Born in London, England, Ronald Baker served with the Royal Air Force, then immigrated to Canada in 1947 and studied English at UBC, obtaining his BA in 1951 and MA in 1953. For a time he taught in the UBC English Department, and worked on President John B. Macdonald’s report Higher Education in British Columbia and a Plan for the Future (1962), which led to the creation of Simon Fraser University, the transformation of Victoria College into a university, and the development of the community college system in BC. In 1964 Ron became Director of Academic Planning at SFU and the first Head of the new university’s English Department. From 1969 to 1978 he served as the first President of the new University of Prince Edward Island, a post he held until 1978. He continued to teach at UPEI until his retirement in 1991. Many honours have been bestowed on Ron Baker, including Officer of the Order of Canada (1978), the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee Medals (1977, 2002), and honorary doctorates from the University of New Brunswick, Mount Allison University, Simon Fraser University, and UPEI.
What follows is a selection from Ron’s emails to Herbert Rosengarten, chair of the Legacy Project Committee, concerning Ron’s memories of his time at UBC. During this correspondence, which took place between June 2012 and March 2017, Ron volunteered to be interviewed for the Legacy Project; the interview may be viewed through the UBC Legacy Video Collection at https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0300709.
John Chapman emailed me to suggest that I am one of the few survivors of President MacKenzie’s days and that perhaps I could be interviewed for your series.
I don’t know if you remember me, but I did some things for MacKenzie [President of UBC, 1944-62]. I wrote four annual reports, including the rather odd one to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of UBC. I also read all the other president’s reports for him. He asked me several times to become an assistant, but I never wanted to go into his office as Ron Jeffels and Geoffrey Davies did. I did a few weeks in a summer once when others were away and that was more than enough. And I was given some sort of role in the Senate by Mackenzie to report on the future of HE in BC. My work was later embodied in the Macdonald Report [on higher education in BC, issued by UBC President John B. Macdonald in 1962]. I wrote the section in that, suggesting the community college system and a college in the Fraser Valley, SFU as it became.
Geoff Andrew was a major mentor of mine, and both he and MacKenzie, with links to PEI, encouraged me to go to set up UPEI.
I’d be happy to be interviewed if you thought it useful. Incidentally, I am still touch with Jack Macdonald and saw him last year [2011; Dr. Macdonald died in December 2014.]
….I’ve always been interested in the history of universities, even giving some lectures on medieval universities And I’m obviously very interested in BC universities. I’ve written a supplement to Hugh Johnson’s Radical Campus, and I’m now writing a supplement to a history of UPEI. I’m thinking of some notes on UNBC. John and I had something to do with setting it up….
….I have many reasons to have fond memories of UBC. I left school just before I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have got into any British university. In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to me had I not finished up attached to the RCAF and found that most were thinking of it. On their advice, I wrote to Queen’s, Toronto, and McGill. None answered. Then I told someone in the mess one night. He said that a friend of his had just become Dean of Arts at UBC. I should write to him. Sperrin Chant. I did and, I was accepted
During the Macdonald Report, I got very friendly with Sperrin. I told him one day that I thought he was responsible for my getting in to UBC,. He laughed and said, “Ron, I would just have sent it to the Registrar.” But the fact that he, Shrum and MacKenzie were all WW1 vets made UBC one of the friendliest universities in Canada to the admission of vets. [Gordon Shrum, professor and administrator at UBC, became the first Chancellor of Simon Fraser University.]
I did have an English matric, and later I found that UBC accepted people on that basis. With some justification. Maths 101 at UBC in 1947, when I took it, was maths I had done when I was twelve. The final included such questions as “Find the 7th root of…..x using logarithms.” I’d been using logs as tools from age 12.
There was hardly anyone in English Canada teaching the structure of modern English as linguists understood it, and I was offered a number of jobs elsewhere in the late fifties and early sixties. I decided that I wanted to stay at UBC. It was only that SFU was still in BC that led me there.
