September 26, 1996
by Helena Katz
With a dozen tents lining the main avenue on campus, two stages full of lively performances, crowds of people wandering around and music wafting out onto Sherbrooke Street, it wasn't hard to tell where Montreal's biggest party was last weekend.
An estimated 60,000-65,000 visitors poured onto campus to help McGill celebrate its 175th anniversary during a three-day Open House. From calèche rides, multicultural folk music and fireworks to exhibits and interactive displays of the latest research, there was something for everyone.
Some, like Kim Tanguay, couldn't resist checking out the action when they saw the crowds and heard the music. "I wasn't planning to come, but I was on my way back from a friend's house and I just got sucked in," she said.
Other visitors enjoyed the festivities so much that they ended up staying longer than they'd planned. "We came here for half an hour and stayed for four hours," Ruth Singer said, as a horse-drawn carriage clip-clopped past her.
The McGill grad "from a thousand years ago" and her two friends, Jean Fillmore and Stella Boston, had just emerged from Morrice Hall where they saw the play James is Dead--Long Live McGill. The half-hour production, specially scripted for McGill's 175th anniversary, took a whimsical and sometimes poignant look at the University's history, including the influx of thousands of young veterans who attended McGill following their return from the battlefields of World War Two.
"I think they got a lot of history (into the play) in a short period of time," Fillmore said. "The soldier in the play almost made me cry, especially the way he described the soldiers returning from the war."
Some things have changed since that era while others remain the same, said Helgi Soutar, who graduated in 1958. "There are more buildings on campus, but the feeling is still the same. There seems to be a lot of energy here and the progress is marvelous," she said as she admired the inside of the Next Home, set up by the School of Architecture on lower campus.
Visitors lined up to see the fully furnished, three-unit building, with its homey touches provided by Ikea--like the candles in the front entrance and clothes hanging in the closets.
"I find they've been very clever with the way they've used the space," Soutar commented. "It makes you want to move in right away."
McGill has a family connection for grade nine student Elise Barakett. She came with her class from Massey-Vanier School in Cowansville to check out her parents' alma mater. "It's neat how they got everyone's attention to come see it and maybe come to school here in the future," the 14-year-old said.
There was lots to see, do and learn as each faculty and department had a place of its own in one of the dozen tents. But Macdonald Campus undoubtedly got marks for the tastiest displays. A gas-fired rotary processor for drying and pasteurizing grains set up in front of their tent drew big crowds as Agricultural Engineering students turned the machine into a giant popcorn maker.
Inside, Plant Science provided a basket of homegrown apples for the peckish. Nearby, Sébastien Payette and France Guérette looked like wine connoisseurs as they tasted apple juice samples to figure out which were similar and which made from a different type of apple. The McGill students passed the test with flying colours.
At the next table, visitors were busy sniffing their way through Food Science's "Flavour Chemistry" display. Small bottles captured aromas ranging from sublime lavender to smelly clams.
Tastes and smells weren't the big attraction for young Matthew Lebaron, who was more interested in the robotics and speech-recognition technology in the Engineering tent. "I donated my face for face-recognition research," he said, proudly holding up a picture of himself.
"It's been crazy," Clinical Nutrition student Marco Di Buono said. "People are just flooding in and out of here." He was busy weighing and measuring visitors, who wanted to get their body fat measured using an electric current. "It's great, though, because maybe it'll raise some awareness about what our campus can do," he said.
It was also a chance to reach out to Montreal's cultural communities, as 24 folk groups with origins as diverse as Korea, Croatia, Ghana, Northern Thrace and Portugal performed continuously on two outdoor stages on Saturday.
The event not only brought Montrealers onto campus, but it also brought the McGill community closer together, said Open House chair Avi Friedman. "We turned McGill into a big family. Researchers and professors from one department visited other tents and learned about the work being done in other departments."
Coordinator Keith Gallop said he was "ecstatic" with the way everyone pitched in. "Everything from faculties and departments with their wonderful exhibits to the electricians making sure computers would work," he said.
Friedman was thrilled with the event and thinks McGill will never be the same again. "I believe we surpassed our goals by so much that future activities here won't be the same," he said. "I want to thank each one of the 1,000 volunteers who worked for months with very little sleep and who did just an amazing job."