sauro because he wouldn’t let me into the band,” Warren says. “He would not admit girls.”
She saw a similar trend in the journalism department: “Toward the end of third year, when we were thinking ahead to jobs, I realized that girls got short shrift in journalism,” she says. “The boys were sent off to interviews at the Star, Tely or Globe. The girls, if they were lucky, were sent off to two-bit papers in the boonies.
“Ryerson opened my eyes to women’s issues and the need to fight for equality, or whatever passes for equality these days. The fight is not over.”
History that’s meant to be repeated
From 250 students to about 40,000, Ryerson has hardly stood still since Warren and Devall roamed the campus. Their time at the school was never perfect, but for Devall at least, there was a special feeling while he was there.
“There was a real feeling of camaraderie, a ‘we’re all in the same boat’ type of thing,” he says.
“We worked very, very closely together during lectures, during exam time. There was a real closeness in all three years that I was there. You helped the other person if you could.”
It’s hard to say whether this feeling from Devall’s time on campus survives, but if there’s one thing Ryerson’s student body has always excelled at, it’s having a good time. And students at the Ryerson Institute of Technology had a time-tested strategy for fun.
“We drank,” exclaims Devall.
At the time, Devall’s go-to watering hole was an establishment called Steele’s Tavern. It sat nestled between two record stores, Sam the Record Man and A&A Books & Records, on the ground where the new Student Learning Centre is now being built. Like so many students before and since, Devall recalls being given the boot as he didn’t have proper ID.
“So me and my buddies moved down to the Imperial Tavern, which is still there, on Dundas,” he said.
That’s a little piece of history to which we can all raise a glass.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Sept. 17, 2014.