Two years ago, during one of my third-year Public History classes, professor Tom Symons, Trent University’s founding president, visited and shared a few stories about early days of this school. Among the stories that he told was a remarkable tale about Ron Thom, Faryon Bridge, and an American millionaire.
The story, to the best of my recollection, goes that after the university completed construction of Thom’s iconic—but expensive—bridge in 1968, Professor Symons was sitting in his office when one day he received a telephone call, out of the blue, from a rich American businessman who possessed a taste for fine architecture.
The businessman said that he had heard that Trent had succeeded in building an artful, graceful, elegant bridge on its campus and asked if he could come see the project for himself.
When he finally made it to Peterborough this businessman declared Faryon Bridge to indeed be a thing of beauty and, incredibly, he wrote the university a cheque to cover its cost!
For the longest time I had no idea what to make of this seemingly incredulous tale; given all that this community has heard over the past few decades about budget cuts, funding cuts, course cuts, program cuts, tuition hikes, fiscal difficulties, belt-tightenting, inefficiencies, and, of course, centralization, one would never suspect that something so wonderfully odd could have ever happened here.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see this story, and indeed the foresight of Mr. Thom’s architectural vision, as being symbolic of the triumph of this university’s optimism and idealism over austerity and improbable odds during the early years.
In fact, looking look back at the history of this school, Trent University was created by scaling a mountain of improbabilities.
For starters, the idea for a post-secondary school in Peterborough originated from a seemingly innocuous letter written to Robertson Davies, editor of the Peterborough Examiner, in 1957.
At that time, there were many, both inside and outside the city, who scoffed at the idea of creating an institution of higher learning in Peterborough, who said that the city was too small, too poor, and too remote to afford even a technical college, let alone a fully certified university.
The doubters were proven wrong, however, as less than a decade after Reginald Faryon penned that fateful letter, Canada’s Governor General, proudly declared the city’s new university to be open.
In creating Trent, the school’s founders and the wider Peterborough community worked tirelessly together to realize the shared vision of building a top-level educational institution right in heart of their city.
Unbelievably, the city, which was at the time a relatively backwater town of less than 50,000 people, was able to attract one of Canada’s up-and-coming architects to design a campus that remains unrivaled in terms of beauty.
Furthermore, this little school was able to steal away one of the country’s most respected academics, a man whose radical perspectives on education served to pique the interest of faculty across the continent.
In this respect, Ron Thom’s contributions to Trent: Faryon Bridge, Bata Library, the Science Complex, and the four original colleges, stand today as defiant symbols of what can be accomplished when an individual, or in this case an institution, has a clear vision of itself and possesses the optimism and determination to will that vision into reality.
While the story of that American businessman might seem ludicrous and impossible today, its lesson, that absurd and wonderful things can happen when you refuse to settle for mediocrity, is one that this school should never forget.