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Vol 38  No 14
May 18, 2006


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Prof puts down the chalk after 50 years

By Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Shannon Ryan sports the sealskin cap given to him by members of the History Department at a soirée in his honour. While he retires from a 50-year teaching career this summer, he’ll continue writing about the history of fishing and sealing in Newfoundland. (Photo by Leslie Vryenhoek)

Shannon Ryan started his teaching career 50 years ago. He was a 15-year-old in Riverhead, Harbour Grace, the only Grade 11 student in his small school, and he’d just failed both General Science and History.

“Father Hogan came to our house with the bad news,” recalled Dr. Ryan, who’d been a very good student through Grade 10, then passed a lazy year reading library books instead of attending to his studies. “I’d said I wouldn’t go back to school ­ in those days you could rewrite the exams ­ and my mother told Father Hogan. He said ‘If you won’t go back to school, will you teach for me?’”

And so Shannon Ryan took over the one-room Catholic school in Upper Island Cove, instructing about 25 students in grades one to seven about reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. For his efforts ­ which included a six mile journey each way, sometimes by taxi and often on foot ­ he was paid $77 a month.

His final responsibility at year’s end was to prepare his youngest pupils for their first communion. “I had taught them the act of contrition and the style of confession ­ I had done everything but talk about sin and what they might confess.” And he would have gotten to that, too, if Father Hogan ­ whom Dr. Ryan remembers as a dedicated priest run ragged looking after schools and families throughout the diocese ­ hadn’t shown up days earlier than anticipated to hear confessions. The then 16-year-old teacher did the only thing he could think to do: he told each of the youngsters to confess to lying.

“I’m sure that was the first lie little Helen ever told,” he laughed.

That willingness to help students overcome difficulty has been a constant in his teaching career, and the thing the professor of history said he’ll miss most as he retires this summer.

“Students today are under so much pressure,” he contended, noting that in addition to their studies, most are working, looking after a household and facing tremendous pressure to “be in a relationship.”

In the late ’50s and ’60s when he attended university, students boarded in middle-class homes. Through three full-time years of study and the five summer semesters he spent on his BA Ed. he completed in 1964, Dr. Ryan lived in such boarding houses. “Your meals were on the table, your laundry was done. We went out whenever we wanted. It was, compared to what today’s students experience, a life of complete leisure.

“We’re dealing now with a very stressed group of students ­ and they are very serious students. I have enormous sympathy and respect for them.”

While he acknowledged that classes were tougher and failure rates higher back then, he said students were more relaxed. “You didn’t need top marks. There were jobs galore. Completing grade 9 could get you settled for life.”

Dr. Ryan himself settled into a five-decade career in the classroom straight from that first job in 1956: 44 years teaching; six as a university student, and two later years in London completing his PhD. He became of a member of Memorial’s History Department in 1971 ­ an easier go, he asserted, than teaching or supervising in the school system ­ and in the ensuing years honed his expertise on the history of fishing and sealing in Newfoundland. He intends to continue writing about those topics in retirement.

Fifty years ago, in breaking the bad news about young Shannon Ryan’s bad marks, Father Hogan said: “May God grant you no greater cross.” And so far, despite the arthritis that pains him, Dr. Ryan is glad to report God hasn’t.

“I’m really happy with the way things worked out.”

Sealing hunt humane and necessary, expert says

Despite the controversy swirling around the seal hunt these days, history professor Dr. Shannon Ryan, whose expertise includes the history of sealing in Newfoundland, said the issue is no different now than it’s been for decades.

“The debate started in the sixties, first about conservation and then about humane killing.” He explained that first round was sparked by inexperienced hunters who hired helicopters to get in and get a piece of the lucrative seal market. “It made sense to say that inexperienced people shouldn’t be attempting it. Then the ‘save the seals’ people came out against any killing of seals, and then the cameras went in.”

Despite the furor, he asserted that the methods used haven’t been inhumane for quite some time. “I’ve interviewed hundreds of seal hunters in my work, and I know that they would be vilified by the others if they botched a kill, if they didn’t do it quickly and professionally.”

Dr. Ryan understands the emotional aversion to the killing of any animal ­ he confessed he was too timid to kill a chicken in his youth, and still recalls the expression in the eyes of a pig he helped his father slaughter. The killing of seals, he said, is no more cruel than the killing of any animal ­ and kinder, in some ways, than a trip to the slaughterhouse.

Regardless of the negative attention it brings to the province, Dr. Ryan believes the hunt should continue, both because of its economic rewards and because the seal population must be controlled to reduce the impact on fish stocks.

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