…. I was a vet who had left school at 15 in England. I was accepted at UBC, lived in Little Mountain and Acadia camps, took an Honours degree and then an MA, went from TA to associate prof before working on the Macdonald report and then going to SFU. I was active in a number of student affairs. And I did various things for MacKenzie. I wrote four annual president’s reports, including that celebrating the fiftieth anniversary. When MacKenzie was very opposed to any places other than UBC, I was given a reduced teaching load to prepare a report for Senate on future HE needs.
I refused to become an assistant to MacKenzie like Ron Jeffels and Geoff Davies….John [Chapman] was urging me to commit myself so that’s what I’m doing. He also lent me The First Hundred Years, and I’m already enjoying it.
Have you come across The Letters Club in your first hundred years? It was a literary club from the early days of UBC till the fifties. Ten students from third year, ten from fourth. They met for coffee and snacks in the homes of profs and benefactors. (Annie Angus, for example, wife of Prof Angus), The fourth year people gave papers. Roy Daniells, Earle Birney, Lister Sinclair of CBC Ideas fame, were among members. Papers were put in the Library. There was an “original contributions” night for creative work.
It was very important to me when I was a student. Very much tied to the English Honours programs, but not exclusively. Sinclair was in Maths, I think. I was very unhappy when it folded, but I had no success trying the same thing at SFU and UPEI.
Roy Daniells [Professor and Head of English] was a member of the X club [a group largely made up of older faculty and emeriti, which met once a month for many years to hear a paper by one of the members]. It would be interesting to see if the papers of the Letters Club are still in the Library. I hate to say this, but if the Honours program was an elite, the Letters Club was the elite of the elite….so we thought! But in some ways, it was sad and silly. Restricted to ten a year, and subject to the hospitality of hostesses, not everyone could be in, and that was hard. The year I was president, there was an older woman, a vet, who desperately wanted to be in. I persuaded the others to make her an associate member, and she came to meetings, but was not asked to give a paper. I’m a bit ashamed of it now; she became a very highly respected and admired high school teacher, and we stayed friends. Years later, I asked her if she resented what had happened. “Oh, no. I was really happy to get in, and I loved the meetings.”
… As I think I told you, UBC was tremendously important to me. I left school at 15 and was admitted to UBC without the real credentials, the first in my Cockney family to get further education. Honours English under Sedgewick [first Head of the English Department], Larsen, Daniells, Birney, Robbins, Morrison, etc. was very much a new world. Flirtations with the Ubyssey, a three year stint with the Letters Club, were very important.
My MA thesis was the shortest in anyone’s memory and may still be. And it got the highest mark anyone could remember.
I joined the faculty full-time in 1956, wrote the President’s report for four years and was given a reduced teaching load to prepare a report to Senate on the future of HE in BC. That was used in the Macdonald Report. In some ways, my Senate work was a compromise between MacKenzie, who didn’t want any new institutions and Geoff Andrew who did.
And I taught modern grammatical theory and a variety of humanities courses to engineers, architects and foresters. And loved it. And, of course, both my wives were UBC students. PS I lived in the army huts at Little Mountain and in Acadia.
….Highlights [of my time at UBC] include my MA, working on the Macdonald Report, and my teaching. If I had to pick one now, I suppose that it would be my teaching. The first and the current poet-laureates of Canada, George Bowering and Fred Wah, have both commented on the importance to them of my course in the grammar and phonology of English, and I heard fairly recently of former students still using some of the hand-outs I gave them over fifty years ago.
On the other hand, working on the Macdonald report led me to SFU and UPEI, and indirectly I suppose to the Canada Council, the Board of the AUCC, and the CRTC.
You asked me to comment on the interview. I enjoyed it and thought that the students handled it well. The interviewer didn’t “pursue” me as other interviewers have done, following up what I said with questions, perhaps disagreements, etc. But that may not be what you want.
I did type answers to the questions, answers that differ sometimes from what I said in the interview. I don’t want to burden you with paper, but if you would like my four pages of answers, I can easily email them to you. [The notes are reproduced at the end of this article.]
Needless to say, my feelings won’t be hurt if you are happy with the interview and don’t want them.
It’s a great pity that Fran [Frazer] isn’t with us. I think that she would have been very interesting. She was a don in all three women’s residences, was close to Bill Robbins, Mo Steinberg, Marion Smith, George Woodcock, and had a lot to do with Bill New and Canadian Literature.
