Address to convocation

by Dr. Helen Fogwill Porter

Memorial University, St. John's

(June 5, 1997, Gazette)

I've always thought it a great pity that we don't hear the compliments paid to us after we're dead. I've just had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Pryce-Phillips' eloquent appreciation of my life's work. Those of us who are honored with doctorates are lucky enough to get a preview of what might come later.

It's important to me that many of my friends from the Newfoundland Writer's Guild are here today. Some time ago they put my name forward to be considered for an honorary degree. Recently I've learned that the division of Women's Studies at Memorial also had a hand in it. I want to sincerely thank both groups, as well as everybody else involved. This recognition means a lot to me. And it's wonderful to have my family here today to share it all.

A friend of mine describes honorary doctorates as "one way to get a university degree without taking out a student loan." Unlike you graduates here today, I've never attended university except for a few non-credit courses. I'm happy to finally become a part of the university community.

When my classmates and I graduated from high school 50 years ago (can it really be that long?) very few of us went on to university. Children of the Great Depression, we were expected to earn our own living as soon as possible, and to contribute financially to our families. My parents, Bob and Evelyn Fogwill, had impressed on me the importance of "getting my Grade 11." Both clever people, they had dropped out of school early to go to work -- he at the Newfoundland Railway and she at Ayre and Sons' Cash Desk.

My husband, John Porter, began his post-secondary education at Memorial University College on Parade Street. After the first two years he interrupted his studies to teach for awhile, as was the custom then. He graduated from Memorial University in 1955 when our daughter Kathy was three months old.

Although I wasn't actually a part of the university, I've always felt a strong connection with it. All four of my children were students here. In 1961 the opening of what was then called -- in capitals, THE NEW UNIVERSITY -- was an exhilarating time. This event was highlighted for me by the presence of Eleanor Roosevelt, a heroine of my youth.

In 1962-63 I went eagerly every Monday night to a room in the Arts Building to join other would-be writers in a creative writing class led by Dr. Paul Aldus. That stimulating 20-week course helped to change me from a hobby writer into a professional. The class is also memorable as the place where I first met three people who were to become lifelong friends and colleagues: Bernice Morgan, Rae Perlin and Geraldine Chafe Rubia. When I was going to school in the 1930s and 1940s we didn't know anything about Newfoundland writing. The books in our small classroom libraries and at Gosling Memorial Library, wonderful as they were, had nothing to do with Newfoundland. Except for L. M. Montgomery's novels -- which strongly influenced me -- few of them were set in Canada. Although from an early age I wrote stories and poems almost every day, it never occurred to me to say I wanted to be a writer. Such an ambition was unrealistic at that time.

After the first few times I came across the word "Newfoundland" in fiction I ceased being excited. The next sentence would invariably refer to a plane flying over Gander Airport or a brave and beautiful Newfoundland dog. I knew nothing about Margaret Duley's splendid novels until years later when I went to work at the Gosling Library.

E. J. Pratt's work was around, of course. Some of his majestic poetry, often with a Newfoundland theme, even found its way into a few of our textbooks. Pratt became known as a poet after he went to Canada. The message for me and others like me was that if you wanted to be a writer you must first leave Newfoundland. I had no desire to leave Newfoundland so I dutifully became a secretary at the Department of Justice and secretly filled my blue shorthand notebooks with stories and poems. Much of my early writing was set in England, Scotland and the United States. I was convinced that nobody in the world would want to read stories set in Newfoundland. Only after that first creative writing class did I begin to realize that what was all around me was worth writing about.

Encouraged by Dr. Aldus, I sent out my first article. Titled Growing up on the South Side, it was accepted by both CBC Radio's Sunday Miscellany and the New Brunswick-based Atlantic Advocate. That piece later became the foundation of my first book, Below the Bridge.

A lot of good things began to happen in the 1960s. Harold Horwood's long-awaited first novel, Tomorrow Will Be Sunday, came out in 1963, followed by Cassie Brown's Death on the Ice, and House of Hate by Percy Janes.

With the coming of Breakwater Books, Jesperson Press, Harry Cuff and Creative, we finally had our own local publishers. Thanks to the vision of people like educator Eric Norman, the Visiting Artists' Program, better known as VAP, came into being. This program brought writers and other artists into schools all over Newfoundland and Labrador. MUN Extension Service continued and expanded its arts courses, now with our own local instructors. I was one of them.

Eventually our university introduced writing courses for credit into the curriculum. And finally, after intense lobbying by the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, and several MUN faculty members, the Writer-in-Residence Program was born. Through it such celebrated writers as Kevin Major, Wayne Johnston, Jane Urquhart and Marilyn Bowering shared their time and expertise with students of Memorial and others. It's no coincidence that the writing of younger Newfoundlanders began to flourish around that same time. We thought it was the beginning of a Golden Age.

Unfortunately things have changed since then. In the wake of government cutbacks, both provincial and federal, we have lost a great deal. There is no longer a Writer-in-Residence Program at Memorial. The writing courses for credit have been scaled down. The Visiting Artists' Program no longer exists. And the Newfoundland Culture course, designed to help high school students take pride in their own heritage, has been dropped from the curriculum. The irony of it all is that, as well as being vitally important, those programs were relatively inexpensive. We spend a lot of time today talking about communication. The World Wide Web will enhance it for us, we're told. At the same time, far fewer books are being bought for public libraries, grants from the Canada Council and other funding bodies are shrinking rapidly, and we can no longer take public libraries and similar institutions for granted. As one whose life was enriched by regularly borrowing fat books from the Gosling, I find it hard to believe that, after 60 years, there is no longer a library in downtown St. John's. Government cutbacks have contributed directly to those losses. At the same time leaders have the nerve to tell us that they're committed to literacy.

I don't have to tell you graduates how bad the economic situation is here in our province. Many of you will have to leave Newfoundland to find work. I'm certain our governments have their priorities all wrong. Perhaps some of you will help to straighten them out.

Although Ireland is not a wealthy country it is in many ways a rich one. Like Shelley, the Irish have always known that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I understand that students at universities and other post-secondary schools in Ireland now receive free tuition.

I wish you could all stay here. We need your minds and your ideas. I've been lucky in being able to live my life in a place I love and do the work I want to do. It hasn't always been easy. It won't always be easy for you either but I know you're up to the challenge. I hope you'll get the help and encouragement you deserve. Congratulations and best wishes for the future. We're proud of you.