Skip to main content

John T. (Jack) Saywell

Canadian historians are rarely called dazzling. Learned, astute, influential even, but dazzling? That superlative belongs to opera houses not lecture halls. Yet, dazzling is the way J.L. Granatstein, himself a noted, and crusty, interpreter of our collective past, describes the effect Jack Saywell had on him at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s.

Saywell, a skinny kid from a small town on Vancouver Island, had arrived at the U of T in the mid-1950s. By the time Granatstein showed up in his graduate seminar five years later, Saywell had a sterling reputation as a hard-working scholar and an energetic teacher. Instead of trekking through the country's steadfast progress from colony to nation, he "pushed and prodded and pulled you into the modern era," said Granatstein, who did an MA at U of T in 1962. "It was an eye opener that shaped the way I viewed Canadian history ever after." Saywell also treated his students like people he wanted to know, invariably taking them out for a bang up dinner at the end of term, a habit that Granatstein adopted when he began teaching.

Saywell, a visionary and an astute critical thinker, chafed under the creaky hierarchy of the U of T's history department, its complacent attitude - as far as he was concerned - to research and scholarship, and the undemocratic way in which heads were anointed by the central administration. In 1962, he was given an offer he felt he couldn't refuse: Founding dean of arts and science at York University, the muddy academic promise north of the city at Keele and Finch.

Story continues below advertisement

Many still refer to Canada's third largest university as the house that Jack built. "He was very young, very creative, extremely hard working and terribly intelligent, and he really did a magnificent job in creating the foundation of York University," said his younger brother William (Bill) Saywell, a Chinese historian and former president of Simon Fraser University. Saywell "was a triple threat guy," said Granatstein. "There aren't many Canadian academics who are teachers, writers and visionary administrators. That's what makes him exceptional."

Yet, for all the students he inspired and the books he wrote, he never realized his dream to become president of York or achieved the lasting popular acclaim he desired as a historian. A superb athlete in his youth, Saywell drove his body hard as an adult and suffered the consequences of smoking, drinking, partying and working 16-hour days. In his mid-70s he had a series of major surgeries and suffered from cardiovascular problems, including aneurysms, which led to his death at 82 on April 20.

John Tupper Saywell was born on April 3, 1929, in Weyburn, about 100 kilometres southeast of Regina in an arid area of Saskatchewan known as Palliser's Triangle. His father, John Ferdinand Tupper Saywell, a veteran of Passchendale, was principal of a four-room school in nearby Mossbank; his mother, Vera Marguerite (Sayles) Saywell, had been a teacher during the war when jobs normally held by men temporarily opened up for women.

The collapse of the world grain markets in 1929 was followed by a seemingly endless drought, vicious winds that lifted the soil in oppressive black clouds, plagues of ravenous grasshoppers, hail, frost and the crop disease known as rust. All of these calamities crippled harvests and turned the area into a dust bowl.

Even though John Saywell had a job, he was rarely paid. Like so many others from the prairies, the Saywell family, which now included a second son, William (born in December, 1936), headed west to British Columbia in 1937. They settled in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island after Saywell was hired as principal of the new high school in the small market town serving the logging camps and lumber mills in the area.

As a boy, Jack Saywell was a whiz at school, sports, and music. He could have been a semi-professional baseball player or a violinist in a symphony orchestra, although one friend says he always played Scarlatti too fast. Instead, he became an academic.

After earning first-class honours in history and political science in 1950 at UBC, he did equally well at the masters level in international relations and history the following year. With his wife, UBC graduate Patricia Knudson, he moved across the continent on a scholarship to do a PhD in history and government at Harvard. Canadian history wasn't taught at Harvard, but his supervisor, David Owen, allowed him to do a dissertation on the Office of the Lieutenant-Governor.

Story continues below advertisement

By 1954, he and Pat had two children - a third would be born in 1959 - and were living in Toronto where he was a junior lecturer in the history department at the U of T. Even as an undergraduate he had published articles in scholarly journals; with H. Blair Neatby he wrote an article for the Canadian Historical Review in 1956, the same year he delivered his dissertation - such a superior piece of work that it was passed without an oral defence and won Harvard's Delancey Jay Prize.

In 1957, the U of T Press published the Office of the Lieutenant-Governor as a monograph. That same year he became the editor of the CHR, immediately raising the bar for articles and essays; three years later he published The Canadian Journal of Lady Aberdeen with the Champlain Society and revived The Canadian Annual Review, a publication which he edited (in addition to writing the Parliament and Politics entry) for the next two decades.

