Remembering Dr. W.K. Thomas

I’d like to thank Alister Thomas, son of W. Keith Thomas for whom the English Department Reading Room is named, for this guest post. Dr. W.K. Thomas was fundamental to the founding and early operations of UWaterloo’s English department. Read on to see what other names you might recognize, and learn how Dr. Thomas’s legacy continues to shape our graduate program.–JLH

Bethinking W. Keith Thomas — Founded UW’s English Department and First Dean of Arts

No one knows the history of the University of Waterloo — unconventional and unorthodox — better than Kenneth McLaughlin. The St. Jerome’s University and UWaterloo’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus is a decorated historian and acclaimed author. His first visit to UWaterloo in 1960 as a wide-eyed high-school student was most memorable.

There was no pristine campus; instead, this was a pioneering dream taking root in a farmer’s field — “rough-hewn boardwalks and construction detritus, awash in a sea of mud.” This is where McLaughlin encountered a scholarly apparition.

“Waiting for us that first day was one of the most intimidating professors I have ever known. Keith Thomas, the Acting Dean of Arts, resplendent in a professorial tweed jacket and a flowing university professor’s robe, bespeaking the medieval university traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, opened for us the wonders of civilization and the value of a university education,” McLaughlin wrote in the prologue of his 2007 book, Out of the Shadow of Orthodoxy — Waterloo@50.

“His [Thomas’] manner was formal, his mien stern, and his vocabulary daunting. This day is as real to me now as it was then,” McLaughlin wrote. “Frightened, perhaps I was; excited, definitely; a sense of wonder and awe at the challenge of university life overcame me. Waterloo marked the opening of whole new world.”

Earlier in 1960, Thomas, with undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto and four years’ experience at Acadia University, had embarked on a job of a lifetime: founded UWaterloo’s English department, first dean of arts, and tenure. His salary was $9,000 a year, nearly double what he made in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He was thirty-one years old.

Dressed in a black, knee-length rayon gown, and with his sonorous voice and entertaining use of character voices, Thomas was a commanding presence in the classroom. “He was never afraid of being theatrical to drive home a point,” said a former student.

“Teaching is,” Thomas wrote, “creating, in a student, the ability to see clearly and to evaluate wisely.” He recommended reading widely. He said you could experience all sorts of emotions — even the sublime.

In addition to numerous scholarly articles, Thomas, a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and satire, authored eight books, including Bonding of Bone (poetry), The Fizz Inside (critical essays), Down-To-Earth Cherub (biography), and God Is Like (catalogue of metaphors). His two bestsellers were Form and Substance and Correct Form in Essay Writing, both of which, for many years, were the standard for arts students.

His book, A Mind For Ever Voyaging, co-authored with friend and colleague Warren Ober, was about, in part, William Wordsworth’s prodigious memory skills and tireless artistry. This book, as well as a major co-authored article about John Keats, was well received by many specialists.

Thomas retired in 1992, and a year later was named distinguished professor emeritus.

For his pioneering efforts and three decades of profession excellence, Thomas was “honoured and deeply appreciative” when Humanities room 232 was renamed the W.K. Thomas English Department Faculty Lounge and Reading Room on January 24, 2003. The inscription on the plaque reads: A Mind For Ever Voyaging.


*                      *                      *


My parents, Keith and Bettie, were teenage next-door neighbours in Toronto, and they had three sons: me (Primus), Malcolm (Secondus), and Kevin (Tertius).

A long time ago, in a brief moment of temerity, I suggested to my father that I call him Keith. He countered immediately with Sir. We agreed on Dad.

He was bespectacled and slight. His sideburns went up and down — from non-existent to muttonchops — in the opposite direction to the trends of the day.

Our family usually ate dinner in the kitchen, and sitting across the table from the grammar maven could be a daunting endeavour. Is it possible to dangle a modifier, interrupt an appositive and split an infinitive . . . all in one sentence? After a highly arched eyebrow was beamed my way, the correction(s) was made. Gently and simply. After all, language matters.

He didn’t dislike, or even hate, beer. He loathed it. (So much for the adage that the beer of the father is the beer of his sons.)

After Warren Ober published a series of articles about “The Three Bears,” Dad introduced Warren as “our distinguished departmental triursinologist.”

Dad’s writing, especially his poetry was visceral and replete with sexual imagery, yet he was a moral conservative. I was on the receiving end of “profoundly saddened” more than once.

Dylan was the name of the Thomas family dog.

Dad’s favourite muppet was a toss-up between Gonzo, Animal, and Sam Eagle.

Dad was a fan of fellow poet, Muhammad Ali, who was also the world’s greatest heavyweight boxer (“I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”).

All twelve cars Dad owned had interesting names, including Percy the Rambler, Bert the Ford Custom, and Tonto the Audi.

A religious non-believer until his mid-forties, he had an epiphany in his office and then pursued his faith, first in the United Church and then as a Presbyterian. He called himself a “primitive Christian.”

Malcolm, Bettie and Keith’s middle son, disappeared on July 31, 1978 while leading a canoe trip on the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories — a parent’s worst nightmare. Malcolm’s body was never found. He was twenty years old.

Dad pursued his lifelong hobby of gardening with vigour.

Even though he had no natural talent for music, he learned to sing church solos — joyously. It was also a joy to sing in a choir with son Kevin.

In “hemi-demi-semi-retirement,” Dad continued to research and write.

My parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary on May 31, 2002.

After Dad had major surgery and was recuperating in his hospital room, we wanted to know if the anaesthetic had worn off. My brother Kevin, a museum specialist with the Region of Waterloo, asked this skill-testing question of him: “What’s the word that means the same as it sounds?” With a parched mouth and faint voice, Dad said: “O-no-ma-to-poe-ia.”

Dad spent the last two weeks of his life at Lisaard House in nearby Cambridge. Two special visitors were his buddies, Warren Ober, also a distinguished professor emeritus, and Paul Beam. (Paul was a former student of Dad’s, and became a valued friend and colleague; he was also a favourite babysitter of mine.) After the three amigos kibitzed, Paul said: “Here I am at sixty-two and they still call me junior.”

Dad died on January 31, 2003. He wrote his own obituary as well as his memorial service, including new words to old hymns. He was seventy-five years old.

Dad’s legacy was kept alive when my mother helped establish the W.K. Thomas Graduate Scholarships, a $5,000 fund awarded to full-time UWaterloo English students. Last year’s recipients were Kyle Gerber, Elise Vist, and Kyle Malashewski.

Thomas2Pictured above: Elise Vist, Kyle Malashewski, Kyle Gerber, Fraser Easton, Bonnie Oberle, Kevin Thomas, Alister Thomas, and Bettie Thomas

Early last year, thanks to Fraser Easton, then Chair of English, and Bonnie Oberle, Associate Director, Leadership Giving, of Support Waterloo, it was a great pleasure when Mom, Kevin, and I met the scholarship recipients. It was an enlightening and invigorating discussion finding out what Elise and the two Kyles were studying and pursuing, as well as discovering where UWaterloo’s English department is headed.

Opening photo: W. Keith Thomas (left) and Warren Ober on the day in 1993 when Thomas was named distinguished professor emeritus.

One response to “Remembering Dr. W.K. Thomas

  1. I never found Prof. Thomas intimidating or stern–quite the opposite: friendly and approachable. I’ll never forget my first lecture with him. He talked about Hardy’s poem “The Oxen,” the first Hardy poem I’d read, and Thomas’s close reading of it was eye-opening.

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