Address to convocation

by Dr. Gertrude Crosbie

Memorial University, St. John's


(June 5, 1997, Gazette)

I want to thank the Senate of Memorial University of Newfoundland for the honor bestowed on me. And for the privilege to speak to today's graduates.

What a wonderful day for you and your families, and those who taught you the discipline needed for this achievement.

Engineers: All that is constructed in our world has to have the dream, the vision, and the science. That is the work of our engineers.

Nurses: who have to obey orders, accept immense responsibilities, use initiative, and have the training to face the problem of a rapidly changing profession.

My mother, who was a suffragette, was the first Newfoundland woman to read law in 1910. A that time, in order to be a member of the Law Society, she had to be referred to as Mr. Janet M. Miller. How times have changed! She would have been so pleased to see women engineers wearing their hard earned "iron rings." My father would have been pleased to see male nurses, bringing their own special gifts to that caring profession.

Although I have been to Memorial University three times, I have never graduated until today. The first time I attended Memorial College was in 1938. I went to a Grade 8 or 9 domestic science experimental cooking course taught by Miss Edna Baird. The fiscal restraint of Memorial at that time was a test of her ability. We were allowed one egg to be divided between four students. The result was we each made one and one-third cheese straws.

The second time I enrolled at Memorial was as a "mature student" in 1970. With encouragement from my late husband, Bill Crosbie, I happily followed Moses into the Promised Land and became student number 7033343. I studied history, anthropology and religious studies, as these subjects were my main interest. I now realize that these subjects are the foundation upon which our culture is built.

The composition of classes and age groups was stimulating. Professors from all over the world, "golden oldies" like myself, and the regular students. These students were members of the "flower child" generation, and had their own worries about money, boarding houses, courses, exams and "finding the love of their life."

We learned from one another to appreciate each others problems, and the student learned to see their seniors in a new light. We all learned the profound truth in Dr. Otto Tucker's theme: "Not just learning for life, but lifetime learning." This should be a goal for us all: those in early retirement, the golden oldies, the under-employed, and certainly "new graduates."

In high school you were taught opinions as fact. At the university we had to learn to think things through for ourselves. The third time I entered Memorial University was in 1981 after my husband died. I asked the late Dr. Keith Matthews -- an unforgettable history professor -- if he would accept me as a "volunteer" in the Maritime History Archives. I told him I would be willing to do any work that no one would have to be paid for. At the time, the archivist was away on "study leave" and there was no one in the office to relieve the secretary. I would be her relief! Dr. Matthews accepted my offer, but the administration at Memorial University was presented with a new problem.

I was their first and only volunteer, and their insurance policies would not cover me. The university solved the problem with me agreeing to sign a letter, absolving them of liability. I would not have been able to do my volunteer work without the patience, help, and friendship of the staff at the Maritime History Archive -- Heather Wareham, Roberta Thomas, Paula Marshall, Eileen Wade and Dr. Matthews -- who, by accepting me as a volunteer in his department, gave me a new focus in my life, which had changed radically with the death of my husband.

I read the Newfoundland newspapers from 1825 to 1890 at the Provincial Resource Centre in the Arts and Culture library. Thanks to David Leamon and the staff who lugged the heavy volumes upstairs for me.

I collected information on births, deaths and marriages. These records weave a tapestry of the social, economic and cultural life of the colony. They are also a great help in the traditional and contemporary Newfoundland conversation which goes like this: "Are you a Manuel from Exploits, Twillingate or Catalina?" Newspapers are the immediate accounts of tragedies, lack of fish, bad markets, high infant mortality, epidemics, shipwrecks, fires, and out-migration. In the newspapers of the time no one was ever forgotten, and the daily reports showed both the economic struggles and the successes of the people.

The question arises: How did they survive? Well, we Newfoundlanders learned some life skills over time. We learned to depend on ourselves. We had pride in ourselves and our country. We learned to share and help each other so we could survive. We always had great hope in the future. But best of all we learned to laugh at ourselves, at adversity, and at our climate. We learned to enjoy ourselves no matter what, and to share a joke, a story or a "time." These are our strengths. You must learn to draw on those traditional ways of dealing with adversity, and our unfailing faith in the future of our province. They had it then, you have to have it now.

Memorial University has done so much to encourage our pride in ourselves, and our heritage. Here at Memorial we see the great promise for the future and the preservation of our culture. Remember that Memorial University is a living memorial to those people who volunteered, fought and died in the First and Second World Wars. It is also a memorial to a vision of the future which would provide education to young Newfoundlanders. The money to build this institution was raised by volunteers, who saw the need, and responded by raising the necessary funds. You are the recipients. That education, and your future is their gift to you. My volunteer work at Memorial gave my life a new focus. It is worrying to see that in today's world many people feel they have to be paid for every little thing they do. Society doesn't work that way. Most of the best things in our society have come about through the work of volunteers. You have only to go to the hospitals, the schools, the old age homes, or to your local service clubs, to see the real value of volunteering. You will get out of life what you put into it. Memorial University has played an important role in encouraging our sense of place and our self esteem. Our oral tradition has enriched our university's arts faculty with literature, music, arts, drama, and a Newfoundland dictionary. Not too many places can claim that.

Our "old foolishness" has made our anthropology and folklore departments renowned places that attract people from around the world, as do the other faculties and schools.

Throughout our history those Newfoundlanders who left home always shared their success with those left behind. Remember the "Boston Boxes?" Those who settled "away" now provide help to new waves of immigrants in lodgings, job referrals, or just a friendly home away from home.

Now we have the ingenuity to export our own products (besides fish). There are Newfoundland stores across Canada bringing savory, salt meat, hard tack, peppermint knobs and bulls-eyes to homesick Newfoundlanders, some of who moved away 50 years ago but who never really left. We even recycle news through the Downhomer, a newspaper which receives letters from Newfoundland, prints the news and then sends it back to be sold here. Never underestimate the power of gossip!

Our culture is exported through our arts, drama, radio, TV and music. Indeed many Newfoundlanders have become famous nationally and internationally. We now import students, educate them, and export scholars.

The lesson to be learned is that good times always follow bad. The future is ahead. The growth of Memorial University has given you the ability to move into, and challenge the future. Look around you -- see just how far we have come from Edna Baird's Domestic Science class of 1938.

Ours is a proud heritage of sharing, self-reliance and above all humor. I want to leave you now with a quote from Dr. Cyril Poole. These were his closing words, when he spoke to a graduating class in 1995, and I can do no better than repeat what he said: "Newfoundland's future is as secure as it has been since our ancestors first came to her coves and harbors. In the meantime, wherever you choose to cast your anchor -- always keep your harps in tune."

You have inherited all that went before, and to quote Dr. Poole once again: "...cheer up! The future is yours."

Congratulations on your graduation, and good luck to you in all your future endeavors.