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Words don’t always flow easily for prolific Waterloo historian

Updated: May 25, 2020

Ken McLaughlin isn’t sure how many books he has written on local and Canadian history, but figures they number “at least a dozen” in his long academic career. He’s written or co-written histories on all three of the major cities in Waterloo Region, a history of his hometown of Hespeler, no less than three books on the University of Waterloo, had a hand in books

Ken McLaughlin (right) and Chuck Howitt

on St. Mary’s and Grand River Hospitals, Joseph Schneider Haus and the Homer Watson Gallery and just last year published a book on the pivotal 1896 federal election when Wilfrid Laurier became prime minister, a work that was based on his PhD thesis of 50 years ago at the University of Toronto.

You would think that for someone who has crafted so many books, writing should be a stroll in the park. Far from it. “Writing is really painful,” says the soft-spoken, affable professor emeritus of history at the University of Waterloo (UW). For one thing, McLaughlin needs the right setting. His office on campus was not an ideal place. Too many interruptions by students or other faculty. “I had an open-door policy.” He preferred to spin out his elegant prose in the quiet seclusion of the 1867 heritage house he shares with his wife near uptown Waterloo. And sometimes even that tranquil setting didn’t work. He’d be sitting at his desk, labouring over a piece of prose when the words stopped coming. He was stuck. He get up and go for a walk or start driving somewhere and suddenly, out of the blue, the muse would strike. You didn’t want to get in McLaughlin’s way when that happened.

Not Just Kerouac Wrote On The Road

In the late 1980s he took his family on a camping trip to the U.S. They were heading toward Sarnia, ON, to cross over the Blue Water Bridge into Michigan. McLaughlin was behind the wheel of his Ford Thunderbird, towing a tent-trailer, when suddenly, inspiration struck. Words started flowing in his head about a difficult passage he was working on. He had to get them down. Over the objections of his wife, daughter and daughter’s friend who was along for the trip, he drove off the highway and onto a side road. Spotting a golf course, he pulled into the parking lot, told them to go inside and get some lunch while he stayed in the car and wrote down his thoughts. He wrote furiously and got everything down by the time they returned. Feeling exhilarated, he was all set to resume the journey when he noticed the gas gauge in the car. It was low. Don’t worry, someone at the golf course told him. There are plenty of gas stations on the way to Sarnia. They drove and drove. No gas stations. They got in line to cross the bridge. Too late to find fuel. McLaughlin paid the toll and drove up on the bridge. Near the top the car started to sputter and cough, and he pulled over to the side of the bridge. His buoyant mood over the brilliant piece of prose he had jotted down back at the golf course had long since faded amid the worry of running out of gas.

Running on Empty on a Bridge too Far

McLaughlin got out and started hitch-hiking back to the Canadian side. This was in the days when the bridge was a single two-way span. Word quickly spread. Some crazy guy is walking on the bridge. Traffic began to snarl. Officials decided to close the bridge, one of the busiest in North America. A kind soul heading to Canada picked him up and drove him to the bridge office. An exasperated bridge manager came out and listened to McLaughlin’s story. Taking pity on the beleaguered professor, he filled a gas can and drove him back to his car. McLaughlin poured it into his gas tank and continued on his journey. It was a stressful experience, but he laughs about it now. “We got the best view of the whole holiday,” he says of their time stuck on the Blue Water Bridge.

There's No Time Like The Past: History's in his Blood

Teaching history and authoring historical books always seemed to be in the cards for McLaughlin. His father worked in the Galt office of book-publisher MacMillan of New York and would often bring home history books for the family to read. His mother was a homemaker and an avid reader. “History was the subject I did best in,” says McLaughlin. Enrolling at nearby UW in 1961 where he roomed at St. Jerome’s College, he found plenty of courses on the history of Europe, China and Japan but nothing on Canada, an omission that would finally change after Canada marked its Centennial in 1967. Professors were impressed by his work and encouraged him to go on to graduate school. Wishing to explore other parts of Canada besides Ontario, he enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Nova Scotia history fascinated him. It was the only colony that didn’t try to break way from Britain.

