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Passings: Professor John Saywell, a pioneering figure at York, dies at 82

Passings: Professor John Saywell, a pioneering figure at York, dies at 82

University Professor Emeritus John Tupper (Jack) Saywell, noted Canadian historian and a member of the Founders Society of York University, has died. Prof. Saywell, or "Jack" as most knew him, died on April 20 in Toronto. He was 82.

Known as the "kid from Cowichan Lake, British Columbia", Prof. Saywell arrived at the University of Toronto in 1954. Throughout the long and distinguished career that followed, Prof. Saywell took many roads less travelled. In the process, he deepened Canada’s knowledge and understanding of itself, from the constitution and federalism to the offices of the lieutenant-governor and the governor-general. He also chronicled Canadian history, economics, politics, culture and society as editor of the Canadian Historical Review from 1957 to 1963, and as editor of the Canadian Annual Review from 1960 to 1979, reviving and revitalizing these two journals.

Right: Professor John "Jack" Saywell in earlier years

Prof. Saywell was the founding dean of York University's Faculty of Arts & Science, serving in this formative role from 1964 to 1973. As well, his thoughts and direction helped found York University's Faculties of Fine Arts and Education. In 1970, he was shortlisted as a candidate to succeed founding President Murray Ross, a much-chronicled episode in York's history (the ultimate choice was David Slater, who later resigned amid deep controversy). Prof. Saywell, by all accounts, had strong support among faculty members.

In 1980, York conferred on Prof. Saywell its inaugural University Professorship for both service and scholarly achievement. The citation read: "Your imprint was present in every major undertaking pursued by the University during its crucial, formative years… Few people have ever so shaped any institution". It concluded by saying that "The Faculty of Arts, and to a great extent, York University, remains ‘the house that Jack built.’” In 1999, during York’s 40th anniversary year, he was inducted into the Founders Society for contributions to York during its formative years.

Prof. Saywell’s ground-breaking scholarship was recognized through a number of major awards. His 1957 book, The Office of Lieutenant-Governor: A Study in Canadian Government and Politics, won the Delancey K. Jay Prize at Harvard University. Another, the 1991 "Just Call Me Mitch": The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn, won the Floyd Chalmers Award for the best book on Ontario history. His 2002 study of the Supreme Court of Canada, titled The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism, won the John W. Dafoe Prize for "distinguished writing on Canada and/or Canada’s place in the world." He also interpreted Canadian, British and European history for thousands of Ontario high-school students through close to a dozen textbooks written between 1959 and 1969 with friend and colleague John Ricker.

As a teacher of undergraduate and graduate history and political science, Prof. Saywell excelled. His lectures and seminars were known across the University for their engagement and rigour. From 1987 to 1998, he was director of the Graduate Program in History. He was especially proud of his role in helping to shape a generation of scholars. York PhD graduates from this period now staff history departments in virtually every major Canadian university. In 2009, two of these graduates edited  Framing Canadian Federalism: Historical Essays in Honour of John T. Saywell, a Festschrift (see YFile, June 17, 2009).

His work in the media included roles as actor, narrator and consultant in a series of CBC TV historical dramas; as host of the CBC TV newsmagazine "The Way It Is"; as host of "Options" for TVO; and as Tokyo correspondent for CTV National News.

Prof. Saywell consulted for USAID, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the Harvard Institute for International Development and the governments of Ontario and Canada, among others. From 1974 to 1980, he was director of the York University Kenya Project in Nairobi. From 1979 to 1981, he was visiting professor at the Universities of Tokyo, Keio and Tskuba in Japan.

In 2008, he published Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973, part history, part memoir of York’s early days. In it, Prof. Saywell documented the development of the college system, the creation of York’s Faculty of Education, the student revolt of the late 1960s and the controversy over hiring American professors to teach in Canadian universities, an issue he remembers debating in 1969 on CBC TV’s "The Way It Is". He also wrote about his part in the presidential struggles of the early 1970s.

Prof. Saywell will be remembered by his many friends and colleagues at York University. He will be missed by the family whose lives he shaped as patriarch. He leaves his wife Suzanne Firth, his dog "Mist"; his four children, 12 grandchildren and his brother William Saywell and his family.

A private family service was held on April 23. Friends and colleagues of Prof. Saywell are invited to "The Way It Was: Remembering Jack", a celebration of his life, to be held on Sunday, June 19 (Father’s Day) from 11:30am, at the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre, 6 Garamond Court (off Wynford Drive, west of the Don Valley Parkway) in North York. For more information or directions to the location, call 416-441-2345.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that a donation in Prof. Saywell’s memory be made to the John T. Saywell Prize for Canadian Legal History, c/o the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, to the Toronto East General Hospital, or to a charity of choice.

His obituary from the Globe and Mail is available online.

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.