George McMahon and the University of Windsor have enjoyed a close personal relationship since July 1, 1963—the day he reported for his first day of work as a faculty member and the day his alma mater, Assumption University, became the newly federated University of Windsor.
A former high school history teacher, McMahon taught history on campus while serving as the assistant to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He later served as the University’s first dean of students, assistant vice-president student services and assistant vice-president alumni affairs, before his retirement in 1996.
McMahon, who was also on campus as a student in 1947, has been the Office of Public Affairs and Communication’s go-to guy for all things 50th anniversary related—partly because of his daily presence on campus for the past 50 years, though mostly because of his intense study of the University’s history through his books, The Dean’s Story, the biography of Rev. N.J. Ruth, C.S.B., published in 1997; Pure Zeal: A History of Assumption College 1870-1946, published in 2002; The Personal Papers of Dr. J. Francis Leddy, Volume 1, published in 2005; and this year’s Rev. E.C. LeBel and the Creation of the University of Windsor.
These volumes chronicle the University’s history from 1870 when the Congregation of St. Basil assumed the administrative duties of what was then known as Assumption College from the Jesuits priests who had established it in 1857 as an arm of Our Lady of Assumption parish.
McMahon’s writing follows Assumption College through 1919 when it was affiliated with the University of Western Ontario, to 1950 and the admission of the college’s first female students, to 1953 when it ended its affiliation with Western, changed its name to Assumption University of Windsor and accepted the non-denominational Essex College as an affiliate. By 1957, Canterbury College came on board and became the first Anglican College in the world to affiliate with a Catholic University—and more change was in the wind.
“By 1961 it was predicted that the University could expect an enrolment of 7,000 by 1967,” McMahon recalled. “Well this was an overwhelming figure for the time and the Basilians were under some pressure to make a decision about the University’s future. No funding was available to non-secular universities so Essex College was founded as a non-denominational institution and the province provided $200,000 for the construction of Essex Hall. At that point nearly 80 percent of the University’s staff was employed by Essex College.”
He credits the foresight of Rev. LeBel for establishing Essex College, which not only provided a specialized environment for mathematics and pure science, but also served the dual purpose of making the established university eligible for provincial funding for capital projects. LeBel also saw the handwriting on the wall and recognized that growing the university and meeting the post-secondary needs of the community would have to involve an even greater partnership with the province.
“The Basilians were under tremendous pressure to change and Father LeBel was a charismatic leader who was loved by the community,” McMahon remembers. “He was the man. He was able to see what the future held and lead the University into a new era.”
Father Norbert Ruth, still well-remembered by many in today’s UWindsor community, wrote the University of Windsor Act, which was passed in December 1962 and the University of Windsor as we know it was federated on July 1, 1963.
As an historian, McMahon was encouraged by former UWindsor President Ron Ianni to chronicle the University’s history upon his retirement. Over the past 17 years, he has not only recorded the University’s big moments for posterity, but has noted the daily trials and triumphs that will tell UWindsor’s story well into the future.
“I wanted to record the first-hand stories of people before they were gone,” he said. “These are important pieces of history and they are worth telling.”
McMahon’s books on the history of the University are available for purchase from the University Bookstore.
For more information on the 50th Anniversary Weekend, visit www.uwindsor.ca/anniversary.