Bob Shaw: Man of steel

Bob Shaw: Man of steel McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 5, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 14
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > April 5, 2001 > Bob Shaw: Man of steel

Bob Shaw: Man of steel

Photo Former Vice-Principal (Administration) Bob Shaw
PHOTO: McGill University Archives

While Montreal will remember Bob Shaw for having "engineered Expo 67's success," as the Gazette's headline ran last week, McGill might similarly headline: "Shaw generalled McGill's defences the night it was besieged."

Bob Shaw, 1910-2001, BEng '33, vice-principal (administration) 1968-71, Hon. DSc '85, returned to his alma mater in 1968 after a highly successful business career which included working on the Distant Early Warning emplacements in Canada's Arctic in the Cold War period, and on airfields for NATO in Italy and Norway. He came fresh from his success at Expo but McGill needed him and he responded to the call.

The situation was indeed very difficult. The student troubles of the '60s were gaining momentum, organizers exploiting new skills learned from Vietnam protesters, and easily outwitting an administration chosen to cope with normal academic, financial and collegial niceties, not with the ruthless tactics of a new-breed hippie generation.

The principal was a former chief surgeon at the Montreal General Hospital, the vice-principal (academic) was a young economics professor skilled in theory but unbloodied in practice and the acting vice-principal (research), a former dean of divinity. Not the best trio, one would think, to take the brunt of a campaign designed to destabilize the University.

Principal Rocke Robertson knew he needed help, someone used to tackling unprecedented situations, someone unfazed by labour problems, someone unhampered by academic hesitations, someone who could produce his own brand of ruthlessness to meet the uninhibited tactics of the wily protesters.

He invited Shaw to fill a new position, vice-principal (administration) in charge primarily of finance and physical plant, but the job description included providing leadership in protecting the business credibility and day-to-day functioning of the university plant.

Shaw's new colleagues found him to be as wise and prudent as he was forthright and practical. We received at one point a list of demands from an academic department, governed by a student-dominated council, that certain junior staff be promoted forthwith and certain senior staff members demoted or fired outright.

"Ah," said Bob, "a clear case for mad." When I said I could not see how anger would help, he said "No, MAD -- major administrative delay. You write them a letter saying that you are giving this matter your earnest attention. You refer to certain administrative and legal difficulties, but you are careful not to define them, and you fill a page with gobbledegook. You're an academic, you're good at that, and then you do nothing while you wait for their next move."

Shaw's great challenge came the night of the McGill Français march of March 28, 1969 -- as I write, the 32nd anniversary of an event now only a memory, but then a practical and horrible reality.

The student revolt, trade-union unrest and political nationalism had combined in a volatile, unpredictable coalition, which took for its symbolic goal the francisization of McGill.

The possibility was strong that several thousand protesters proceeding from Lafontaine Park to the Roddick Gates would end in a riotous invasion of the campus. Shaw enlisted the help of the local, provincial and RCMP police forces and assigned senior McGill staff to patrol every building, each with his or her special identification button. The control centre was in Shaw's office.

The marchers proceeded slowly and noisily, shouting slogans, displaying banners, throwing numerous firecrackers, and at least two Molotov cocktails that landed harmlessly on the pavement outside the Roddick Gates.

At that point the police made their move. They confronted the marchers with a solid line of roaring motor bikes and herded them towards St. Catherine Street. The threat was over. Bob Shaw had been ready and so had been the University.

In the main lounge of the Faculty Club, you can see Shaw's portrait, his head wreathed in tobacco smoke, his quiet smile conveying a sense of great satisfaction.

That is indeed how we remember him and are truly thankful -- and none less than that former dean of divinity who, when Shaw was summoned to Ottawa to become Canada's first deputy minister of the environment, was unexpectedly called to fill his shoes. He found them very, very big.

Stanley Frost
History of McGill Project
Former Dean of Divinity and Vice-Principal (Administration)

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