The Night the Lights Went Out in the Champlain Great Hall
Friday night dinners in the Great Hall at Champlain College were always a festive occasion. Preceding this weekly ritual, the junior fellows, as distinguished Canadian historian and Master of the college, Bill Morton referred to the mostly rough-around-the-edges young men who made the college’s first quadrangle their home, gathered in the upstairs Junior Common Room. There, in the comfortable confines of the Ron Thom designed and furnished upper chamber, Champlain residents mingled to sip, lap or throw back inexpensive sherry, a weekly ceremony that ensured a convivial gathering in the Great Hall downstairs. These weekly events began in January 1967 the first year that the College welcomed residents, all of whom had been billeted throughout Peterborough since September awaiting its completion.
It will always remain a mystery who to blame for providing sherry once a week to such callow youth, many if not all, who had never encountered sherry previously and treated it as if it were libation akin to lemon gin or some other ‘girly’ drink, much to the dismay and embarrassment of the Champlain porter, Mr. Scoble. He was a fine Brit who carried out the often thankless task of the porter with the resolute determination borne by generations of Brits for whom service was a duty or calling, not merely employment, but whose sorry task it was on these once-a-week occasions to pour and observe with reserved aplomb the often sorry consequences of his actions.
No doubt some in the upper reaches of either the college or the university at large believed that young men, even the most rough-hewn, should learn to drink alcoholic beverages in a gentlemanly fashion as an integral part of their academic experience as opposed to the all-too familiar ritual near-snorting of dirt-cheap draught in the local city taverns, a practice that seldom involved any learning other than figuring out how to navigate successfully the five miles from town to college in the absence of any regular bus service all the while attempting to remain upright. It was a courageous undertaking. As well-meaning as the university authorities were in this regard, the reality was that for many junior fellows the sherry before Friday dinners was an inexpensive means to kick start a weekend.
On this particular Friday evening, sometime in late October 1967 a more formal dinner than the normal daily dinners had been arranged. And a formal dinner or at least something other than the ordinary dinner included a robust High Table. Where previous High Tables usually involved the four or five Dons of the college, plus a handful of Fellows, i.e., faculty whose offices were in Champlain and who served as academic advisors to seven or eight students, and maybe one or two luckless junior fellows who for one reason or another were invited to join this scholarly display, on this night Master Morton had invited Christine Symons, the wife of the university president, THB Symons, to the High Table along with the Champlain Senior Tutor, Bill Hunter of the Economics department, myself as the recently minted President of the Champlain College Student Council, and several Fellows and their spouses, a party of about sixteen.
It was a grand gathering that evening that made its way to the High Table after having spent an hour or so in pleasant conversation before dinner sipping wine and sherry in the Senior Common Room directly behind the Great Hall. As we paraded in, seating arrangements had been determined beforehand, likely by the attentive porter, Mr. Scoble, so Bill Hunter and I found ourselves on either side of Mrs. Symons, who was seated directly in the centre of the table facing the junior fellows. Because of the special guest a number of Senior Fellows and their spouses had also been invited to dinner and they were scattered throughout the hall sitting at different tables, mingling with the junior fellows. Of course, the junior fellows had been entertaining themselves in the Junior Common Room all the while the Senior Common Room guests were exchanging pleasantries and otherwise enjoying the pre-dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
So it was a somewhat lively crowd in the Great Hall that greeted our entrance. Because of the size of the High Table, somewhat larger than usual because of the importance of the special guest, Mrs. Symons, the main Hall diners were forced to wait while the student servers attended to the High Table. For reasons yet unknown, service that particular evening was a tad slow and the junior fellows who were in their usual festive condition following their stopover in the Junior Common Room began to show signs of collective impatience.
Shortly after the student servers began to serve the High Table, several paper airplanes took to the air and floated from one part of the Great Hall to another, and as they settled onto the tables or laps of the junior fellows, they were returned from whence they came with enthusiasm. Within ten minutes, the Great Hall was the scene of great merriment, paper airplanes, now numbering around two dozen, floating across the Hall and landing gently into the hands of recipients who sent them aloft yet again and again. At the same time, Rick Nicholls, one of the more active junior fellows and a fine campus athlete, began to visit various tables by crawling on all fours and inserting himself under the tables and pulling on legs and feet as he wormed his way from one end of a table to the other. With paper airplanes above and Nicholls below, the hall was in a controlled but clamourous state.
To say that the Master was not amused would be a mighty understatement. Sitting to the right of Bill Hunter, some three seats to my right, he was visibly distressed, no doubt thinking that the spirited behaviour of the junior fellows and the inexplicable not to mention bizarre behaviour of Rick Nicholls were a grave affront to the dignity of his special guest, Mrs. Symons, not to mention to himself. Fortunately, the High Table guests were soon tucking into their dinners and the servers were quickly seeing to the rest of the hall but the Master, sitting rigid and not uttering a sound, was still witness to one or two delinquent airplanes that refused to be banished. By now Rick had resumed his seat having introduced a level of buffoonery to several tables much to the delight of their patrons.
Amongst the senior Fellows in the Great Hall that night was Professor Ken Kidd, then Chair of the Anthropology department, and his wife, Martha, who as luck would have it was seated directly in front of the High Table at the end of a dining table closest to the High Table and its guests. In such a position it was impossible to overlook her. No sooner were the High Table guests into their dinners when one of the two remaining airplanes drifted down and landed in front of Mrs. Kidd. With considerable adroitness, Martha seized the trespasser and with a vigorous thrust, dispatched it into the atmosphere of the Great Hall, more or less in the direction from whence it arrived.
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, or in this case, that broke the Master’s sense of decorum. He abruptly pushed back his chair and in an imperious motion, stood to attention, turned on his heel, and disappeared through the door leading to the Senior Common Room, his linen napkin fluttering onto his vacant chair.
His departure could not be concealed to those of us at the table. As soon as he disappeared, Bill Hunter and I exchanged nervous glances, each silently beseeching the other as to what to do next. Mrs. Symons appearing impervious to the airplanes, Nicholls, even the rise and departure of the Master, was midway through her dinner, as were the rest of us, and seemed determine not to conclude her visit to the college without finishing her dinner. Neither of us was prepared for this and we had no bearings to use to figure out the appropriate response. Do we stay and finish dinner in the Master’s absence or do we troop out, dinner unfinished, in a show of solidarity with our distressed leader? The college was in its infancy so precedence was non-existent and certainly my upbringing on an Ojibway reserve in Lake Simcoe where neither a Great Hall nor a High Table ever existed was bereft of any reference for guidance in this situation. In fact, neither Bill nor I, nor anyone else present that evening, ever anticipated such a situation, much less what to do when it arose.
A few anxious moments passed between us until Bill decided that under the circumstances we could not remain at dinner with the Master quietly seething alone in the Senior Common Room. Lacking any previous experience on which to base a response other than to agree with this course of action, I nodded somewhat vigourously that we should indeed stand together and return to the Senior Common Room. So with nervous aplomb, Bill and I pushed back from our plates, stood and jointly urged Mrs. Symons and the rest of the guests to leave their unfinished dinners and retire to the Senior Common Room to endure whatever fate we might encounter there.
October 30, 2012