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When the history of Canada's coming of age is written, especially the part about harnessing the energy of the 1960s and applying it in Third World countries shedding their colonial ties, four letters will stand out: C-U-S-O.

Originally, they stood for Canadian University Service Overseas, a reflection of the group's beginnings. As it developed, however, CUSO became a self-standing organization and the initials became its official name. Not only did it and the 12,000 people who fanned out around the world under its auspices have an immense impact on the countries they visited, but CUSO was responsible for changing the way that the Canadian government approached developing countries.

On Wednesday evening, many who have been associated with CUSO will gather in Ottawa to celebrate its 40th anniversary and to reminisce about four decades of development assistance.

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The plan had been to make a video of greetings to give to William Mara McWhinney, CUSO's first full-time executive director, who was stricken with liver cancer and wouldn't be able to attend. He was the guy who converted CUSO from a lot of good intentions to an effective organization.

But Big Bill (he towered nearly seven feet) couldn't wait -- he died last week. On Friday afternoon, many of the best and brightest of his era, both those in CUSO and in several departments of the federal government, met to honour one of their charter members.

This is not a formal obituary, just as Friday's gathering was not a formal funeral. I was not an ordinary observer because Bill was responsible for my spending the three most rewarding years of my life in Tanzania in the 1960s, sent there officially to teach journalism and to help with a news agency, but also to learn an awful lot about life.

After graduating from the University of Toronto, Bill was among a handful of people who responded to the call to arms of Keith Spicer and some of his faculty and political friends who put together a group called Canadian Overseas Volunteers. Bill was assigned to what was then called Ceylon -- now Sri Lanka -- but his leadership qualities were evident.

When Mr. Spicer decided to pursue further studies, Bill was recalled from the field to take over the organization, which operated from hand to mouth and hitched rides around the world on Department of National Defence planes. The small group was centred at the U of T, but the idea was soon picked up at other universities. It made sense to everybody involved to create a bigger tent: thus, CUSO.

The new group became the prototype for today's NGOs -- a non-governmental organization structured to do things that governments find difficult to do, or that volunteer-based, less-bureaucratic organizations can do more efficiently. Such qualities are especially useful when operating in the developing world.

It was Bill who put CUSO on a stable financial footing, who worked out a formula for matching government funding, who created a proper administrative support structure and implemented recruiting and training programs. He left CUSO when the federal government tapped his combination of administrative smarts and enthusiam to create the Company of Young Canadians, a kind of Canadian-based CUSO.

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After that, Bill became a senior officer at the Treasury Board. But his CUSO experience came to the fore when he moved on to became the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the Canadian International Development Agency. With Bill at the top, CIDA became thoroughly infiltrated by ex-CUSO volunteers eager to work for him. It became a government agency like no other.

This was an era when CIDA made waves on behalf of Canada around the world. It enjoyed an annual budget in excess of $3-billion, and Bill administered it with tough love. As former president Margaret Catley-Carlsen said, CIDA was between a rock and a hard place and "Bill was both the rock and the hard place." On Friday, the three words that were repeatedly used to describe his qualities were warmth, toughness and integrity.

CUSO is much changed since its glory days when it would have as many as a thousand volunteers in 30 countries at any one time. Its overseas component is now fewer than 200. But as CUSO enters middle age, the interests and needs of Third World countries also have changed, and CUSO's focus has turned more to involving Canadians at home. But it still has some of that spark that helped distinguish Canada on the international stage.

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