Being a Lakehead Student Fifty Years Ago

Reflections on the 1969-70 academic year

Dr. John Steckley, Contributor


It was 1969.  The fall after the summer of Woodstock.  Fifty years ago, I was a first-year student at Lakehead.  It was the only university to accept me, and that was on probation.  I graduated from grade 13 in high school with a 56 average, and I had failed grade 11. I entered as an English major, but a Lakehead professor made me interested in Sociology. I have since written an introductory sociology textbook that is currently going into its fifth edition. The place turned my life around, as you can tell by the Dr. in front of my name.  


Lakehead University was different then.  You could smoke in the classrooms; my history professor once borrowed a cigarette from me that he smoked as he lectured.  I was the first-year student history rep, and just about everyone (most of whom were British) smoked at the meetings. The chair of the department smoked cigars, which he would theatrically extinguish in the dregs of his coffee cup.  I often wondered during meetings whether he would ever forget that and drink the dregs.


The drinking age was 21 (I was 20).  It wasn’t lowered until 1971, when it became, for a while, 18.  My roommate and I sold bottles of wine at only a slightly inflated price. We tried to make our own wine out of dates, but the bottles exploded in our closet.


It was a time of protest. The counterculture anti-war song One Tin Soldier – as done by Calgary group The Original Caste was popular.  We had a university bus take us to the border to protest American underground detonation of nuclear weapons on Amchitka Island, part of the Aleutian chain off of southwest Alaska bomb testing on islands off of the Alaska mainland. It was the only protest I ever attended. The police did not threaten us, tear gas us, or shoot us.  They just saw that we didn’t get into any trouble. The testing lasted until 1971. The island is still being monitored for radioactive leaks.


It was a place where I first discovered that I was a storyteller.  I would walk the streets of Port Arthur telling stories to random people. I wrote poetry then too. The Argus published a few of my poems (under my pen name of Fang). Pretty much everyone living on the top floor of F House had some kind of nickname. The names the Baron (my roommate), Wheez, Skid, and Lightfinger all come to mind.


It was a year of change for Thunder Bay too.  The two cities of Port Arthur and Fort William merged in January, and took on the contested name of Thunder Bay, with most people voting for Lakehead and The Lakehead – the “the” split the vote.   When a bunch of us went to the Fort William Arena to hear bands play (I particularly remember the then popular American band “Paul Revere and the Raiders”), and returned on the bus, the Fort William bus would stop at the no-man’s land that divided the two cities, and we would wait for the Port Arthur bus to pick us up.  If we boarded it a little before midnight, the bus sound system would play “God Save the Queen.” We didn’t stand, but I once suggested it.


The academic year 1969-70 was my only year at Lakehead.  The combination of not having much money for residence and a huge dose of homesickness made me decide to transfer with the good marks I got at Lakehead to York University, where I could live with my mother and two sisters.  I graduated from there in 1973, got my Masters’ degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1978, and, after much delay, my Doctorate from the University of Toronto in 2003. But it was Lakehead University and Thunder Bay that gave me the start that I needed.


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