Spotlight on alumni
By Bojan Fürst
Senator Bill Rompkey is an educator, a politician and is passionate about words. He served as the minister in Trudeau’s government representing one of largest ridings in the country, Labrador, and was elected seven times. Senator Rompkey has also written or edited four books; his latest, St. John’s and the Battle of the Atlantic, was recently published by Flanker Press.
BF: Tell me a bit about yourself.
BR: I was born in Fortune Bay, in a place called Belleoram. At the age of two, we moved here to St. John’s. The fishery was in bad shape – it was depression time or just coming out of it. I went to Memorial in 1953. I got a BA in English and then had to decide how was I going to eat [laughter]. So I went to education. Later on I got trapped into politics in a moment of weakness.
BF: What was Memorial like at that time?
BR: It was absolutely great. When I got to Memorial, it was freedom. We were so small then that everybody knew everybody else. We were the size of a large high school today. In 1957, we were 1,000 students. You knew all the faculty. The faculty knew you – even those that didn’t teach you. For example, I never took a course in political sciences, but I became friends with Moses Morgan. That was the kind of thing you could do.
BF: You became a teacher. Where did you teach?
BR: Well, I taught at Prince of Wales Collegiate. There was a teacher on staff who had been in Labrador and loved it. He used to say to me “If I was your age I wouldn’t be here in the city. I would be in Labrador.” When Dr. (Anthony) Paddon came down looking for a principal for a school in North West River, my future wife and I went to see him. That night, then and there we decided to go to Labrador. We went and told our parents and they thought we were crazy. But we weren’t. We decided to go for a year and eight years later we were still there. There is something about the North that grabs people. Nobody can explain it, but everybody feels it and understands it.
BF: So you were a principal for eight years?
BR: I eventually became a superintendent for Eastern Labrador. I decided I wanted to specialize in adult education because I’d become involved in the community. I went to Toronto and started on a PhD in adult education. But six months into the degree, I got a call from Ed Roberts who was then the leader of the Liberal Party in Newfoundland. He said, “Look, there is going to be a federal election soon and we think we can win a seat. Would you come back and run?” So I took the chance. It was risky. I had no money, two small children, both under the age of five. Somehow I won the nomination and won the election and then won seven elections all together. I was lucky. It turned out alright for me.
BF: Tell me about your political life. You’ve been in politics for a long time.
BR: I was elected in October 1972, so there’s 37 years. Twenty-three years as an MP and I’ve been in the Senate since 1995.
BF: What was it like?
BR: First of all, it was intimidating. When you first go there, you are intimidated by the buildings, the atmosphere, the people that you meet. It’s intimidating to get up and speak in the House of Commons. When I went there John Diefenbaker was still there, Tommy Douglas was still there – these are iconic figures in Canadian political history. Later on I was privileged to serve in the Trudeau cabinet who is another iconic Canadian. I was never bored. The satisfying thing was getting things done. I learned that in politics you can make a difference. It is hard work. I had a big riding so I spent a lot of time away from home. I have no regrets. I look back at it now with fondness. I am not completely finished. I have another year and a half. It was a unique experience. There is no other experience like it, I don’t think.
BF: What was it like to serve under the Trudeau government?
BR: Oh ... One of my fondest memories. One of the things that I will always treasure is the fact that I had a chance to serve in Trudeau’s government because he was an exceptional man. He gets a bad rap from people finding him arrogant, but I did not find that at all sitting around the cabinet table. I found that he would listen. He’d listen to your point of view, but you had to be sure of what you’re saying because he’d challenge you. He was not a demonstrative man and in many ways he was a shy man, which is fascinating because he had such an outgoing and dramatic personality in some circumstances. In another circumstances, he could be very shy. I think the main thing about Trudeau was his self-containment, his confidence. He was his own man. He wasn’t in politics just to stay in politics. He was in politics because he wanted to get certain things done. He would have no hesitation defending those things.
BF: English and writing always remained something you loved.
BR: Absolutely. My first love is words. I love words. I always loved words.
BF: You wrote and edited a few books. How did they all come about?
BR: The first one was the one I wanted to write for a long time and that was the history of Labrador. There wasn’t one available that was up to date. Having lives there and read as much as I could about and experienced it, I thought I was in a good position to put something on paper. Than I did an anthology on Labrador. And then the third one — I was born in Fortune Bay and I knew of the letters of a woman from Fortune Bay who had gone overseas and served as a nurse in the First World War and had written home to her mother. The letters were wonderful. People knew about them, but they had never been published and I thought they should be. This fourth one grew out of my interest in the Navy. I grew up in St. John’s during the war and I remembered the war from St. John’s. Plus, I had a naval connection in the ’50s. There was officer training here at Memorial and I joined the navy. This book the story of St. John’s and the Battle of the Atlantic, is about how the city served and how it functioned and what role did it play. It is also an anthology. I scoured every archive I could find for pictures so I have about 50 pages of pictures here.
BF: You maintain a strong connection to Memorial. You volunteer, you work with Memorial on the Parade reunion... Tell me a little bit about that.
BR: Of my generation, Memorial changed us all. I am quite sure I wouldn’t be where I am today without Memorial. It was life changing for me. I remember that. There are bonds. We were very small and very close. So, you maintain the bonds, you maintain the connection. I have been involved with alumni in Ottawa for some years now. I come back whenever I can and I do what I can.