The Lasting Legacy of Thomas H.B. Symons
A Builder of Higher Education
In addition to the creation of Trent University, Thomas H.B. Symons was instrumental in the founding of Fleming College and over a dozen other colleges and universities around the world. His efforts in the creation Peterborough’s Sacred Heart College resulted in a Knighthood from the Vatican in the Order of Saint Sylvester in 2012.
A Campus that Bears His Name
Thomas H.B. Symons served as Trent University's founding president and vice-chancellor for 11 years Upon his retirement in 1994, the University’s Nassau Mills campus was officially renamed in his honour for his years of dedication and tireless work.
Career of Distinction: Awards & Honours
- Member of the Order of Canada (later promoted to Companion) (1976)
- Order of Ontario, the province’s highest honour (2002)
- Queen Elizabeth II Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals (2012)
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1977)
- Distinguished Service to Education Award, Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, first Canadian recipient (1982)
- 13 honorary degrees from universities and colleges across Canada
- Founders Award for Excellence in International Education from the Canadian Bureau for International Education (2016)
- Gabrielle Léger Medal, National Trust for Canada in recognition of his lifetime contribution and leadership in heritage conservation in Canada (2016)
- City of Peterborough Civic Award (2001) & Key to the City (2004)
Committees & Appointments
- International: chairman of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and vice-president of the International Board of United World Colleges
- National: chairman of the National Commission on Canadian Studies, the National Library Advisory Board, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Canadian Educational Standards Institute, the National Statistics Council of Canada, the Canada Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
- Provincial: Ontario Medical Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council Board of Governors; founding Board member of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto
- Local: Board of Directors for the Peterborough Red Cross and Community Fund; founding member of the Otonabee Region Conservation Foundation and the Greater Peterborough Economic Council; member of the Mayor's Committee on Peterborough's Economic Prospects; founding committee member of the Canadian Canoe Museum; honorary president of the Peterborough Historical Society; member of the Board of Governors of Sir Sandford Fleming College; and chairman of the Peterborough Lakefield Police Services Board.
Champion for Gay Rights
As Ontario's Commissioner of Human Rights from 1975 to 1978, Thomas H.B. Symons spearheaded major revisions to the province’s Code notably in area of civil rights for homosexuals.
The Study of Canada
From 1972 to 1975, Thomas H.B. Symons famously led a national Commission on Canadian Studies. Its published findings, entitled To Know Ourselves, inspired a generation of scholars, policy makers and citizens dedicated to the study of Canada. An annual lecture entitled “The Symons Lecture on the State of Canadian Confederation” was created in his honour at the Confederation Centre in Prince Edward Island. Under Symons, Trent University created the first Canadian Studies program and the groundbreaking Journal of Canadian Studies.
Contributions to Indigenous Studies
Under Thomas H.B. Symons’ leadership, Trent created the first Indigenous Studies program in the country. In recognition of his leadership and contributions to Indigenous Studies, Symons was made an honorary Elder of the Indigenous Studies program, now the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies.
Thomas H.B. Symons championed Ron Thom as the master planner and chief architect of Trent University to create “a place of aesthetic as well as intellectual excitement.” Learn more the architectural vision and legacy of Trent and Symons’ role in shaping such iconic spaces as the Faryon Bridge, Lady Eaton College, the Bata Library as well as many original designs for Trent’s now-legendary furniture.
A Vision of Collegiality
Trent as a collegiate university was the vision of Thomas H.B. Symons, taking inspiration from England’s Durham University. Today, Trent’s dynamic and evolving college system reinforces the vision Symons had of collegiate communities within the broader university as a place where everyone would know everyone else and all members of the community would intermingle and interact.
Teaching Excellence & Support for Students
Thomas H.B. Symons was dedicated to recognizing and honouring professors and instructors that show, in his own words, "exemplary concern for students." Many awards, funds, prizes established at Trent over the years ensure the legacy of Trent’s dedication to teaching excellence.
- Symons Award for Excellence in Teaching – presented annually at Convocation, the Symons Award recognizes faculty and staff members who stand out from others in encouraging learning, bring unique experiences to the teaching space, challenge students to do their best work, and serve as inspiration for students.
- The Symons Medal – established in 1972 in honour of Professor T.H.B. Symons, this medal is awarded to four students in the Honours program who achieve high overall standing on graduation. The medals are presented to the students each year at the Convocation ceremonies. Since it was established, the Symons Medal has been presented to 216 Trent students.
- Symons Trust for Canadian Studies – established in 1995 by friends and colleagues of Thomas H. B. Symons to honour and to continue his work in the field of Canadian Studies. The Trust aims to support and enhance the study of Canada, especially, though not exclusively, at Trent University, providing funding to support imaginative new activities, to act as seed money for worthy new endeavours, and to foster important long-range projects. Support the Symons Trust for Canadian Studies.
- Thomas H.B. Symons Seminar Series on Graduate Student Research – Initiated by students of the 1993-94 Vanier Seminar, the Thomas H.B. Symons Seminar Series, is a graduate student research forum where individuals from various disciplines communicate their knowledge and research findings to a broader audience consisting of fellow graduate students, and the Trent and Peterborough communities. The series has provided a unique platform for graduate students and future leaders to share their research and raise awareness on different issues of concern.
- Symons Essay Prizes in Canadian Studies – established through a gift from T.H.B. Symons to recognize excellence in performance in courses of the Canadian Studies program. Four prizes of $250 each are awarded for outstanding achievement in the first year course, and outstanding essays in the second, third, and fourth year courses.
A Celebration to Remember
In May 2019, Ontario Lieutenant Governor, the Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell joined Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien, Selwyn Mayor Andy Mitchell, Peterborough County Warden J. Murray Jones, MPP Dave Smith, MP Maryam Monsef and more than 400 students, alumni, friends, family and community leaders to celebrate the 90th birthday of internationally recognized scholar and founding president Professor Thomas H.B. Symons. Speaking at the event, Stu Butts ’65 used a metaphor of a honey bee to honour the birthday celebrant: “We are mindful of the impact that THB has had, not just on Trent University, and not just on Peterborough, but on the world community, and universities and educational institutions everywhere. As a scholar, educator, instigator, collaborator, pollinator, and friend, Tom has brought life and sustenance to an untold number of associations, organizations, institutions, and endeavours. We are proud of the fact that we have been able to keep our “bee” at Trent, in Peterborough, while at the same time sharing him with the world.”