Sir John and Basil Fawlty

Good morning and welcome to our annual Founders Day Assembly.

Let me begin with a confession: When I first landed here a decade ago, having absolutely no understanding of Canadian history (I didn’t even know who had ACTUALLY won the War of 1812!) let alone the history of this wonderful school, I remember looking up at the portrait that dominates Laidlaw Hall and thinking, “Wow! I’ve never seen George Washington in red before.”

Forgive me! It was only later that I could begin to fully appreciate just how offensive such ignorance might have been to Lord Seaton. To compensate for this shortcoming, I threw myself into a book called “Colborne’s Legacy,” written by former Prep Headmaster, Richard Howard, and there I discovered 5 things every UCC boy should know about our founder.

1. It’s worth knowing what Colborne was not. He was not an educator or a politician, and he wasn’t a part of — or even a particular friend of — the Family Compact, the Tory group that led Upper Canada from 1812 to 1840. (It’s worth noting that the family compact’s spiritual leader was a man named Bishop Strachan.) Colborne was, though, a stunningly courageous military man who was wise enough to start a school and never foolish enough to run it. As a military man, he knew the value of delegating!

2. On this point: Colborne hired the first principal, an Anglican minister from England named James Harris,  (You can see his dashing portrait right above that of Mr. Blakey’s) who led the school for 8 years. Here’s a little UCC/ TV trivia: when Harris retired, he like Colborne himself, moved to a part of England called Torquay — which happens to be the setting of my favourite British comedy, “Fawlty Towers,” which revolves around the misadventures of an utterly pretentious and completely inept hotel owner named Basil Fawlty. (There are days when I wonder if there is some sort of mysterious connection between Basil and me. If you ever catch me muttering, “Don’t mention the war!” under my breath– I hope you’ll understand.) By the way, when Reverend Harris retired, he did so by announcing that, “The labors of the present situation were too onerous to be relinquished with regret.” Reverend Harris was 38 at the time.

3. As great as UCC’s aspirations have been, it has never been nirvana; it had personnel challenges right from the start. Members of the Classics Department, Misters Phillips, Matthews and Boulton, questioned Colborne about their relationship with the principal. They were unhappy because they believed they had been hired to be Reverend Harris’ colleagues. Instead Harris had ended up treating them as “assistants or ushers.” This may explain why Harris retired at 38.

4. Colborne was a headstrong and  thoroughly non-collegial leader. No slave to process, at one point without consulting anyone, he actually suspended the school charter, an act that completely dumbfounded the Family Compact members, especially Bishop Strachan.  At one point William Lyon Mackenzie actually drew up Articles of Impeachment against Colborne for his conduct of the college. Howard points out that, “UCC was brought to life, not by a committee or a consensus of the best and brightest, but springing like Athene (the goddess of heroic endeavor) out of the head of one decisive, strong-willed, arrogant man, who was not very knowledgeable about either education or the environment in which he was operating.”  (There are days when I find both great inspiration and great solace in those words!)

5.  Colborne deliberately set the tuition fees as $8 for day students and $25 for boarders in an attempt to have the school be as accessible as possible, and yet despite that noble effort, the school had status right from its start. For one thing, it was a “college” and not just a school or an academy; it was almost a university, and for another, it had a principal, not just a headmaster. Howard writes that, “From the day it opened, the School reflected the image of exclusiveness, an image which it never lost.”

I remember a Grade 12 boy’s once telling me, “I know people perceive us as arrogant, but no matter what we do, I think UCC boys will always be seen under the shadow of the clock tower.”

(A personal aside: the summer I moved to Toronto, I bumped into an American who had been living in Canada for some time, and he offered me this advice, “You think you are moving to Andover or Deerfield or some place like that. But it’s different up here.  The boy from Andover may go to California for college and end up working in Oklahoma City before settling in Cincinnati or some place where nobody knows anything about where he went to high school. On the other hand UCC boys, some of them may go abroad for a time, but the great majority of them are going to live in one of 3 Canadian cities, and where they went to high school will matter for the rest of their lives.”)

That stranger was right. This school matters. A great deal. And I think that its founder would like that. He might also like the fact that nearly two centuries after he founded this institution, we still reflect the personality of one decisive, confident, strong-willed man, a man who was willing to take funds that the Crown had originally designated for the future University of Toronto, and was willing to use them to create his school, his Upper Canada College.


4 thoughts on “Sir John and Basil Fawlty

  1. Dear Jim,

    I’ve always been a Michael Palin guy myself–I like his mad, anarchic gleam in the eye. But, sure, I see you as Basil Fawlty, albeit less lanky. I’m sure you’ve been heard to mutter (about students or teachers), “It’d be quicker to train a monkey.”

    Interesting what you say about UCC and how it follows a Canadian boy all his life. That’s the British influence, no? Once an Etonian or Harrovian, always a . . . .

  2. Jim,

    Thank you for the insight into Canadian (and UCC) history…and a laugh thinking about my favorite “Fawlty Towers” episode.

    Basil: Is there something wrong?
    Elder Herr: Will you stop talking about the war?
    Basil: Me! You started it!
    Elder Herr: We did not start it!
    Basil: Yes you did — you invaded Poland.

  3. Mark,

    You outline our most important strategic challenge!

    That is why the UCC board has made dramatically increasing our financial assistance program the top priority for our “Think Ahead” campaign.

    This year we have 171 boys on FA, and next year we will have close to 200 boys on assistance. Meanwhile, we are trying to raise 50 million dollars to enhance an endowment program that will make this possible.

    Thanks for reminding us that we can’t forget those who go to other schools — just “two blocks away.”


  4. Hi Jim,

    I like this post.

    “I think UCC boys will always be seen under the shadow of the clock tower.”

    And therein, I believe, lies a significant challenge for UCC. The school cannot maintain its prominence only via dollars and powerful alumni. I believe it must maintain its place through excellent teaching, a sense of focus, and by remaining relevant to the other 99.9% who cannot afford to walk its halls.

    When I visit UCC, which I try to do regularly, I keep my eyes wide open to the students, faculty, and staff (but largely the students) in order to understand the strengths and weaknesses that lie beneath.

    Naturally, educating the boys entrusted to UCC’s care must be mission number 1. But, if we recognize and accept that many of these boys will become Canada’s future leaders, relevance to the other 99.9% becomes a focus. The Head of Culver Academies, Mr. John Buxton, himself the leader of a venerable institution with powerful alumni, an incredible endowment, and facilities that would make even UCC green with envy, said it best:

    “We have an incredible opportunity and chapter in history that will be written here on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee. However, if we forget those who are allowing us this chance to write history, those who go to school two blocks away under different circumstances, we are bound to become only a footnote in that history as we write our way into obscurity.” (para-phrased – it was a few years ago that I was at Culver and heard John)

    UCC does, indeed, matter. The largest question is whether it will continue to matter tomorrow, and the next day, and the decades that follow.

    Personally, I hope so!



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