A chance meeting at an alumni event that Ellen Schoeck almost skipped led to a series of books about the University of Alberta, the latest of which has just been published.
Taking Care: Alumni Stories About Life in the Original Residences and Lister Hall, 1911-2020 is the fourth of five books that Schoeck has written, all of which owe their existence to a chance meeting in 2001.
"On that Friday night, I was buried in work, preparing for two council meetings on Monday. I looked at my calendar and saw the alumni event and I thought I just can't go – too much work," she told Taproot. "Then I thought, 'My name badge will be sitting on the welcome desk: a no-show.' The alumni event was in the Horowitz Theatre, right across the street from my building. So I thought, 'OK, I will go for five minutes and then get right back to the office.'"
The Horowitz Theatre was packed, and she almost left. But when the sea of people parted before her, she noticed an elderly man who was "bristling with energy," she recalled. "I thought, 'Hmm, this will be the one person I'll meet.'"
That man's name was Hugh Morrison, who graduated in 1930 and was a Rhodes Scholar. "Hugh started to tell me about life on campus in the 1920s," she said. "Story after story! I was enthralled – but I also felt cheated that for all the years I had been on campus getting my BA and MA, I hadn't known anything about the life lived in the buildings I passed by every day. I was hooked."
Meeting Morrison made Schoeck "look at campus not just as a physical place, but as a place where people lived their daily lives." Taking Care shares what happened at the student residences, from Athabasca Hall, built in 1911, to Lister Hall, which has been housing students since 1964.
The book also takes a look at the Ring Houses, which were taken down in 2022 and are to be incorporated into a new development in McCauley by Primavera Development Group.
Schoeck regrets their loss. "The Ring Houses were home to the first president and to early professors at a time when housing was not available in the city of Strathcona. I have long regarded these homes as containing the U's DNA," she said.
"The faculty who lived here engaged in informal talks about who should be hired: Were we ready to offer the PhD in chemistry? Were we ready to have a (physical education) faculty? Which building should be built next? And more. They shaped the U of A for 50 years in this informal setting. These buildings should have been cared for over time and preserved as an essential part of our past and as an essential part of our future."
The title of the book, Taking Care, is a phrase used by Reg Lister, who was the first superintendent of residences. Schoeck notes the significance of life in Lister for many students.
"Many students had leadership positions in the Lister Hall Students Association. Many of these student leaders later emerged from Lister Hall and went on to presidencies in the SU, and from there went on to do what the U calls 'great things,'" she said.
She hopes readers will see how life in the residences shaped lives.
"Former and current students told me Lister is where they made life-long friends, learned to drink, learned about the opposite sex, learned how to study, learned manners, made mistakes, had fun."
Schoeck's fifth book in the series is Taking Charge: A History of the SU and GSA, 1908-2022. Expected out at the end of February, it tells the stories of the Students' Union and the Graduate Students' Association.
"These organizations are unique in the western world in that they are corporations separate from the U," she said. "The presidents of the SU and GSA run large operations and are in charge of many aspects of student life."
Taking Care and Taking Charge join I Was There: A Century of Alumni Stories about the U of A 1906-2006, A Century of Campus Maps, and Born to Build; A Peoples' History of the Faculty of Engineering, 1906-2018 in Schoeck's body of work about the school that educated and employed her for decades. All five will be available at Audreys Books by the end of February, she said.
Schoeck hopes to see her alma mater get the support it needs. The U of A saw a 10.7% cut to its budget in 2022, a move that students protested, though U of A president Bill Flanagan framed it as a turning point.
"The U of A is a resilient institution. I have watched it grow and contract since the late 1960s," Schoeck said. "My wish is that the government would invest heavily in the province's two main research and teaching institutions: U of A and U of C. Students are formed in their youth at these universities and emerge as key leaders in many fields."