It's clear that personal passions helped define the history of the Graduates' Society during its first half-century. Over the next 50 years, two World Wars and a Depression shook the world, followed by the huge undertaking of post-war reconstruction. As the shockwaves from these events hit the University, alumni would play an increasingly vital role as leaders within McGill and the wider community.
The new century had brought unprecedented growth to McGill, both in its size and its international reputation. In 1903, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy published their famous paper on Radioactivity, work which later earned both Rutherford and Soddy a Nobel Prize. Over the next few years, Chancellor Sir William Macdonald donated $3-million for new buildings, and another $3-million as an endowment. Student enrolment approached 1,400. The future must have seemed blindingly bright.
At the end of 1911, the Graduates' Society helped raise an astonishing $1.5-million in a general fundraising campaign for the University, and started planning for a graduates reunion. However, all activities were put on hold when the first shots were fired in Europe.
When war was officially declared in 1914, Principal William Peterson was in England and the school was out of session for the summer. As a result, a heavy responsibility fell to the Graduates' Society. An emergency meeting was called to discuss how the Society could best contribute to the national cause. The organization wrote to Prime Minister Robert Borden, offering to assist in any way he saw fit.
The Prime Minister responded with a request that the University provide an infantry battalion. The Society immediately went to work and within a matter of weeks raised $25,000 for uniforms and equipment. On October 1, the Governor-General arrived on campus to inspect the McGill Provisional Battalion. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the Lower Campus were new and returning students, staff and graduates. Dean of Applied Science Frank Dawson Adams and Professor Stephen Leacock eagerly volunteered, although at age 55 and 45 respectively, they were deemed too senior to serve.
The Graduates' Society ensured that the soldiers were outfitted and trained with such speed that this battalion represented the first provisional unit to be presented on parade in Canada.
The Provisional Battalion represents a watershed moment in McGill's history for two reasons: First, this unit formed the University's initial wave of volunteers, a commitment that would ultimately result in 3,059 McGill men and women serving the war effort and 363 giving their lives. Second, in a moment of crisis, the Society stepped up to meet a need when the University's administration was not in a position to respond.
Further proof of McGill's effectiveness in the war effort was the extraordinary contribution of the Faculty of Medicine. Dean H.S. Birkett, a peacetime officer of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, proposed that McGill should raise, equip and staff a complete field hospital. Made up of medicine graduates, students and nurses from the Montreal General and Royal Victoria Hospitals, the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (commonly known as the "McGill Hospital") opened in France in the fall of 1915.
Located a few miles from the front, it was a self-contained city of tents that had been donated by an Indian prince. Inside, the hospital housed 1,500 beds, about four times the capacity of the Montreal General at the time. Between 1915 and the end of the war, over 100,000 patients were treated and 11,000 surgical procedures performed. Even more impressive is the fact that, despite the outbreak of influenza and frequent German air raids toward the war's end, the McGill Hospital held its mortality rate down to less than one per cent. Word of the success reached the front lines. As the McGill News reported in 1920, soldiers told each other: "If you get wounded, try to be marked for the McGill Hospital."
During the war years, graduates also forged a deep bond between McGill alumni and University athletics. In May 1914, the former star athlete, Percival Molson, began raising money for a new stadium. When the war started, Molson passed the project on to other alumni and signed up. Handsome, well-liked and unfailingly decent, he epitomized the promise of a generation that would be decimated by the war. At 16, he was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning team, the Montreal Victorias; he was named "Best All-Around Athlete" at McGill three years in a row, a feat unmatched in the University's history; and after graduating in 1901, he became the youngest person ever named to McGill’s Board of Governors.
Molson was already fighting in Europe when the stadium, called the McGill Graduates' Stadium, opened in October 1915. He was severely wounded in Belgium in 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Although it took a year to recover from his injuries, Molson insisted on returning to the front. He was killed in action just a few weeks later on July 5, 1917. A $75,000 bequest in his will paid off the stadium's remaining construction costs. Fittingly, the complex was renamed in his honour. Molson's generosity and his commitment to McGill sports is one of many examples of alumni leaving a legacy that benefited future generations of young athletes.
With the war and the flu epidemic over, the Roaring '20s and its carefree attitudes arrived on campus. Like many student activities, McGill football had been suspended during the war and resumed in 1919. That year, Frank "Shag" Shaughnessy contributed to the general elation by coaching the McGill squad to an undefeated season and the Yates Cup. In fact, the "Big Red Steamroller" as the team was known, was so dominant that they went the entire season without giving up a single touchdown.
Unlike their previous championship in 1912, however, this time graduates around the world could share in the victory, reading about the gridiron exploits in the inaugural issue of the McGill News, launched by the Graduates' Society in December of 1919. And, at each home game, thousands of fans cheered the team on from the stands of the Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, filling the air with songs like "Hail, Alma Mater" and yells of "We’re out for gore, we’re out for gore!"
In 1921, the McGill News summoned graduates back to their alma mater for what was originally dubbed the Victory Reunion. The Graduates' Society took the lead in organizing this first-ever Homecoming which also marked the centenary of the University's official founding in 1821. Alumni, separated by time and global upheaval, flooded back to Montreal. The McGill News reported that the day before festivities started, graduates "were coming into town by every train and from all parts of the country."
The weekend's most important event was a general meeting, called by the Graduates' Society, where Principal Sir Arthur Currie, a distinguished Canadian General, and Society President Paul Sise addressed the graduates. A remarkable 3,000 alumni – nearly half of all living graduates at the time – filled the downtown Capitol Theatre. After the reunion, one attendee wrote, "There are thousands of McGill graduates who will never cease to look back on the centennial reunion as one of the landmarks of a lifetime." The overwhelming success of the gathering demonstrates the indispensable role alumni have played, and continue to play in maintaining the deep bond that exists between the University and its students.
The Graduates' Society was less successful in bringing to life the long-held dream of a campus gymnasium. The desire for a gym is on record as far back as Principal Dawson’s time. In his Annual Lecture of 1889 he noted, "I cherish the faith and hope…look forward to the time… that we shall have… a new University gymnasium." Previous attempts to raise the necessary capital had failed. In the early 1930s, Principal Currie approached the Society once again about mounting a campaign, urging graduates to "get it done."
Despite the worsening Depression, members believed the time was right. The Graduates' Society consisted of 18 active branches, 3,000 members and more than 10,000 living degree-holders, who remained untapped as a financial resource. In 1936 the fundraising campaign began, with the ambitious goal of raising three-quarters of a million dollars. This amount would build an armoury, gym, swimming pool and hockey rink, among other facilities.
Unfortunately, the target proved unattainable because of the lingering economic hardship. By 1938, less than a quarter of the money had been raised. Ironically, this included $3,100 raised through the sale of McGill-brand cigarettes, specially designed for the campaign.
Despite the setback, the Society would not be discouraged. Plans were scaled back. An unused bequest from Lady Strathcona, donated 20 years earlier, was put toward its original purpose of building an armoury. By 1939, the Sir Arthur Currie Gymnasium was in operation, although the General had not lived to see it. And, sadly, it was ready just in time to provide training space for another set of young McGill soldiers.
During WWII, students, faculty, staff and graduates again answered the call. In total, 6,298 men and women served with the Armed and Auxiliary Forces, of whom 287 gave their lives. As with the First World War, the Graduates' Society felt a responsibility to recognize and support McGill's contribution to the war effort. The McGill News was sent to alumni serving overseas and each issue carried a section entitled "On His Majesty’s Service," containing news of McGill personnel on active duty.
In addition, the Society presented the United States destroyer-escort ship Begor with a bronze plaque commemorating the fact that it was named in honour of a McGill medicine graduate, Fay Broughton Begor, who had been killed in action and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his valour.
But the most important component of the Society's response was the War Memorial Campaign, intended to create a monument to all who served and to provide a facility that would enhance campus life for student-veterans. Under the leadership of Graduates' Society President Eric Leslie and Secretary Betty McNab, the three-year campaign nearly doubled its original goal, raising over $750,000 for the purpose of adding a memorial swimming pool to the Currie Gym.
The campaign stirred the imaginations of graduates previously inactive in the Society. Money poured in from as far away as Africa and South America. A group in England, unable to send money out of post-war Britain, purchased and shipped tiles for the swimming pool. An elderly graduate in California, despite crushing medical bills, submitted a token contribution of $1 to show her sympathy to the cause. In the end, the War Memorial Campaign revealed the Graduates' Society's growing skill at inspiring alumni by instilling campaigns with a greater symbolism and sense of purpose.
Just as the University experienced a post-war boom, so did the Graduates' Society. The War Memorial Campaign, coupled with a second successful Victory Reunion in 1946, caused a spike in alumni interest and participation in the organization. By 1947, the Society had close to 40 branches and 6,000 members. With this constantly increasing network of resources, alumni once again found themselves in the position to fill a specific University need.
McGill's enrolment had ballooned by 150 per cent in the post-war years, and new sources of funding were desperately needed. Therefore, following a trend in North American universities, the Graduates' Society abolished its system of membership dues and instituted a program of annual giving.
The Alma Mater Fund officially came into existence in 1948, under the direction of renowned Canadian business tycoon and McGill grad, E.P. Taylor. In what has become legendary in alumni annals, Taylor drummed up enthusiasm for the new program by criss-crossing the country in his Grumman Mallard amphibious plane. As Fund Secretary F. Lyle Pattee wrote in the News, Taylor was able to "drop down when and where the graduates please."
During the campaign's first summer, Taylor visited 31 of the Society’s 40 active branches. Ultimately, his leadership – and perhaps the novelty of his transportation – paid off. In its first year, the Alma Mater Fund set a North American fundraising record, collecting over $137,000.
At the beginning of the campaign, the McGill News ran a plea from Taylor to graduates. In it, he explained that a small annual donation served the same function as the yearly interest from a large, one-time gift, which only a few could make. By giving a little each year, he famously wrote, graduates could thus serve the University as "a living endowment."
His reasoning hit home then, and has continued to connect with graduates ever since. In 2009, annual giving garnered more than $9-million. For nearly 60 years, the program has run so smoothly, with so little fanfare, that its contribution is easy to take for granted. And yet, an argument could be made that the Alma Mater Fund (now part of the University's Annual Fund) is the single greatest legacy of McGill’s alumni.