Images of Acadia’s past

New book covers history of campus community

Wendy Elliott
Published on August 27, 2013
Tom Sheppard‘s history of Acadia University 

By Wendy Elliott

There is an awful lot to like about Tom Sheppard‘s history of Acadia University that came out recently as part of Nimbus Publishing’s Images of Our Past series.

Sheppard, who grew up in Wolfville, went to Acadia and even taught political science for a while, knows his topic first hand. He has also done his reading -  poring over decades of Acadia Bulletin articles and other archival material.

His introduction of two incoming students from Quebec in 1963 - Jane Cayford and Wayne Hills – immediately piques a reader’s interest. Both return to Wolfville after graduation: Cayford becoming the university registrar and Hills a local dentist. For Sheppard, they embody the Acadia spirit - part geography and part tangible feeling of community.

Investigating the university’s early structure, the construction of campus buildings, student life and benefactors, Sheppard located more than 100 archival photographs showing early campus life. He includes stories and anecdotes from generations of students on everything from residence life, to academia, to special events and clubs. He also traces alumni, notable faculty members, presidents and outstanding students. A dozen chapters examine topics as varied as Acadia during two world wars and campus organizations.

Begun as an alternative to less religiously tolerant universities, Acadia was founded in 1838 with 21 students. John Pryor and Edmund Crawley, two Baptists from Halifax, were the driving force, but even Joe Howe weighed in on the fledgling school.

There is less detail on what Dr. Margaret Conrad called the Maritime Baptists forward attitude toward women's education. That position was confirmed in 1828 after six women walked from Chester to Wolfville to protest the need for "recognition of their talents." In 1878, Seminary House opened and women were accepted as students.

I was fascinated by the debate over academic freedom and the Athenaeum scandal of 1959, as documented by then history prof Alan Wilson. An outspoken student writer Robert Fiander and advertisements by the Aristocrat Tavern in Kentville when Wolfville was a dry town caused real drama at Acadia during that era. The 1966 split between the university and the Baptist denomination was another important episode from the last century.

Sheppard delved into various families that had several generations closely connected with the university. The Levy family and the Olivers come to mind immediately, but there are others. The book’s people stories are delightful. As editor of The Athenaeum in the mid 1960s, Sheppard must have enjoyed gleaning such lively tales as “bed pushing.”

With 24 pages of sports history, Sheppard devoted plenty of space to what many believe is the dominant focus of Acadia life after academia. I thought it passing strange that the contribution of drama profs Evelyn Garbary and Michael Bawtree were not mentioned. In the 1970s, Garbary was one of the founders of the internationally recognized Mermaid Theatre and Bawtree transformed the old Acadia ice rink into a theatre with a magnificent thrust stage.

Recent history is more open to conjecture, so Sheppard steered clear of the schism that divided the administration and a group of alumni in the late 1990s. Acadia Today, which is the final chapter, chronicles the Irving family’s considerable donation to Acadia, along with the creation of the Fountain Learning Commons in the old McConnell dining hall. Sheppard quotes current president Ray Ivany on the university’s connection to the community of Wolfville and the wider Annapolis Valley. His conclusion that Acadia is one of the top-ranked undergraduate universities in the country and a marvelous place to acquire a degree no one will argue with. It has a history worth documenting.

Sheppard also published Historic Wolfville: Grand Pre & Countryside with Nimbus in 2003. His Acadia University book is on sale at the Box of Delights bookstore in Wolfville.