A pivotal force behind the founding of Cape Breton University, Donald Campbell, or Father Donnie as he was affectionately known, dedicated his life to educating students on an island where the coal mines and steel mills once formed the centre of Nova Scotia’s industrial heartland.
Born in 1925 in Sydney, N.S., Rev. Campbell was the only son of a Cape Breton judge. Raised in a strong Catholic family, he became an ordained Catholic priest, while two of his three sisters entered the convent.
Teaching proved to be his true calling. After receiving his doctorate in education, he taught education and psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., eventually becoming dean of arts. In 1964, he left to return to Cape Breton to become principal of Xavier Junior College, a satellite campus of St. Francis Xavier in Sydney.
Within a few years, Father Campbell found himself at the centre of a controversial movement to create an independent, secular institution of higher learning in Cape Breton. At the time, St. Francis Xavier didn’t want to lose its satellite campus and the established universities in Halifax didn’t see the need for another such institution in the province. But with coal mines closing and the island facing tough economic times, Father Campbell envisioned the new university not as an ivory tower, but one that could respond to the community’s needs.
“We saw the university as being a leader in social and economic change,” said Rev. Greg MacLeod, a friend and former colleague. “It [establishing the university] was community survival.”
In 1974, Father Campbell, through strong leadership and consensus building, oversaw the creation of Canada’s first university college, and became its first president. An amalgamation of the Nova Scotia Eastern Institute of Technology and Xavier Junior College, the University College of Cape Breton (later simply Cape Breton University), became a public degree-granting institution.
Having retained technical and vocational programs, it helped to retrain former coal miners and steel workers when the mines and mills closed. In the early days, Father Campbell was its greatest cheerleader and worked hard to dispel myths that the institution was nothing more than what many called a “glorified high school.”
“He was a champion of the humanities,” Father MacLeod said. “He was what you might say a kind of renaissance person.”
A lover of classical music, live theatre and art, and a strong supporter of the local arts community, he worked actively as president to develop degree programs in the arts and sciences, as well as fighting financial restraints to build the Boardmore Playhouse, the campus library and the university art gallery, which houses the first publicly held permanent art collection on the island.
The two-bedroom apartment in which Father Campbell lived toward the end of his life was filled with paintings. All the walls, even those in the bathroom, were covered with more than 70 pieces of art. He donated the bulk of his collection to the university’s art gallery.
At the Boardmore Playhouse, where he had his own personal seat, he could frequently be seen at performances, dressed in a dapper tweed jacket, complete with a tie and pressed shirt. He was never one to wear the sombre, more traditional priestly clothing.
Believing in the value of art and wanting to highlight Cape Breton’s proud history, he commissioned Lewis Parker, a Canadian painter who specialized in historical scenes, to do a series of panels outlining the island’s history. The panoramic visual now hangs in the university’s main hall.
“He was a very decisive person. When he wanted something he went after it,” said Rev. Daniel Doucet, a long-time friend.
Politically astute, Father Campbell was known to count votes before a university board of governors meeting. He made sure to know where everyone stood on a particular issue. If someone disagreed with him, he would take them aside and work to persuade them to see the issue his way. “He was resolute and undeterred in trying to get through what he wanted to get through,” said Charles MacDonald, a former colleague and friend.
After serving two terms as president, he returned to the classroom to teach psychology. When he retired from teaching, he headed out to small, rural communities in Cape Breton, like Johnstown and Lower River, to do parish work.
“He was a very progressive church person,” said Father Doucet. “He was always clamouring for more change in the church.” A supporter of same-sex marriages, women priests and married priests, he was ashamed of the Catholic Church’s handling of the multitude of sex-abuse cases that had come forward and damaged the church in some tight-knit Cape Breton communities.
When he wasn’t working or reading, Father Campbell was out sailing, jogging to keep fit, which he did until he reached the age of 80, or skiing in Whistler, B.C., the Swiss Alps or closer to home in Cape Breton.
Father Campbell was awarded an Order of Canada in 1987. He suffered a stroke and was living with dementia when he died on April 29 in Sydney. He was 88. He leaves his sisters, Sister Camille and Joan. He was predeceased by Sister Mary.