As an undergrad at McMaster, she was news editor of the student paper the year it was chosen as the best in English Canada, acted in and produced plays, played bridge all night, and got engaged twice. And a first class Honours degree with distinction. She felt that the students she had in residence didn’t enjoy life as she and her friends did. She’d have been interesting on that.
I am sorry that I didn’t take a minute to tell the students that the Ontario Honours degree was four years after grade 13 whereas the general degree was three. UBC’s Honours was four years after grade 13, but with the graduating essay and the four general exams (three written, one oral) on English literature covering periods you had never taken courses in meant that hardly anyone ever graduated in the Spring. Finally, the Faculty of Arts rebelled and English was forced to comply with the general rule that degrees could be completed by the Spring of the fourth year.
I spent the academic year, 1960-61 in Prince George and two summers on the Nautley Reserve east of Vanderhoof. I wanted to see if I could be a field linguist, working on an Indian language. I found that I was all right with the grammar, but not the phonology.
On the Reserve, I tape recorded quite a lot in Carrier. I gave the tapes to UNBC , and it has put them on cds, I believe. I taped an anti-Hudson Bay Rum song to the tune of the Marseillaise, composed by Father Morice. I played it to Kurt Weinberg ( I think he left before your time. A burly European refugee who had been in the French Foreign Legion. Several books. In the French dept. Very unpopular, but I liked him. He went to Rutgers, I think.) I told him that I’d found the native origin of that song of his.
The arrangement was that as an experiment, I would teach three English courses for credit in Prince George, English 100, 300, and 439. The PG School Board paid UBC my salary, provided me with a small car and room and board. It planned to put me up in the only hotel, but I found that too noisy, and I opted for a room in an unused part of the student residence. I had my meals with the residence supervisor. It was quiet and I got to know the students.
Geoff Andrew had got the arrangement through Senate at a rump summer meeting, as an experiment.
The next year, Gordon Elliott of the English Department went. I think that he taught a history course and two English courses. The third and last year, Joe Lawrence went. By that time, we had satisfied all the teachers wanting courses, and there weren’t enough for any more courses. All three of us did various things in the community. I gave talks, etc as far away as Dawson Creek. I took several hundred of my own books, and the local library housed and administered them. I think that the others did the same.
I learned a great deal about the attitude to UBC speaking at many affairs all over the region. I was very disappointed when the geographers on the Macdonald Report didn’t advjse a college there.
When I was in PEI, I was one of six presidents or past presidents to review a local proposal for a university in PG. I wrote a detailed review and was the only one of the six to go on the Interim Council setting up UNBC. The former president, Wagner, of Calgary was asked but wouldn’t accept.
I went to a number of meetings. When the UNBC legislation was passed, I was thanked but told that I couldn’t be on the first Board because I wasn’t a resident of BC. I suspect that I wouldn’t have been anyway. It was costing something like $4000.00 every time there was a meeting. I had to fly from PEI and overnight in Vancouver as well as PG. John Chapman [former Head of Geography] was on the Interim Council as well. I think that we did have some influence on the beginnings.
….The President’s Reports I wrote are interesting for what I was told to include, the descriptions of the students. In the 1957-58 Report you can see where the students came from by country and by province. By entrance qualification (Grade 12, grade 13,etc). And what religion they reported: Anglican 2117, United 2091,Roman Catholic 975, Protestant 1075, not known 819, agnostic, atheist, no religion 184.
All others very small: Jehovah’s Witnesses 6, Moslem 27, Jewish 185.
By Citizenship, Canada 7557; then by size: Great Britain 315, Hungary 210 (after the revolution), Trinidad 143, USA 108, China 73. Most of the others are very small.
There’s occupation of parent. By Faculties.
A very homogeneous group really. I’ve no doubt that the figures must be taken with a lot of salt. Perhaps there were more than 20 Mormons
Back to Prince George. My memory is that there were not enough students for more than three years. But that was partly because volunteers from faculty were very few. Gordon Elliott had ties to that part of the country. Joe Lawrence was teaching English to first year engineers and hadn’t a regular faculty position. I had a particular reason to go. But the North didn’t attract others.
