Dean Walter Gage’s Legacy Still Supports Students

Donna Willard-Jones and Snap, Margaret and Glen Carlson
(L) Donna Willard-Jones and Snap, (R) Margaret and Glen Carlson

Dean Walter Gage
Dean Walter Gage

Affectionately dubbed “The Dean of Everything,” Professor Walter Harry Gage joined UBC in 1926 and served as President from 1969 to 1975. As an educator, his commitment to students and teaching was legendary. He was particularly dedicated to developing financial aid programs and went out of his way to help students in need, often from his own pocket. His generosity was deeply and widely felt. It cut across all faculties, leaving an indelible impression that has inspired generations of alumni to pay it forward.

Dr. Glen Carlson (M.D. ‘60) and Dr. Donna Willard-Jones (B.A.‘65) are just two alumni whose remarkable encounters with Professor Gage inspired them to give back to the university. Glen and his wife established the Glen and Margaret Carlson Bursary in Medicine while Donna has made a gift in her will to support the Walter Gage Bursary Fund.

Glen was a third year medical student when he met Professor Gage in the late fifties. He had run into some financial trouble and needed help. “I couldn’t pay my landlady and still had a semester to do,” he explains. “Although I wasn’t in any of his classes, I used to hear all sorts of stories. Everyone knew if you were a starving student, you went to see Professor Gage.”

Unsure of what to do but determined to do it, Glen dressed up in his best suit and tie and went to the Professor’s office. “He listened to my story and then handed me a form and said, ‘sign here.’ I got some money, and that was the sum total of my experience.”

Although the encounter was short and sweet, Glen cites the support he received as the inspiration behind the Carlson Bursary. Established in 2005, this bursary is available to medical students who need help reconciling their assessed financial need with available government assistance. Over 80 students have already benefited from Glen and Margaret’s generosity.

“If I could speak to Walter Gage one more time, I’d say ‘thank you’,” says Glen. “That little loan made all the difference. It allowed me to finish my degree and go on to lead a pretty good life.”

It was about two years later that Donna met Professor Gage for the first time in 1961. Although she was a freshman and part of a different faculty, her experience was remarkably similar.

“I think his title was Dean of Students at the time,” says Donna. “Back then when you applied for a bursary, you met with the Dean. I’ll never forget walking into his office. He knew all about me before I got in the door.”

Donna was taken aback by the concern and genuine interest she received from Professor Gage. “He was just very interested in what I was doing—and what I wanted to do. He had seen my grades and felt everything was going well. And he gave me a little bit of money, which I needed desperately. I went to see him several more times over four years, all with my hand out. And he never failed. He absolutely never failed to give me some money to help me get through.”

Donna began contributing to the Walter Gage Bursary Fund in 1970, as soon as she completed her law degree. Now as head of her own Alaska-based firm, she is pleased that her bequest will help future generations of students who could be facing their own tough times.

“I remember Dean Gage as a relatively small man in stature, but to me he was an emperor. Without him, I doubt I would have graduated. Money was that tight for me. I chose to leave a gift to the Walter Gage Bursary Fund because I remember how he helped me. I wanted to support UBC in a way that carried forward his ideas and criteria for assessing need. And if my money can help students and make a difference to their continuing education, that’s exactly what I want to do.”

Walter Gage entered UBC as a student and graduated with an M.A. in 1926. He went on to teach mathematics at Victoria College before returning to UBC as an Assistant Professor in 1933. Ten years later, he joined the Senate as the representative of Arts and Science. He then served as Dean of Administrative and Inter-Faculty Affairs and later as Dean of Inter-Faculty and Student Affairs before accepting the post of President in 1969.

In over 50 years of service, Professor Gage’s influence extended to every corner of the university. He guided UBC through a period of remarkable change and fostered a sense of community that gave both the students and faculty a sense of belonging. As a remarkable educator, he earned many accolades throughout his career, including the inaugural Master Teacher’s Award, which was instituted in 1968 and the Great Trekker Award. In 1958, the university honoured him with a Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, and in 1971 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. However, there was probably no recognition that brought him greater pleasure than the students who followed him as a leader and came to him as a friend.

Throughout Professor Gage’s career as a teacher and administrator, he gave his energies completely to the
university and its students. No aspect of campus life escaped his attention. Nothing was too small or insignificant.

Even after passing away in 1978, his hard work, empathy, and generosity remain a model for living now championed by the alumni who made him so proud. His memory lives on not only in the numerous buildings and halls that bear
his name, but also through the students that carry forward
his ideals and spirit.

If you would like to share a story about your experience with Walter Gage, please let us know. We will post your recollections online at startanevolution.ca/gage