Skip to main content

The Thrifty Thirties: Football, Fedoras and FDR

Bonnie Robb
President Franklin D. Roosevelt receiving an honorary degree at Queen’s from Chancellor James Richarsdson

In the mid-1930s, William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister of Canada, Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States and Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany. These were the “Thrifty Thirties,” and Kingston-born John Welch, BCom’38, counted himself fortunate to grow up in a prestigious university town with the opportunity to study in Queen’s then-titled Department of Commerce and Administration.

During his first term, John recalls feelings of trepidation about his academic acumen. “The autumn leaves falling, foretelling the gloom of the upcoming winter, reflected my own dark outlook,” he says with a chuckle. “Fortunately, by Christmas exams, I had been able to make the switch from the descriptive method of high school studies to the more analytical approach required at the university level.”

A faithful student, John was influenced and often amused by the professors he admired. At the top of the list was W.A. Mackintosh, who was also Department Head.

In August 1938, John Witnessed History First-Hand When President Roosevelt Received An Honorary Degree At Queen's.

Queen's Officers' Training Corps in 1938 “In my time, Mackintosh, as one of Canada’s foremost economists, had to juggle his teaching schedule to accommodate commitments to the federal government, but for any missed lectures there was always a ‘make good’. The meticulousness of his presentations, along with his sympathetic treatment of student queries, garnered him deep respect in the classroom.”

Finance Professor Frank Knox also left a profound impression. “He had a terrific sense of humour that he used to illustrate points in his lectures,” John remembers. “For example, in a discussion about tariff protection for new industries, Knox stated, ‘That’s like looking at an infant in a cradle. You don’t know whether the child will grow up to be a PhD or a hod carrier.” (Ed.: A hod carrier is a labourer who carries supplies to masons or bricklayers.)

Later, in his years as an instructor at Ryerson and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), John’s recollections of Knox’s well-crafted lectures served as a model for his own presentations.

“The Football Field Was Flooded So Deep In Spots That A Group Of Students Floated A Rowboat.”

The famous ‘Water Bowl’ of 1938 Now an astute 92-year-old, John recalls distant events, dates and details with such clarity it’s hard to believe he’s reaching back some 75 years. Memories that stand out include Mackenzie King’s return to power in 1935, Roosevelt’s landslide New Deal victory in 1932, and the repeal of Prohibition in the United States in 1933. In August 1938, John witnessed history first-hand when President Roosevelt received an honorary degree at Queen’s and used the occasion to address foreign policy as war loomed in Europe. “I give to you assurance that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination of Canadian soil is threatened by any other empire,” stated the President in his message that was broadcast to the world. For John, who served as an usher at the Richardson Stadium event, it was “an unforgettable day.”

Like so many Queen’s students and alumni over the years, John had a passion for Tricolour football. “Between Labour Day and the end of November, football was all important,” he explains. “For 14 years I didn’t miss a Queen’s home game.”

One memorable contest was dubbed the ‘Water Bowl.’ “An early season frigid spell produced a frozen field at the original Richardson Stadium,” John recounts.“After a day of torrential rains, the field was flooded so deep in spots that a group of students floated a rowboat. Someone joked that it was football ‘punting’ of an unusual type. The visiting U of T coach asked, ‘What does one do when three of my players can’t swim?’” Newspapers across the country ran the picture of the beaming boaters.

Seventy-five years after he enrolled at Queen’s, John’s connection to his alma mater remains strong. “It’s always a pleasure to see John’s name on the attendee list for Queen’s Business Club events in Vancouver,” says Shelley Pleiter, QSB’s Associate Director of Alumni Relations. “Whenever I visit Vancouver, I look forward to seeing his smiling face in the crowd.”