After earning his MA there, he enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Toronto in 1966. There was no shortage of courses on Canadian history there. “It was so exciting to study the history of Canada at the greatest university in Canada of its day.” One of his professors was Donald Creighton, at the time one of Canada’s greatest historians and author of several landmark history books, including a two-volume biography of Sir John A. MacDonald. Creighton was an early disciple of narrative non-fiction, crafting his books to read like novels rather than the dense, tedious tomes that were common at the time. A notorious curmudgeon in his later years, Creighton took a liking to the young McLaughlin and invited him to his house east of Toronto in Brooklin, ON. From Creighton, he learned critical analysis and the importance of arguing both sides of an issue.

With his PhD work nearing completion, McLaughlin returned to Dalhousie on a one-year fellowship and was all set to join the faculty there in 1970 when fate—and a pair of wisdom teeth—brought him to UW. After returning from a honeymoon in Jamaica, he and his new wife, Elizabeth, made plans to rent a house in Halifax. They were about to drive to Nova Scotia when the owner of the home asked them to delay their arrival for a few days so he could get his wisdom teeth pulled. In the interim, McLaughlin drove up to UW to meet with the chair of the history department. In truth, the decision to go to Dalhousie had been a difficult one. UW had come a close second. The chair showed him blueprints for a new building, to be called Hagey Hall of the Humanities, that would house the history department and his new office. “That was the turning point,” said McLaughlin. He decided to join the faculty at Waterloo.

Past Masters of Local History

John English

A few years into his career at Waterloo he began to notice a gap in research about Waterloo County. Foreign professors on the UW faculty wanted to know more about local history and would sometimes come to McLaughlin for answers. Even people who grew up in the area knew little about their past. They wanted to know more about key issues such as anti-German sentiment during the two World Wars. Something began to gnaw at him. “I felt I should learn something about our community.” As it happened, a fellow history professor, John English, was also interested in local history. The pair had met as undergrads at UW. English won a scholarship and went on to Harvard for his MA and PhD. He returned to UW with the help of McLaughlin, who held a faculty party at his house and introduced English to other history professors. “Thanks to Ken, they hired me,” said English. Several years later, the pair almost lost their jobs. UW had gone on a hiring spree in the early 1970s and now was cutting back. At the faculty Christmas party in 1973, English and McLaughlin were told their contracts would not be renewed because they had not completed their PhD theses. Their jobs were only saved when several other profs took leaves, and St. Jerome’s College agreed to take them on.

Out of this crisis, a friendship was forged. “We were bonded by the experience,” said English. Over the next few years, they finished their theses and built up their teaching credits. Among the courses on the curriculum was one on Ontario history. McLaughlin and English were tapped to teach it. They gradually turned it into a course on local history. They took the students to the boyhood home of William Lyon Mackenzie King in Kitchener. They had spirited debates, with McLaughlin taking the Conservative side and English the Liberal. “We had a lot of fun,” said English. Soon after, the pair decided to write a book on the history of Kitchener. McLaughlin covered the period up to 1900 and English did the 20th century. Kitchener: An Illustrated History, was published in 1983. English would soon turn his attention further afield, writing acclaimed biographies of Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, but McLaughlin had found a new passion—local history.

While his writing career seems to have followed a well-scripted plan, McLaughlin says many of his books didn’t start with him. His 1985 book, The Germans in Canada, was written at the request of the Canadian Historical Association, and his history of Cambridge, published in 1987, started with a California company that was publishing a series of books on Canadian cities. And to hear him tell it, his first book on the University of Waterloo happened almost by accident. In the late 1980s, he was asked to introduce English at a UW event to promote his new biography of Lester Pearson. Sitting in the audience was UW president Doug Wright. English was not the only UW history grad who had gone on to accomplish great things, McLaughlin said. Another grad was now a dean at Queen’s University. And a third was dean at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. Wright was fascinated.

