University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Youth Revisited

Seniors' group shows no signs of slowing down

It’s like returning to student days – except with no essays or exams. Whether Professor Ken Bartlett (BA 1971 VIC, MA 1972, PhD 1978) is speaking on the Renaissance, or Professor Helen Hatton (PhD 1988) is outlining the history of trains, the Canadian Perspectives lectures, organized by the University of Toronto Senior Alumni Association, attract seniors back to campus in droves.

Last fall, almost 400 attended lectures given by eminent U of T professors on the St. George campus, while another 120 or so attended similar programs at the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses. A modest fee ($50 for nine talks in the fall; $40 for five in the spring) covers all lectures on the St. George campus, including coffee at each meeting and a light luncheon following the final lecture. Even so, the presentations manage to be self-supporting and provide funds for scholarships.

The success of the lectures is viewed with particular pride as the seniors’ association celebrates its 25th anniversary. The occasion will be marked at the association’s annual general meeting on May 10 at 1:30 p.m. in Room 179 of University College, with an informal address by Mary Catherine Birgeneau, in her role as community relations liaison.

The association traces its beginnings back to the late 1970s when Wilson Abernethy (BASc 1923) and a group of 10 interested seniors imagined that retirees with a wide range of experience in different professional careers might offer volunteer services to the university.

It was Abernethy’s determination and drive that assured the implementation of the seniors’ program. When he walked into the Alumni House, then on Willcocks Street, in 1975 to discuss his proposal for a seniors’ association, he was convinced that retired alumni possessed invaluable skills to offer the university and that they in turn would be enriched by renewed contact with their alma mater. Bert Pinnington (BA 1950 TRIN), former director of alumni affairs, saw the wisdom of the proposal and placed his department’s facilities at Abernethy’s disposal.

The idea of an organized corps of senior volunteers working on behalf of a university had not been developed before in Canada. Gradually, however, faculties and departments began to see the value of using the seniors as a resource, and the association grew year by year to its 400-member status.

The association received international recognition in 1981, when the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) in Washington, D.C., presented its Grand Award to the department of alumni affairs for the seniors’ involvement and a special citation for the unique program. Other Canadian universities followed suit and set up similar programs, citing U of T’s model.

While the Canadian Perspectives lecture series remains its cornerstone, the association also provides volunteer services to various colleges, faculties and schools through its Senior Alumni Volunteers group. Senior volunteers lead tours at the Robarts Library (making “Fort Book” truly user-friendly) and act as guides and receptionists at Spring Reunion. They also respond to student queries at the Koffler Student Services Centre, the Nona MacDonald Visitors Centre and other locations as needed. The association has computerized its database of 75 volunteers to facilitate quick access to people best qualified for the jobs requested. The volunteers provide assistance only when staff and funding are not available to provide a service.

Under the direction of the president, Ilmar Talvila (BA 1951 UC), the association continues to pursue new members and volunteers to assist in projects. To upgrade the skills of volunteers, Talvila developed an Introduction to Computers course featuring Windows 2000 and e-mail. Those taking the course also learn how to use WordPerfect and access the Internet. The course is so popular that Talvila is searching for someone to assist him in teaching the program.

Two years ago, the association started a new graduate scholarship for students in the department of zoology. The endowment fund has increased to $20,000 thanks to the initial contribution made by the association and to matching funds from the university and the province of Ontario. Whats more, the seniors continue to support the Wilson Abernethy Memorial Lecture on social issues, to be held this year on May 4 at 3 p.m. in the George Ignatieff Theatre.

As part of its 25th-anniversary program, the association has set a $50,000 fundraising goal to establish the Margaret Higgins Memorial Scholarship for graduate students in the humanities. Higgins (Dip Occupational Therapy 1950), who died last year at the age of 70, was president of the association from 1992 to 1995.

For information on the Canadian Perspectives lecture series or to find out about volunteer opportunities, contact: Senior Alumni Association, University of Toronto, 21 King’s College Circle, Toronto, Ont., M5S 3J3; phone (416) 978-0544; fax (416) 978-5102; or e-mail

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