Book Review: Hell Raiser On Campus

Hazing. Vandalism. Bad marks and raucous protest. This was the campus misconduct of a Toronto student leader who put Quebec tuition protesters to shame. He might have wound up in the penitentiary, but instead became prime minister.

Professor Martin Friedland reveals this wonderful hidden anecdote of Canadian politics, a profile of Billy King, class of 1895. All his classmates called him Billy. Only years afterward did he transform himself into a national leader with four names, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

He was the kind of scholar who double-spaced his thesis so he could pad it out to 45 pages, without bothering to footnote his sources.  He was the type of Kappa Alpha frat boy who’d dream up Halloween pranks.

“Who in the hell would have thought that Billy King would have done what he has done,” a classmate wrote in 1925. “It really makes a man doubt a lot of things.”

Friedland’s University of Toronto: A History is an encyclopedic work of interest mainly to alumni, but in chronicling King’s hijinks he uncovers a gem. Of all the exhaustive works ever published on King and his era, none spent any serious time profiling Billy on campus.

He was trouble. At 18 King landed at the U of T and started off on the wrong foot. He was caught vandalizing college property and fined $15: “He at first refused to pay, but did so when told he would be unable to write his final exams until the fine was paid.”

King was also involved in a wicked hazing incident – details are sadly lost to history – that resulted in the university president turning the hoses on sophomores. In Animal House fashion, a vendetta was born. “One student recalled there was now a feud between the class and the administration, ‘and in the final year came the blow-off,’” writes Prof. Friedland.

The blow-off followed the hiring of the chancellor’s son-in-law as lecturer at almost double the pay of others. “Nepotism,” charged the student paper The Varsity: “If the university is intended as a Home for the Helpless, let the fact be known.”

King personally disliked the man; he’d given Billy a 65 on a history paper, killing his chance of a renewed scholarship. In 1895, King led the class in a walkout. It was an extraordinary protest at a university so buttoned down they didn’t permit dancing on campus till 1896.

King led “the largest mass meeting in the history of the University,” recounts Friedland; 700 packed a hall to hear King flay the administration. A newspaperman recalled that King “electrified his hearers by his denunciation of the age-old cult of tyranny.”

The students refused to attend classes, and denounced the U of T administration with the fervor that only students can muster. “My blood fairly boiled,” King wrote in his diary. The result? The university created a students’ council in 1900, and King discovered he had a knack for leadership.

“My ambition may carry me into political life,” he confided. He would serve twelve terms in Parliament, and never again spoke of his years as the hell-raiser on campus.

By Holly Doan

The University of Toronto: A History, by Martin Friedland; U of T Press; 778 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-15366, $39.95

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