He was also producing high-school textbooks with historian John Ricker. "We wrote in each other's cellars, setting up typewriters on card tables," Ricker said. "He couldn't type, so he poked, he punched, he got up, he walked around. It was like having a hornet in the room that you couldn't catch." They built an enduring friendship while fighting over every comma in a extensive series of textbooks, study guides and multimedia resource kits, beginning with The British Epic.

The royalties enabled Saywell to buy Canadian art - he had a fine eye - and indulge his fancy for sports cars, but he had loftier goals than simply improving his bottom line. "He was essentially a teacher," who believed that public education was "the bedrock of a functioning Canadian democracy," and that students "had to be taken seriously and taught seriously," said Ricker.

Saywell was also a hotshot current affairs pundit and commentator on CBC radio and television. "Jack was one of the few sterling academics who saw opportunity instead of danger in becoming a commentator in the popular press," Peter Newman said in an e-mail message. Saywell was so prominent in the late 1960s that Macmillan asked him to write the introduction when they published the English-language edition of Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians.

Saywell was also the co-host (along with Barbara Frum) of a Sunday evening political affairs program on CBC called The Way it Is.

Story continues below advertisement

This frenzy of activity was in addition to his day job as a senior university administrator. York's mandate was to teach the mass of postsecondary students that ballooned from a few hundred in 1963 to more than 15,000 in 1972. Back then, there were precious few hiring choices. Saywell recruited faculty from the U of T, elsewhere in Canada, the United States and Britain - later being accused of Americanizing the university. But there is no doubt he built solidly, broadly and brilliantly, hiring fresh PhDs, such as Granatstein in 1966, and persuading distinguished scholars, such as Ramsay Cook, to abandon the established history department at the U of T for an adventure in the academic boondocks.

"I had just been promoted a full professor at 36," Cook said, "and I left," which has to be a testament to Saywell's persuasive powers. "And then I found how awful it was driving on the Allan Expressway," he joked, which doesn't deny the fact that he stayed at York until he retired in 1996.

Something had to come up short, even for such a high octane performer as Saywell. He spent a lot of time in archives, seminar rooms and production studios, but he was rarely home. Partly it was the era - the optimistic, sexually permissive 1960s - before feminism, AIDs and an awareness of creeping mortality changed everything. Still, even back then, Saywell had a bigger capacity than most for cigarettes, whisky and women. His wife finally called it quits in 1968, after she learned that he had fathered a child by another woman. The little boy was named John, like her own son, which meant that Saywell, bizarrely, had two sons with the same first name. "He was a great friend, a great uncle, a good neighbour, but he really sucked as a dad," said somebody who was close to the family.

Things began to go sour at the university as well. For all his skills as a visionary, analytical strategist, he was impatient with details and allergic to diplomacy. Moreover, his flamboyant personal life, even in the swinging 60s, had alarmed some members of the board of governors. Saywell was the faculty's choice to succeed Murray Ross, founding president of York. James Gillies, the dean of the Faculty of Administrative Studies, had the backing of the board; as often happens, both were passed over in favour of an outsider, economist David Slater from Queen's University. Slater came to grief in the financial crisis and student uprisings of the early 1970s and resigned in January, 1973, "in the best interests of the university" and was replaced eventually by H. Ian Macdonald.

By then, Saywell had resigned as dean and largely withdrawn from university administration. Beginning in 1974, he revived a CIDA consulting project in Kenya, analyzing capital projects proposed by donor nations, and overseeing the selection of Kenyans for training at York for potential government jobs back home. After working in both Nairobi and Toronto for more than five years, he switched geographical spheres and became a visiting professor in Japan from 1979-81 at the universities of Tokyo, Keio and Takubats, establishing Canadian Studies there under the auspices of External Affairs.

The final stage of Saywell's career echoed its beginnings: He went back to researching, writing and supervising graduate students in the history dept at York until his retirement in 1999 at 70. "I know lots of people who go into administration and they never come out," said Cook. "Most of them don't return to scholarly work, but he did and he did it very well." Just Call Me Mitch: The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn, an exhaustively researched study of the 11th premier of Ontario, won the Floyd Chalmers Award for the best book in Ontario History in 1991 and The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the shaping of Canadian Federalism, which Cook says is a "brilliant" reinterpretation of the BNA act, was awarded the John W. Dafoe Prize for distinguished writing in 2002. His final book, Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973, is an aptly titled polemical road map through the daunting hiring and administrative hurdles in creating a new university.

Story continues below advertisement

Work was like oxygen for him. Even a month ago when he had trouble getting around and was beset with health problems, he was immersed in untangling legal issues imbedded in native land claims. He went out the way he had lived, collapsing after a convivial lunch, and dying later the same day.

John (Jack) T. Saywell leaves his second wife, Suzanne Firth, four children and 10 grandchildren.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter