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Ken Leffeck

Dalhousie Reminiscences

By Ken Leffeck

I arrived at the chemistry department on the morning of the 5th September 1961 as a newly appointed Assistant Professor, directly from a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the National Research Council in Ottawa. I had been hired solely on the basis of my CV, as the departmental budget did not stretch to bringing in candidates for an interview. My appointment brought the faculty complement up to eight. When I sought out the Head of the Department, Walter Chute, he was not in his office, but his secretary told me that he was working in one of the lecture theatres. In that theatre I found him standing on the lecturer's bench busily repairing the slide screen. My first thought was that this was a place where, if you wanted anything done you would have to do it yourself.

In my early years this was indeed the case as the total departmental non-academic staff consisted of a store-keeper and a secretary. The secretary was Walter Chute's, but she also served as secretary to the whole department. Every member of the department had a telephone but all were served by the same line, so making or receiving a telephone call frequently took several hours, especially since the secretary often spent an hour or two on the phone to her friends in the afternoon. She had a lot of time on her hands since few members of the faculty used her typing services. The reason for this was that every page of the manuscript of a research paper invariably came back with about six mistakes. In those days the only solution was to have the pages retyped. The manuscript would then come back with the six original mistakes corrected and six new ones in their place. We therefore had to find other typists, frequently our wives or lady friends.

The faculty wives, in those days when all of the faculty were male, played a major role maintaining the social life of the small department through the winter routine of dinner parties. Those already in the department welcomed the newcomers and inducted them into the Dalhousie community. None worked harder at this than Betty Chute. Her dinner parties are still remembered for the quality and size of her roasts of beef and her magnificent pies. Being a true Haligonian, she was ideally placed to introduce newcomers to the finer points of Halifax life. Sometimes her advice crossed the line into directives, such as, defining the proper areas of Halifax in which a Dalhousie professor should live. We were instructed that we must live south of Quinpool Road. A few persons in the Dalhousie community had ignored this proscription, but were looked upon as having let the side down in some ill-defined way. Since housing was quite difficult to find in Halifax at the time, and very costly south of Quinpool Road, we had to locate outside of the city limits, as did several other members of the department. Outside the city, which at that time reached only as far as the Dutch Village Road, placed one in an unclassified area, and was therefore acceptable.

Class sizes in the early sixties were limited only by the size of the lecture theatre. Since the large theatre at that time had about 192 seats, each section of the first year class would enroll 200 on the assumption that after the first week there would always be a 5 per cent absentee rate. The laboratories were equally crowded with 60 or more students working in a laboratory with only one exit. Despite the obvious dangers, we had to make the best of the situation. The students worked shoulder to shoulder so that it was very difficult to get down the aisles to supervise them personally. In one of my early years, I was doing this and found myself standing almost in contact with a tall athletic young lady who, when I asked her how she was doing, fainted into my arms. Clearing a path before me, I carried her out of the laboratory, but since there was nowhere to put her down, I had to continue down the two flights of stairs to the ladies' room. When I picked her up in the laboratory, I did it easily, but at the bottom of the first flight of stairs I was breathing heavily, and at the bottom of the second flight, I was staggering under my load. I reached the ladies' room, which consisted of an ante-room with a couch, separate from the room with the toilets. I collapsed onto the couch with the lady beneath me and momentarily had some trouble extracting my arms from beneath her. At that moment I had the time to think that if anyone entered the room at that moment, my career at Dalhousie would be short-lived. However, no one came in, and I beat a hasty retreat to the departmental secretary and told her to go and assist my student. After that I insisted that the department buy a stretcher to carry out fallen students, but we never had to use it since the working conditions in the laboratories were improved soon after that incident. The student involved never referred to the incident afterwards and neither did I.

The equipment in the laboratories fell quite a lot short of what I had been used to in my training at University College London and at the National Research Council in Ottawa. In particular, we were supposed to teach volumetric analysis with burettes which had a piece of rubber tubing containing a glass bead instead of a glass stopcock. Since I had done an 18-month stint in an industrial analytical laboratory of May and Baker Limited, then one of England's leading drug manufactures, where we had to be able to titrate to 0.02 ml before we were allowed to work as an analyst, I found it impossible to adjust to this aspect of the first-year laboratory course. From that point all-glass burettes became standard issue for the first-year classes.

Since we had only one storekeeper in the sixties, each member of the department had a key to the stores and could take whatever they needed whenever they needed it. The only exception was the absolute alcohol. In my first year I was working on a kinetic study in an alcohol solvent. Since the only time for research was at the weekend, I would draw my absolute alcohol on Friday, just enough for my work on Saturday and Sunday. Soon I found that on Saturday morning, my alcohol bottle was only one-third full, and hiding it in various places in the lab had no effect on the high rate of evaporation. Finally I could not put up with this impediment to my research, so one Friday I added a small spoonful of phenolphthalein to the alcohol bottle. Two-thirds of the alcohol disappeared and I suddenly realised that I had no idea of the proper dose of this laxative. For a week I worried that someone might have suffered more than a trivial effect from the laxative, but no one was off work sick and there were no reports of anyone having been taken to the hospital, so I gradually relaxed. However, I never did anything like that again, and I never lost another drop of alcohol.

The sixties were a time of rapid development in the department, both with respect to new equipment and additional faculty members. Also, we got our first technical assistant in 1963 and our first electronics technician in 1970. That finally rid us of the trouble of packaging broken electronic equipment and shipping it to Montreal for repair. However, not everything has changed for the better. Immediately upon my arrival in 1961, I was allocated my own parking spot directly outside the back door of the Chemistry Building with my name painted on a wooden sign. Of course, there was no charge for parking, although we did have some problems with the parking. Someone had a regular habit of siphoning gas from our gas tanks whenever we worked late at night. After a lot of discussion of this problem it was decided to put out a bait, a can of gasoline in which we had dissolved the maximum amount of sugar. The sceptics amongst us thought that nobody would be stupid enough to fall for that trick, but the can disappeared and we had no further visits from the gas thief. Within a few years parking fees were instituted, our reserved signs were removed, and things have gone downhill from there ever since.

The department has always had its quota of eccentrics. When I arrived, there was Russ Webber, who claimed to have only one haircut per year, although it may have been two. In any event, he would appear at his first class in the fall with his hair shaved to within 2 mm of his head and as the winter progressed he would gradually develop a full head of hair. He certainly never had a haircut between September and April, which was probably a very practical approach to the Halifax winters. Russ' final solution to that problem was to move to Montreal.

Since salaries were painfully low, some faculty members had other activities to raise a little extra cash. Ken Hayes collected scrap metal, and any piece of metal that was not firmly attached to the building quickly disappeared. Someone put forward the suggestion that Ken would pick up any piece of metal, no matter how small. It was claimed that he would take even a one-inch piece of copper wire if it was left on the open bench. The claim was soon tested by experiment and we found that the hypothesis was indeed true.

Paul Splitstone joined the department the year before I did. He was a bachelor and quite happy in that state, since he required little outside the laboratory to give him contentment. However, certain ladies felt that he would be much better off if he had a wife to look after him and set about finding a suitable candidate for the post. They finally settled on the daughter of a very good Halifax family. She had passed the perfection of her youth by a number of years, but it was felt that any lack of physical attractiveness was made up for by her family connections. The lady, for by no stretch of the imagination could she be called a girl, seemed quite well disposed to the alliance and her mother, perhaps sensing that this was the last chance, was enthusiastic beyond measure. Only Paul was reluctant to embrace the idea. He developed a sudden and overwhelming nostalgia for his home state of Ohio and fled back there after only three years in Halifax. It is remarkable how the state of Ohio could exert such a powerful allegiance on a young man who otherwise exhibited an intellectual moderation in all matters.

During the sixties the university was still quite small, so it was easy and even essential to develop friendships with persons in other disciplines. The primary vehicle for this was the Faculty Association, not yet a union. With no faculty club in the university, the association tried to act in both capacities. One of the main events of the year was the association's visit to Oland's Brewery, where the free beer flowed all evening. We always had some sort of program, but no memory of them has survived the ravages of time. This fine tradition came to an abrupt end the year that one member of the faculty, having availed himself too liberally of his host's generosity, declined to leave at the late hour that this was asked of him. When a member of the brewery staff tried to escort him to the door, he resisted physically, leading to an ungentlemanly scuffle. Since the brewery staff member's name happened to be Oland, no further invitations were received from the brewery. It should be stated explicitly that the offender was not a member of the chemistry department. Perhaps the root of the problem was that our Presbyterian President Kerr would allow no consumption of alcoholic beverages anywhere on campus at any time. This problem was circumvented by holding all our social events in the facilities of King's College, where the more worldly Anglicans took a different view on such matters. However, President Kerr retired in 1963 and Henry Hicks became President. That marked the beginning of major changes at Dalhousie, not the least of which was the consumption of alcohol at all social events. Within a couple of decades we were disposing of several hundred thousand dollars' worth of alcoholic drinks per year.

In the mid-sixties the old Chemistry Building was joined up with the old MacDonald Library, giving chemistry some much needed extra space. However, we were expected to carry on teaching despite the fact that we were essentially part of a construction site. Since the Chemistry Department sits directly on the bedrock, it was necessary to drill into this and do a little minor blasting right up against and even a little under the walls of the building around the large chemistry theatre. We were forced to lecture over the noise of the drills and pause during the actual blasts. One phase of the construction required the large windows in the then end wall of the large chemistry theatre to be bricked up. I vividly remember going down to give my lecture to find workmen trundling large wheelbarrows of mortar across the front of the lecture room and passing it up by the bucketful to bricklayers perched halfway up the wall. Apparently I was expected to give my lecture notwithstanding this small distraction, but on that occasion I felt that I was outclassed by the entertainment value of the construction workers, so I withdrew.

One of the charms of Dalhousie in the sixties, and later right into the eighties, was that it was not over-administered. Things happened and events took place with everyone doing their job as best they could in the circumstances in which they found themselves. There were few regulations, and many procedures were developed on the spot to suit the particular need of the moment. There were a lot of frustrations, but they were the sort of frustrations which forced you into activity to find a way around your problem. The frustrations of the modern bureaucratic university seem to be, more often than not, the sort of frustrations which force inactivity in the face of an overwhelming bureaucracy. Perhaps it is just that the old days, when you were young and vigorous, always appear, in hindsight, to have been better and more exciting than the present.