A generous ‘wave backwards’

Carrie Brodi, communications officer with the York University Foundation, sent this story to YFile about recently retired York English Professor Ruth Grogan. 

On the eve of her retirement, Ruth Grogan is getting rid of an office full of books. She can’t take them all home as she and her husband are both English professors and the house is already full of books. She asks me what my interests are and fishes through her shelves for anything remotely postmodern and contemporary.

“What about the classics?” she asks. A York graduate of English who didn’t love the classics, I silently (guiltily) decline.

Right: John Blazina, Ruth Grogan  and student Patricia Bujan-Mohammed at Grogan’s May 13 retirement party

But at the end of a 36-year career at York, Grogan wants to leave something more than books behind. So she has established the English Retirees’ Award in the Faculty of Arts English Department through a $12,500 gift to the York University Foundation. The endowed award, which will receive dollar-for-dollar matching through the Ontario Student Opportunity Trust Fund program, will reward one exceptional student in need each year, in perpetuity, beginning in May of 2005.

“I am one of the last people who will have known everybody in the English Department,” she says. “I set up this award in honour of the English Department retirees who have gone before, as a ‘wave backwards’ to them. As the award will recognize our very best students, the kind that retirees remember, this award is also a way of looking forward.”

At York long enough to remember the frigid walk onto campus from the bus stop on Keele St., wearing the fashion of the time – a miniskirt, tights and a thigh-length winter coat – Grogan is delighted to see the many buses that now pull up to the University Common. The promise of a subway to campus (which she always said would arrive the year she retired) makes her feel hopeful about York’s future.

Inspired by her students, Grogan says this year’s batch of essays and exams are the best she has ever received and now that she’s retiring, she finally feels she knows how to teach.

Left: Sweet memories captured in a cake

“I was the type of student who was under the illusion she didn’t need professors, except to get a copy of the bibliography,” she said. “So when I first started teaching in 1968, I didn’t know why students were sitting in front of me. Just go to the library, I thought. You don’t need me. But as the years went on, I discovered pretty quickly that students did need me and as the years went by I began to understand how to foster their learning and teach them things.”

For example, teaching poetry throughout the years, Grogan used different techniques to communicate the genre, like drawing cartoons on the blackboard and playing games.

But what does poetry have to do with the real world? A great deal, according to Grogan. A liberal arts education, and the study of literature in particular, is about more than simply getting a job, she says; it makes you open to life.

“It makes you care about things, whether it’s the state of the city or politics or the state of your own marriage. I think you become a person of great sensitivity to everything going on around you and inside you,” she says.

Her service to York includes time spent as associate dean in the Faculty of Arts, Chair of the Faculty of Arts Council, and Chair of Senate.

“Ruth has always been one of the ‘good citizens’ of the Faculty,” says Robert Drummond, dean of the Faculty of Arts. “Her creation of this award is characteristic of her selfless commitment to York and its students.”

This award, she hopes, will continue to grow over the years, as more members of the department retire and are honoured by family and friends who make contributions to the endowment. Faculty members can contribute to the endowment or simply start their own award. In due course the fund may be able to support more than one annual award.

“When I discovered my money would be doubled, I was delighted. It was better than any of my other investments,” she jokes. “The OSOTF program seems like too good an opportunity to miss and I think we should grab this opportunity while we can.”

At a retirement party held May 13, colleagues, friends and students gathered to bid Grogan a fond farewell and to celebrate the significant contributions she has made to York.

Student Patricia Bujan-Mohammed spoke of Grogan’s warm style of teaching. “Whether you are nine minutes old or 99 years old, all you want is love,” she said. “Give a student love and they will do anything for you. That’s the type of teacher Ruth Grogan is.”