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Saturday May 14, 2011

Frenetic life didn't hinder work of historian

A builder of Toronto's York University, he survived administrative work to return to academic life

Canadian historians are rarely called dazzling. Learned, astute, influential even, but dazzling? That superlative belongs to opera houses not lecture halls. Yet, dazzling is the way J.L. Granatstein, himself a noted, and crusty, interpreter of our collective past, describes the effect John T. (Jack) Saywell had on him at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s.

Saywell, a skinny kid from a small town on Vancouver Island, had arrived at the U of T in the mid-1950s. By the time Granatstein showed up in his graduate seminar five years later, Saywell had a sterling reputation as a hard-working scholar and an energetic teacher. Instead of trekking through the country's steadfast progress from colony to nation, he "pushed and prodded and pulled you into the modern era," said Granatstein, who did an MA at the U of T in 1962. "It was an eye opener that shaped the way I viewed Canadian history ever after." Saywell also treated his students like people he wanted to know, invariably taking them out for a bang-up dinner at the end of term, a habit that Granatstein adopted when he began teaching.

Saywell, a visionary and an astute critical thinker, chafed under the creaky hierarchy of the U of T's history department, its complacent attitude - as far as he was concerned - to research and scholarship, and the undemocratic way in which heads were anointed by the central administration. In 1962, he was given an offer he felt he couldn't refuse: founding dean of arts and science at York University, the muddy academic promise north of the city at Keele and Finch.

Many still refer to Canada's third largest university as the house that Jack built. "He was very young, very creative, extremely hard working and terribly intelligent, and he really did a magnificent job in creating the foundation of York University," said his younger brother William (Bill) Saywell, a Chinese historian and former president of Simon Fraser University. Saywell "was a triple-threat guy," said Granatstein. "There aren't many Canadian academics who are teachers, writers and visionary administrators. That's what makes him exceptional."

Yet, for all the students he inspired and the books he wrote, he never realized his dream to become president of York or achieved the lasting popular acclaim he desired as a historian. A superb athlete in his youth, Saywell drove his body hard as an adult and suffered the consequences of smoking, drinking, partying and working 16-hour days. In his mid-70s he had a series of major surgeries and suffered from cardiovascular problems, including aneurysms, which led to his death at 81 on April 20.

John Tupper Saywell was born on April 3, 1929, in Weyburn, about 100 kilometres southeast of Regina in an arid area of Saskatchewan known as Palliser's Triangle. His father, John Ferdinand Tupper Saywell, a veteran of Passchendaele, was principal of a four-room school in nearby Mossbank; his mother, Vera Marguerite (Sayles) Saywell, had been a teacher during the war when jobs normally held by men temporarily opened up for women.

The collapse of the world grain markets in 1929 was followed by a seemingly endless drought, vicious winds that lifted the soil in oppressive black clouds, plagues of ravenous grasshoppers, hail, frost and the crop disease known as rust. All of these calamities crippled harvests and turned the area into a dust bowl.

Even though John Saywell had a job, he was rarely paid. Like so many others from the prairies, the Saywell family, which now included a second son, William (born in December, 1936), headed west to British Columbia in 1937. They settled in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island after Saywell was hired as principal of the new high school in the small market town serving the logging camps and lumber mills in the area.

As a boy, Jack Saywell was a whiz at school, sports, and music. He could have been a semi-professional baseball player or a violinist in a symphony orchestra, although one friend says he always played Scarlatti too fast. Instead, he became an academic.

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