…..I’ve been enjoying some of the Legacy interviews on the web….
Hugh Johnston’s Radical Campus, the history of about the first ten years of SFU, has been criticized for relying almost entirely on documents. Not interviews. Since it’s very good to me, I tend not to agree, but since seeing some of the Legacy and SFU interviews, I have come to see what the critics mean. And I’ve also come to have doubts about my own memories. My memory of the young John Dennison is very different from his!
To prepare for the SFU activity, I reread many things including a set of articles about the early days that were never published. They were collected by the first head of history. As he was editing them for publication, he had an accident and died. They were never published.
One of them, by my wife, Fran, is great. It made me think how ideal she would have been for you. Great grad student, don in all three of the first women’s residences, taught at UBC. Great favorite of Bill New and George Woodcock and Canadian Literature, the journal.
Bill New wrote when she died, “Anyone who ever met Frances Frazer will, I’m sure, have immediately reached for an adjective – and found too many spring to mind: ebullient, vivacious, brilliant, engaging, witty. Frances was all of these, and more…..She was a clever conversationalist…amiable, good-humoured, and urbane.”
So that set me thinking about other people who might be worth your series. One who might give you a somewhat hostile view of UBC is Margaret Fulton. She took an MA at UBC in English, then a doctorate at Toronto, I think. She became Dean of Women at UBC but the English Dept wouldn’t have her in the Department. There were other things that upset her. I don’t think she was allowed in the Deans’ meetings. She became the first secular president of Mt St Vincent University in Halifax. You can google her: Dr. E. M. Fulton. She lives on Saltspring….The Knowledge Network had a program on her and her revolutionary ideas on organizations.
….Sadly, I threw away last week a colour slide that you might have wanted. I came to UBC as a freshman in August, 1947. The Engineers started hazing freshmen by throwing them in the lily pond in front of the library. Unfortunately for the engineers, a large number of the freshmen were vets (like me) and upper year vets on campus shared our reaction. My slide showed the lily pond full of engineers in the red sweaters in the pool. But I’ve been sorting large numbers of slides to put some on disks, and I threw out the crimson lily pond.
….The students [in Prince George] were almost all teachers. They had been at the Normal Schools and were gradually working towards UBC degrees by taking Summer Session courses. Many of those in Vancouver went to Bellingham in the winter because UBC wouldn’t teach off-campus courses and it was easy to get to Bellingham from Surrey, etc. As the teachers got toward retirement, they were often desperate to finish their degrees. And teachers left the school district to get somewhere where they could take necessary courses. That’s why the School Board was paying for the courses. They also paid to have a lot of my own books and some from UBC shipping to PG on loan. The public library looked after them
By the fourth year, however, the demand for English was satisfied, and there were never enough students for other subjects. I did have a couple of non-teachers, lawyer’s wives. I enjoyed being there for the year, and for the two summers I spent on a First Nations Reserve. But I found that I was never going to be a good field linguist.
I kept in touch with a few of the teachers for years, but Gordon Elliott kept in touch with many. I think he may have set up a scholarship in PG in his will. Incidentally, a huge fuss was made of us, public dinners, TV, etc. I think that the experiment was very good for UBC.
….Today, I had a delightful three and a half hour lunch with George Bowering from UBC and Brian Fawcett from SFU. We talked a little about the Legacy interviews, and I said that I was sorry that my interview and Ian Ross’s said little about Warren Tallman, the group of poets at UBC that he fostered, and the influence of people like Spicer, the Black Mountain poets, etc….
Oddly enough, most of the poets were students of mine in language as well, and Warren commented on that In an article years ago. Lionel Kearns went to my college in London to study linguistics and Fred Wah, our current Laureate, went on to linguistics and poetics. But I was never deeply involved.
….I had letters from Fran’s former charges when the obituary in the Sun and the Globe came out, most too extreme to quote. One said, “She was so beautiful that men swooned when she walked by.” Of course, I thought she was beautiful, but I hadn’t seen a body on the campus.