He had no idea that Waterloo had produced such an outstanding cohort of young historians. An idea suddenly took hold in his mind. Approaching McLaughlin and English afterwards, Wright asked if either would be interested in writing a history of UW. English was about to tackle volume two in his Pearson biography. Not only that, he was worn out after losing as a Liberal candidate in the 1988 federal election. McLaughlin agreed to take it on. He had always been puzzled over the split between UW and the Lutheran Church, and Gerald Hagey’s role in the process. The origins of UW’s groundbreaking co-op education program also intrigued him. “It was a good fit,” he said of the project.

But when he went looking for the first UW president’s papers and correspondence in the archives at the Dana Porter Library, he couldn’t find them. Hagey had passed on his papers but they weren’t filed under his name. Nonetheless, McLaughlin started digging. “If I asked the right questions I could find them,” he said. Out of this, he was able to craft a compelling narrative of Hagey’s battles to establish UW and co-op despite stiff opposition from Western University and other universities across the province. Waterloo: The Unconventional Founding of an Unconventional University, published in time for the university’s 40th birthday, was also a key resource for me in writing BlackBerry Town.

Unintended Publishing: Scoring the UW Hat Trick

McLaughlin’s second book in his UW trilogy was borne out of a desire to publish something to mark the university’s 50th anniversary in 2007. As it turned out, he had already dug into Waterloo’s groundbreaking computer science program for an online publication called Unbundling Computing at the University of Waterloo. History students had been hired to interview some of the key people behind Watcom, one of the university’s first high-tech spinoffs. Grant money was obtained from a trust set up to honour the late Wes Graham, the father of computing at UW. Graham’s papers were available in the UW archives. McLaughlin didn’t want Waterloo’s rich history in computer science to be lost. “Computing is so central to the history of UW. I felt, if we could interview all those involved, it would be a huge advantage for other historians.” Much of this material ended up in Out of the Shadow of Orthodoxy: Waterloo@50, another book that proved invaluable in the writing of BlackBerry Town.

McLaughlin had no intention of writing a third book on UW until he was asked to speak to the university’s board of governors at its annual one-day retreat in 2012. Sitting in the room was Ophelia Lazaridis, a member of the board and wife of BlackBerry inventor Mike Lazaridis. Moved by his talk about the long history of innovation at UW and the wider community, Ophelia led a group of university officials who urged him to do another book updating the story. Innovation and Entrepreneurship are in the Waterloo Genome was published in 2015.

McLaughlin has done more than write books on local history. Many of the leading museums and institutions in Waterloo Region bear his imprint. He did much of the leg work, applying for grants and such, to launch Joseph Schneider Haus in Kitchener, led a committee that collected photographs for the City of Waterloo Museum at Conestoga Mall, urged the Seagram Corp. to restore its distillery buildings and establish the Seagram Museum in Waterloo and co-chaired the building committee for the CIGI campus and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. For the latter facility, which opened in 2011, the committee drew heavily from the Munk School at the University of Toronto and the Kennedy School at Harvard. The goal was to have office space, seminar rooms, a theatre and video-lecture technology to compete with the best in the world. Founder Jim Balsillie gave the committee lots of latitude but wanted certain touches such as an enclosed courtyard and a bell tower. “His demand was quality,” said McLaughlin. Much of the planning was done while Research In Motion was at the height of its success. Balsillie would arrive for a meeting having just returned from Moscow the day before.

With a dozen books under his belt and an unrivalled legacy of helping local museums get off the ground, McLaughlin should be ready to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labour. Not so. He’s co-written a new book that explores English and Scottish settlement in the southern part of Waterloo Township. Preserving Our Past is expected to be published soon.

Asked about McLaughlin’s strengths as an author, English says he’s a “remarkable researcher and has a very well developed sense of place.” McLaughlin’s work with area museums and his large catalogue of books “have made us so much more aware of local history.” Not only that, with his three books on UW, “he really has crystallized our understanding of how the University of Waterloo has developed” and managed to “create an identity” for the university. Former regional chair Ken Seiling is often called Mr. Waterloo Region, but McLaughlin can also make a strong claim for the title, says English.

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