`Vilest rag' toasts 80 years of outrage, fun

by Susan Stern
Staff writer

In the 1950s, an upset church minister called it `the vilest rag west of Blanca.'

The phrase has been used affectionately ever since by current and former scribes including Maclean's columnist Allan Fotheringham.

`It' is The Ubyssey, UBC's student newspaper -- loved by many, hated by some, but read by most.

There are a million stories to tell about the paper and the students who have been putting it together since it first rolled off the press Oct. 17, 1918. And its former editors and writers tell most of them.

In addition to Fotheringham, well-known alumni from the paper's 80-year history include author Pierre Berton, CBC TV journalist Joe Schlesinger, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer, as well as former prime minister John Turner and Senator Pat Carney.

The paper's colorful past is detailed in a recently published book called Back Issues: 80 Years of the Ubyssey Student Newspaper.

The Ubyssey started out in 1918 as a weekly digest of social events, says Joe Clark, a current Ubyssey staff member who compiled the book.

In the 1940s, the paper and the university mobilized for the war effort, urging students to sign up, buy war bonds and donate blood. In the 1950s, it fended off criticism for supporting the rights of communists.

Then came the era of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

"In the mid-'60s, The Ubyssey took on a more overtly political tact, starting with the U.S. civil rights movement and continuing with the Vietnam War, sexual freedom and marijuana," says Clark.

By the late '80s, identity politics such as gender and sexuality were major issues.

"The Ubyssey was being intentionally provocative," says Clark. "One incident involved a photo spread that placed the campaign picture of an Alma Mater Society councillor next to a phone sex ad, pointing out alleged similarities."

In 1994, Alma Mater Society (AMS) student politicians shut it down. But in 1995, the paper rose from the ashes.

Today The Ubyssey, independent from the university and the AMS, has eight editors, three co-ordinators and more than 30 contributing reporters, photographers, graphic artists, layout designers and business staff.

In compiling the book, Clark says he wanted to show that The Ubyssey has been at the forefront of controversy.

"A lot of the debates of this century have played themselves out in the pages of The Ubyssey from a unique student perspective. As the APEC controversy is being played out now," says Clark.

But it's not all been serious.

In the 1970s and '80s front-page joke stories were standard fare, says Clark. One reported that kidnapped American heiress Patty Hearst gave a radical speech on campus. It quoted the Pope.

"A crew from KOMO-TV in Seattle showed up to find out more," Clark says.

The hijinks continue today.

In a picture published Oct. 2, editor Sarah Galashan captured the initiation of the men's volleyball team.

"They are completely naked and demonstrating an eagerness to participate in a chance photo opportunity," Galashan says. "We're still involved with antics. The tradition hasn't died."

Galashan says there is pressure to live up to the high standards set by past Ubyssey editors -- a legacy for which she's grateful.

"The work experience I'm getting is the real thing," says Galashan. "I'll definitely be going into journalism when I graduate."

Now financially viable, The Ubyssey is able to pay not only for the publication of the book but for a new Ubyssey Community Contribution Award. The $3,000 award recognizes student activism and community building at UBC.

The first award will be shared by recent Political Science graduate Allison Dunnet, a creator of a campus orientation program for new students, and Michael Hughes, a social activist and doctoral student in Physics.

UBC President Martha Piper and Allan Fotheringham will present the awards Saturday, Oct. 17 as Ubyssey editors past and present gather at a reunion in the SUB ballroom. An estimated 300 people are expected to attend.

Copies of the commemorative book will be on sale at the UBC Bookstore for $29.90 ($19.98 for students).