What a pity that she couldn’t have been interviewed for Legacy.
[The Spring 2014 issue of Trek magazine included an obituary of Ron’s wife Frances Frazer, who had died in 2010. Go to https://trekmagazine.alumni.ubc.ca/2014/may-2014/departments/in-memoriam/frances-m-baker-nee-frazer-ma60/.]
I wrestled choosing a picture for Trek. As she was in the residences in her mid-twenties or as she was later. I chose the later one because I thought that the students might like to see her later.
I knew that I would never get through anything personal at the SFU and UPEI commemorations so I focused on her more serious side. I’m attaching a copy and one of the former student tributes, from Betsy Epperly, fourth president of UPEI. [These tributes are reproduced at the end of this correspondence.]
After seeing John [Chapman]’s obituary, I watched his Legacy interview again [available at https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubcavfrc/items/1.0227962]. We met first in August, 1947, on the boat coming to Canada, he coming as a lecturer and I as a freshman, allowed in under UBC’s special admissions to vets. Having left school just before I was 15, I wasn’t qualified.
We got together after I came back to UBC in 1956. We lived close to one another. Then we worked together on the Macdonald Report and on setting up UNBC in Prince George. When Fran and I came back to BC in 1991, the Chapmans were among those we socialised with, and I’ve been seeing him until recently. He really was my last close friend among the faculty at UBC. I’ll miss him….
….Because I was impressed by John in the Macdonald Report committee, and the work on the locations, I wanted geography at SFU. Shrum was opposed, largely I think because the geology course at UBC counted as the science requirement. But when I cited the geographers’ work at SFU, he remembered their help on the location of SFU and agreed with me.
John had a major influence on the planning of UNBC and especially helped Geography get started there. So he had a major influence at UBC, SFU, and UNBC. I suspect that he did in the colleges as well, but I was in PEI when he worked with them.
….Fran loved Mo Steinberg and Bill Robbins, and we kept in touch with them till they left. We used to pick Mo and Esther up on Cambie and kosher food for them at a close store. And Laurenda often drove out. Laurenda and I went to Mo’s interment in New Westminster.
We had both been to Steinberg Bar Mitzvahs and were prepared for the ceremony. Laurenda had put aside her trousers and bought a headscarf. We naturally assumed we would sit in different places. Laurenda was more orthodox than some of Mo’s family. And we were seated together.
We visited the Robbins on the Island just before he died, and went to a great distribution of his ashes on the lake his family had.
Seeing all John’s colleagues and friends from UBC made me think of those I had who are no longer here. Roy supervised my BA graduating essay and my MA thesis, and was a major mentor in my life. We always kept in touch. Fran and I were in Florence when we got Laurenda’s cable that he had died. We had booked dinner at a well-known restaurant, the one big dinner of our seven months in France and Italy. We debated cancelling. Then I remembered that one of its famous dinners was tripe. When I was an instructor, Roy had taken me to the Bessborough in Saskatoon. He wanted to go so he could have tripe. He loved it as a child, and he’d hardly ever had it as an adult. So we went to dinner in Italy, and I had tripe for the only time in my life!
I’ve just read your obituary of Bill [Robbins]. Thank you very much indeed. I missed it at the time. I never took a course from Bill because he dissuaded me on the grounds that I had taken Ted Morrison’s Victorian prose and knew enough of the verse.
But I had got to know him, first through the Letters Club. As you know, we used to meet at faculty houses. Margaret and Bill were popular hosts. By an accident I won’t bore you with, I spent three years in the Club instead of the customary two, and it was very important to me.
When Bill was spending time in London and the British Museum, Fran and I often met him and Margaret. Fran was working there too. Margaret and Fran were fanatic Times and Guardian cryptic crossword fans. One day, both had got stuck on one clue. After midnight, Fran got it. “I must phone Margaret.” I dissuaded her. The next morning, I met Bill. “I had to stop Margaret phoning Fran late last night because she’d got the last clue.”
