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Pierre Burton organized a mock campus kidnapping to get his first scoop - photo courtesy of UBC Archives
Pierre Burton organized a mock campus kidnapping to get his first scoop - photo courtesy of UBC Archives

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 12 | Dec. 6, 2007

The Ubyssey School of Journalism

By Randy Schmidt, with notes from archived editions of The Ubyssey

They’re found in many Canadian newsrooms. They’ve helped explain the world’s news to us for decades. And they have one thing in common: they cut their teeth as intrepid reporters covering the serious -- and not-so-serious  -- side of campus life for the student newspaper The Ubyssey, once called “the vilest rag west of Blanca.”

Ubyssey alumnus Earle Birney, beaten by Nazi storm troopers in 1935 for failing to salute their flag, worked for the CBC following World War II before going on to become a distinguished Canadian poet and two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature.

Pierre Berton, who wrote in an anniversary edition of the Ubyssey that he organized a mock student kidnapping on campus to get his first scoop, went on to become a journalist, author and national icon.

Allan Fotheringham carried on a written war with campus engineers, was chained by them to a downtown Vancouver clock at one point (an honour apparently bestowed by student engineers on other Ubyssey writers as well), and went on to earn a devoted readership as a journalist and columnist at Maclean’s.

And the list goes on, including former PM John (Chick) Turner and journalists such as BCTV News Hour’s Keith Bradbury and CBC TV’s Ron Haggart, The Province’s Eric Nicol, and The Vancouver Sun’s Alex MacGillivary, just to name a few. Current journalists who made the Ubyssey their after-class home include The Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy and Rod Mickleburgh, and the The Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer, Katherine Monk and Jonathan Woodward. A few of these award-winning reporters graciously agreed to provide recollections:

The ’50s

Joe Schlesinger, Veteran CBC TV Foreign Affairs Correspondent

The day I wandered into the Ubyssey office in 1951 changed my life. I was new to UBC and to Canada. I was a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia, a news junkie by necessity because bad news, news of war and other disasters had governed my life. At The Ubyssey I suddenly discovered there was more to news than just death, destruction and deprivation, that news didn’t have to hurt, that it could also be fun.

We covered frosh festivals, pool dunkings, homecoming parades and other antics of post-puberty initiation. Even more important for me was the discovery was that you could be irreverent and disrespectful of authority -- be it the UBC administration, the government or even the fraternities and campus jock heroes -- and get away with it. That feistiness and the freedom, the privilege of being free even to make a fool of yourself, were infectious. I was hooked. And still am.

Allan Fotheringham, formerly of The Vancouver Sun and Maclean’s

Our hero was Pierre Berton, who boasted that he never went to classes. He claimed that an absent-minded prof in his last year lost the final exam and passed everyone.

My tenure at The Ubyssey was three years and it was marked by a vicious war with the engineers. I called them uncouth louts in my column. The first time they kidnapped me I was trying out for the Thunderbirds basketball team. They took me downtown at rush hour and chained me to the Birk’s clock. Firemen had to rescue me.

The second time, I was sitting with my date at the Stanley Park Tea Room. The doorman said there was someone to see me. Next thing I know, I’m out at Horseshoe Bay, a mile or two into the bush. I got a degree [BA] in spite of The Ubyssey.

The ’60s

Michael Valpy, Globe and Mail Senior Writer

A century-old UBC! And I was there -- a few years beyond UBC’s half-century mark -- I was there at The Ubyssey following in the footsteps of Pierre Berton, Allan Fotheringham, Himie Koshevoy, Earle Birney, John Turner, Joe Schlesinger and other iconic Canadian journalists whose  if I’m allowed a Biblical reference of which Birney at least would approve) “shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”

UBC’s story would be incomplete without the annals of The Ubyssey cemented into its history. It was never just a college newspaper. It annually captured all the awards handed out to the Canadian university press. Its editors and reporters went on to become some of Canada’s leading journalists as well as some of its leading politicians (Turner), academics and writers (Birney and Stephen Scobie) and lawyers (Mike Hunter and Lorraine Shore).

It was cheeky, brazen, talented, innocently accepting of its own brilliance. It could scandalize the university community as well as be its muscular voice -- as it was in the 1960s when it unleashed itself in defence of the university administration’s demands for fair funding from the provincial government.

My journalist’s soul resides forever in The Ubyssey. I wrote something critical once of engineering students. They kidnapped me, chained me to a pillar in the lobby of the engineering building, and put a dunce’s cap on my head with a sign reading “Stupid.”  Ever since I have been mindful of reader response.

The ’70s

Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun Columnist

I began working on The Ubyssey as a delightful diversion from the class schedule in my second year (1971-72) and for better or worse, it turned into a career.

The paper was run as a commune in those days (no titles, everyone has a say, issues decided by a show of hands) but the actual lines of authority were no less transparent than they are in the usual newsroom dictatorship.

[We had] much fun with Wally Gage’s and Doug Kenny’s university administration, student council, endless debate over building the pool, and the occasional serious issue.

The other highlight was not getting thrown in the pool in front of the library by the engineers (unlike my co-editor Mike Sasges). Mind [you], Sasges also managed to graduate, which I did not, to my continued embarrassment. As for my alleged role in throwing a piano off the balcony of the Student Union Building, I deny that absolutely.

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Last reviewed 06-Dec-2007

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