Around Christmas in 1966, William Newnham was presented with an empty box. It was not meant as a cruel yuletide gift, but as a challenge. "This is Seneca College," the chairman of the institution's newly formed board of governors told Dr. Newnham. "Take it, find a building, renovate it, develop courses and an administration, hire teachers and enroll students. And we want it to be the finest in Canada."
At Seneca College in Toronto, the box story attained mythic status. But Dr. Newnham himself confirmed it years later. The board "wasn't fooling," he recalled. He wrote seven drafts of his application letter before finally sending it in to the board, which included the president of IBM Canada, senior engineering faculty from universities and politicians - "all long-ball hitters."
Dr. Newnham "overachieved on all the goals of his opening assignment," wrote David Agnew, Seneca's current president, in a tribute. "Real estate was found, more than 20 programs were launched, teaching and support staff were hired, and nearly 2,000 full- and part-time students were enrolled on Day 1. And that was all within a scant eight months."
Beginning in a renovated factory, Dr. Newnham established Seneca College as one of the largest post secondary institutions in Canada. Consisting of 10 campuses across the Greater Toronto Area, it has 26,500 full-time and 70,000 part-time students enrolled, and awards an array of degrees, diplomas and certificates in 290 programs, ranging from accounting to visual merchandising arts.
Former Ontario premier Bill Davis, who as education minister had been one of the architects of the college system, recalled Dr. Newnham as "a very important part of the education scene in Ontario" and "one of the premier presidents of the college system.
He was a man of great integrity who believed in what he was doing and really helped the educational position of the colleges move ahead. He was a very honest person, intellectually and otherwise, and the kind of person who was a pleasure to be with," he said.
"The educational system in Ontario owes a great debt to Bill," Mr. Davis said of Dr. Newnham, who died of heart failure in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Aug. 23. He was 91.
On his retirement from Seneca in 1984, Dr. Newnham was the last of the original founding presidents of Ontario's system of community colleges, which today number 24 institutions that enroll 200,000 full-time and 300,000 part-time students, and boast that 83 per cent of their graduates find work within six months.
William Thomson Newnham was born on Feb. 7, 1923 in Shallow Lake, Ont. His mother, Gertrude, was a teacher and his father, Bertram, was a United Church minister who moved his family frequently as pulpits opened up. When war came, his son longed to see combat but the military instead assigned him to teach flight navigation, based in Winnipeg. "They wouldn't let him go [overseas] because he was more valuable as an instructor," his daughter, Susan Mitchell, related. But the disappointment revealed to Dr. Newnham how much he loved to teach.
After the war, he graduated from Queen's University in Kingston, with a bachelor's in math and physics, followed by two master's degrees from the University of Toronto, in mathematics and education. He began teaching math at Toronto schools, and by the age of 36, he became the youngest school principal in Toronto, at Northview Heights in North York, where, as Mr. Agnew recalled, he was "already showing his innovative flair" in the early 1960s by bringing several firsts to the school: a computer course (he installed an early IBM mainframe and spurned job offers from the company), night school, a summer semester, teacher development and a series of guest lecturers that included businessman Ed Mirvish.
He oversaw Seneca's acquisition in 1971 of the 700-acre summer estate of Lady Flora Eaton of department store fame. Eaton Hall, her residence, has become the college's King Campus, now home to more than 3,500 students.
Appointed in 1973 to a provincial commission on higher education that recommended community colleges be given the right to grant BAA (Bachelor of Applied Arts) and BT (Bachelor of Technology) degrees, Dr. Newnham issued a spirited dissent, saying many college students don't want degrees, and he deplored "the obsession our society has for paper qualifications."
But he recognized that vocational training should not come at the expense of the liberal arts.
Seneca was one of the first community colleges to establish a curriculum that included instruction in English, communications and the humanities. It was a policy hailed by Canadian historian Desmond Morton, who lauded Dr. Newnham as "one of the most reflective of community college leaders."
His daughter described his philosophy this way: "It wasn't enough to know how to plumb.
You had to be able to communicate."
York University gave Dr. Newnham an honorary doctorate of laws in 1975.
In 1985, he was thrown into an issue that ignited the public. One of Mr. Davis's final acts as premier was to announce that the province would provide full funding for Roman Catholic high schools all the way to Grade 13 (funding had previously stopped at Grade 10). It came as a surprise to many, especially to other religious groups that cried discrimination; infamously, Lewis Garnsworthy, the Anglican Bishop of Toronto, compared Mr. Davis to Adolf Hitler.
Seven weeks after his bombshell, Mr. Davis appointed Dr. Newnham to chair an eight-member commission to advise the government on the financing issue. Despite some raucous hearings, "his committee had a lot to do with getting understanding and acceptance [for funding] among the general public," Mr. Davis said.
"It was a powder keg," recalled his daughter, "the most contentious political issue of the day. It was very difficult to navigate. I'm not sure he completely agreed [with funding] but he thought it behooved everyone to see to it that both systems [the public and Catholic] were treated fairly."
In a Globe profile on his retirement, Dr. Newnham listed several accomplishments during his tenure, including student travelstudy programs, adult retraining and new student counselling programs. With considerable pride, he recalled the development of programs to help workers who lost their jobs and employers who could not find technicians with adequate skills.
He attributed the college's popularity to a knack for anticipating future trends in education and the labour market. To this day, Seneca keeps in contact with hundreds of businesses in Ontario to get a picture of their training requirements.
In retirement, Dr. Newnham ran a gift and antique shop in Unionville, Ont., with his family.
He leaves his sister, Marianne Stone; his wife, Marein; children, Susan, Linda, Donald and Thomson; and eight grandchildren.
William Newnham, left, and Seneca College's founding board chair Fred Minkler turn the sod on the land that would eventually become Newnham Campus.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SENECA COLLEGE