….[Thorleif] Larsen [a professor in the English Department] was the antithesis of Sedgewick, quiet, gentlemanly, clearly scholarly. He ran the Honours seminars, using I. A. Richards’ techniques. Invited some students to his office for advice. He was one of BC’s first Rhodes scholars. At Oxford, he broke the rule by marrying. I’m sure that Laurenda Daniells recorded an interview with his wife.
I had been training as an engineer and surveyor before I did four years in the RAF. I’d left school at fifteen because of the Blitz. My mother had died, and I didn’t want to be sent out of London, leaving my father alone. The next summer, I earned much more as a stevedore than I expected and took English 200 from Larsen. He persuaded me to take one more year of English. I never got back in spite of being the top student in maths of all the first year sections!
….When the government set up the Academic Board to advise on the community colleges, Sperrin Chant was the Chair and I was honorary secretary. We toured the province together and became friends, corresponded when I went to PEI. I tried to persuade him to write a memoir. He was totally opposed, said he didn’t even keep up a CV. But he did eventually write a short one for his family, and his son John gave me one.
Jan de Bruyn [a professor in the English Department] died on Feb 24. He would have been 99 in April. His daughter tells me that there won’t be an obituary in Vancouver. There will be a celebration in the interior where he has lived for years.
I think that I’m the only survivor now of the group of WW2 vets teaching at UBC after the war. Jan, Jim Stone, Jim Sandison, and some later students like Bob Tener. (He’s my brother-in-law. Taught at Calgary for years, and has also just died.)
Ron Baker’s notes for his Legacy Project interview
Ron Baker’s tribute to his wife Frances Baker-Frazer, UBC alumna and Dean of Arts at the University of Prince Edward Island
On her mother’s side, Fran was a Mayo. In a history of that branch of the Mayo family, published in 1888 and revised in 1908, the author, Charles Herbert Mayo, claimed that the family “is distinctly a University Family. “Few examples can be found of so many as thirty-eight Oxford and Cambridge men having descended in the direct male line from a single pair in a period but little exceeding two hundred years.”
He said that the family had not sought distinction in military or mercantile Enterprise, but in the church, medicine, and education.
Fran epitomized that devotion to scholarship and teaching. But the author also went on to say that the family had “too great self-reserve and self-effacement.”
And Fran had too much of that reserve. She rarely sent off-prints of her publications. She reported them each year, as required, but she didn’t tell people about them. She never told people that when she flew to London for her PhD oral, she was first asked to sit down. Then the chair said, “We don’t want you worrying about this examination, Miss Frazer. We have already accepted your thesis, and you have your degree.”
Fran’s three volume thesis, a variorum edition of G.B. Shaw’s Three Plays for Puritans, with a commentary and illustrated stage history, on the table over there, is an extraordinary work. Her supervisor, Harold Brooks, the editor of the Arden Shakespeare and the holder of a personal professorship at London, later wrote to Fran and said that she should have been awarded three PhDs or a DLitt. He reported that Margery Morgan, a leading Shaw scholar and one of the examiners said “She’s a real scholar. Not all of our PhDs are, you know” She later wrote to Fran that she had advised the publisher, Longman, that Fran was the only person to be asked to edit one of the three plays, Caesar and Cleopatra. Fran did, and although the edition was intended for students, it was praised in the Year’s Work in English Studies: a very rare, if not unique, recognition.
Later, Fran focused on Children’s Literature and wrote the chapter on Canadian Children’s Literature in the Literary History of Canada. Hearing of Fran’s death, its editor, Dr. William New, one of the major scholars of Canadian, wrote:
Anyone who ever met Frances Frazer will, I’m sure, have immediately reached for an adjective- and found that too many spring to mind: ebullient, vivacious, brilliant, engaging, witty. Frances was all of these and more. She had a wonderful reputation as a demanding but fair and fascinating teacher. She was also praised as a scholar and administrator. She was a clever conversationalist, able both to speak intelligently and listen well. She was an amiable, good-humoured, and urbane being. It was privilege to know her. After I [New] joined the editorial staff of the journal Canadian Literature, on many occasions I invited Frances to review recent publications, and she willingly and ably took on the task, her style always a fine example of how cogency and flair can combine. When I later began to edit volume 4 of the Literary History of Canada, Frances was an obvious choice to be a contributor. And what a wise choice that was. Her chapter on children’s literature during the 1970s and 1980s still offers major insights into the period, and her guide to authors, books, illustrations, different media, and the challenges that beset publishers is as sharp now as on the day she composed it. She was prepared to praise when praise was due, and to isolate limitations where she saw them. She was attentive to language and keen to celebrate the imagination. Importantly, she took children’s literature seriously. Emphasizing how it encourages literacy, how it engages new readers in the joy of reading, and how it reveals age-old and still contemporary insights into people’s minds and their ongoing real-world lives. She has left us—and readers still to come as well—a remarkable scholarly legacy.
