Harold Bettger was just like any other student at Western. He excelled in school, joined a fraternity, ventured downtown and played on the soccer team. The only difference is there were three buildings on campus at the time. After all, it was the early 1930s.
The 99-year-old Goderich resident talks fondly of his time at Western 80 years ago – still picturing the times he spent making his own test tubes, changing for soccer in the boiler room and singing in dark rooms as if it were yesterday.
“Western was the closest to home and you thought economically in those days,” said the Monkton, Ont.-born Bettger. “Today, kids think of going anywhere they want.”
Granted, it was the Depression, but thanks to “an aunt with deep pockets,” Bettger had the $300 tuition needed to call Western home.
“She always came to the rescue,” Bettger said of his Aunt Louise.
While the campus may have seemed more like a golf course than a university at the time, Bettger was eager to tackle all the mathematics and physics courses he could handle.
But first, where to stay?
He ventured to Huron College, but unfortunately “not being Anglican” at the time posed a problem, he said.
“I remember the dean, the Rev. Cameron Waller, came to the door and I thought he was one of the Apostles. I jumped back and he closed the door,” Bettger laughed, referring to Waller’s beard and robe. “I remember he was a good man.”
Bettger said people were “renting out their houses and filling them with students” to make some extra money. Not far off from today’s methods of student housing, but rent was a bit different in those days. Bettger paid six dollars a week.
While at Western, Bettger played a role in the formation of the first-ever Kappa Tau Sigma fraternity, a society for honours science and mathematic students, in 1933. Later, he joined with the international-based fraternity, belonging then to both.
“When we’d go down to meetings, if they would be having anniversary celebrations, like the 30th or 40th, they’d have you give (your fraternity number),” Bettger said. “I would be like ‘four,’ and the next guy would be like 250,000 or something.”
Western was a smaller campus at the time; Bettger was one of only 11 to graduate with honours mathematics and physics degree in 1936. That size, however, allowed for more personal relationships – even with the president of the university.
“Sherwood Fox, the president at the time, was a good friend of mine. He was a good friend of everyone, actually,” Bettger said. “He would come down to the hall (University College), downstairs was where you hung your coats, and he had a Ford Model A Coupe. ‘Anyone want a ride uptown.’ He got to know everyone’s first name.”
Same goes for K.P.R. Neville, the dean of University College at the time.
“When he’d come and cut across the soccer pitch on the back campus on Western Road – Dean Neville lived back there – he’d cut across the field going home and he’d call everyone by their first name.”
After leaving school, Bettger would go on to work with Ontario Hydro, teach with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan as a navigation instructor, run a business with his brother-in-law and teach for 21 years at Goderich District Collegiate Institute, just across the street from his residence at Maitland Manor.
Western runs in the Bettger family with close to a dozen immediate family members calling the university their alma mater.
Last year, Bettger received his 75-year pin, one of only five ever to be handed out by Western.
While he will admit there are a heck of a lot more buildings on campus these days, the same feeling of purple pride was there.
“I am a (lifetime) member of the W Club, and they had a tent at the end of the football field,” Bettger recalled of a recent visit to campus. “I was able to pull my chair right up to the fence and had a front-row seat. The people there were just so friendly.”
Editor’s note: The story was edited to reflect Harold Bettger’s award, which was delivered to his home in Goderich on Dec. 15.