Fran was as great a teacher as she was a scholar. I will read only one of the many letters from her former students. Dr. Elizabeth Epperly was one of the first students to enrol at the new University of Prince Edward Island. She wouldn’t go to the University of Virginia, her family’s alma mater, because she was enamoured of Anne of Green Gables. She took every course Fran gave, acknowledged Fran’s influence in her MA thesis on Trollope at Dalhousie and took her PhD at Fran’s college in the University of London. She became head of English at Memorial University in Newfoundland and then the fourth president of the University of PEI.
She wrote “She was the professor who taught me the most when I was a student, and who inspired me when I was a young academic. She was a great scholar and she was, hands down, the best reader I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. She made scenes live and characters breathe and somehow made me understand through her interpretive reading what I could never have seen so well on my own.”
In her book on Trollope, she thanked Fran “for introducing me to Trollope’s writing and for inspiring me to pursue my interest in it.”
Those are typical of the letters from Fran’s students. She was, perhaps, especially influential with women, but she influenced men as well. John Howard-Gibbon, from Williams Lake, a logger who came to UBC intending to take science and engineering, was so influenced by a compulsory English course from Fran that he switched to Arts, eventually winning the prestigious University Essay prize, a prize shared by such people as Roy Daniells and Earle Birney.
And she influenced colleagues. One wrote that “You have finally proved my long-held belief that a woman can be a first-rate scholar and teacher and still be totally feminine.”
I must say that I had some suspicion of his motives.
The author of the family history made a final point: “The possession of a playful humour has been found in many influences in the Family. Many of us will remember Fran’s humour more than anything else. To close today’s tributes, I am going to play a tape of Fran’s Farewell, her Swansong, at her retirement party at the University of Prince Edward Island. The interruption you will hear just after she begins is from the President of UPEI, Willie Eliot, whom some of you may know from his days at UBC.
After that, I will play some farewell music, a tape that Fran and I often danced to in the evenings at home. You don’t have to listen to it, just keep it in your ears as you enjoy some more refreshment. And we would be delighted if you would write in the Memorial book.
Thank you all for coming.
Tribute to Dr. Frances M. Frazer/Baker, by Dr. Betsy Epperly, 4th president of UPEI, October 16, 2010
It was a shock to hear of the loss of Fran. I am honoured to be part of this celebration of her life and accomplishments – here on the UPEI campus where she worked so many years to make her students better readers and writers. If I have been successful as an English Professor, I can thank Fran Frazer for her standards and her example.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said “A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension.”
Dr. Frances Frazer changed and shaped my mind. I took more English courses from her than from anyone else here or elsewhere. She introduced me to the study of Victorian Literature and to Children’s Literature, both of which I eventually taught, drawing from her old notes. Because of her, I wanted to do graduate work on Anthony Trollope, and she wrote letters of reference for me. Because of her, I wanted to do a Ph.D. at the University of London at Birkbeck College – her university, her college. She wrote for me. I wanted to work in the British Museum Reading Room because she had told me such fascinating stories about it. She vouched for me so I could live in the residence, where she had also lived, in London, close to the haunts of Dickens and Trollope. When I published my first book on Trollope, it was Fran I thanked in print. What did I want more than anything? To be, like Fran, a tenured professor in the English Department of UPEI. When Fran retired, I finally joined the UPEI department as a full-time faculty member, and took Fran’s place.
But, of course, I could not take her place. No one can. She was a great scholar, a consummate professional, and she was, hands down, the best reader I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. She made scenes live and characters breathe; she made us understand through her interpretive reading what we could not see before. I recently listened to the whole of the last Harry Potter novel, The Deathly Hallows, being read by a British actor who won multiple awards for the 200 different voices he had to create for this Victorian-length book. At the end, I said, “He’s almost as good as Fran Frazer.” I can hear her laugh as I say that – but it is true.
She had a sharp-shooter’s eye for the hole in an argument. She valued literary texts and insisted her students think for themselves, not rely on critics. She made us want to read with her kind of passionate attention. She was a role model when there were very few women professors on this campus. She always wore black and white for teaching – black skirt and crisp white blouse. On rare occasions she would arrive in purple or scarlet – and we knew she was going to a reception after class, for nothing, not even what she was wearing, was supposed to distract us from full engagement with the literature. She was always Dr. Frazer; until I was well along in graduate school, I was Miss Epperly. Her written comments on student papers sometimes rivalled the papers themselves in length. I remember Ron teasing her that she edited papers, rather than marking them, and she laughed and kept right on making minutely detailed, helpful comments that challenged thinking and practice, opening up whole new aspects of ideas. She used pencil so as not to overwhelm the student’s eye. She was tough and fair, witty and wise; I admired and loved her.
When I shared the news about Fran’s death with another former student, this was the response: “Oh, no! There’s an icon gone. She was the best!” I would add, she always will be.
Tribute by Laurenda Daniells (widow of Roy Daniells) at the SFU Commemoration of Frances M. Frazer/Baker
Fran was a remarkable woman. I use this word because it means “extraordinary, unusual, and distinguished.” Not only was she a remarkable daughter, wife, mother and friend but also she had a remarkable life. She was extraordinarily creative as a teacher and a writer and was filled with an insatiable life-long love of learning. And she was scintillating in the true sense of the word: giving off sparks, brilliant and witty, and twinkling as a star.
The time of my first meeting with her is lost in the mists of antiquity but I do know the impression I had at the time of that meeting was that of sparkling. She was a student, a lovely young woman with an unusual sense of humour and wit, beautifully dressed and coiffed, with a memorable dazzling persona and sparkling eyes. Coming as I did in those days from a life of Kinder, Kuche and Kirche, she seemed very worldly and sophisticated. I was deeply impressed.
I also recollect that my husband (Roy Daniells) and I were aware that Fran served as a don in a women’s residence on the UBC campus where she was a mentor for a large number of women students. She was a forerunner in many ways. She was comfortable in her own skin and was not overly impressed by the world of academics. Roy and I were always struck not only by her charm and brilliance but also by her strength and resilience.
In 1963 she was kindness itself to me when I was in an embarrassing situation in London where my appearance without my family had caused some misunderstandings at my hotel. I went to her where she was staying at the William Goodenough House when the administration of that worthy institution had turned me down. I was tremendously grateful and thought perhaps I could take her to a play, suggesting in my bourgeois way “Oliver”. “Oh not boring old Oliver” she said, “with all those little boys running around.” So we took in something more intellectual—I think it was Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker which she kindly professed to enjoy. I loved being with her at that time, especially when she shared with me stories about the exciting thesis work she was doing in London.
There was a slight gap in our meetings as Roy and I were often in and out of Vancouver in the sixties though we followed Fran’s career with great interest. But one incident I do treasure and that was when she brought baby Teddy for us to see on Christmas day. I will never forget her great pride and joy at that meeting, eyes sparkling still as she showed us her precious baby.
Distance separated us for many years, though we once had a lovely brief visit in Prince Edward Island. Then when she and Ron returned to B.C. we were able to renew our friendship and enjoy the Frazer/Baker hospitality. In the Surrey town house in the midst of piles of fascinating books and articles we had many cheerful and interesting social occasions, often with stimulating conversation and just as often the comfortable relaxed feeling one has with a friend of many years, doing her best to communicate and make me feel like a welcome guest.
Fran’s life brings to mind Byron’s poem:
She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mello’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
We will all miss that sparkling, iridescent, opal-changing spirit. She brought a special flavour to our lives.