Remembering Dr. Palmer of Palmer hall

In the late 1950s Mount Allison University was still experiencing a period of expansion following World War Two. As each year passed, it became more obvious that existing residence space was inadequate. In 1957 enrolment exceeded the 1,000 mark for the first time, with the result that many students were being housed off campus. To address the situation, the Board of Regents developed plans for the erection of three new residences. The first was named for university benefactor Captain R.V. Bennett, while the remaining two honoured distinguished former professors: Harold E. Bigelow and S.W. Hunton.

Meanwhile on the east side of campus, the former Mount Allison Academy was converted from a mens to a womens residence and the refurbished building was named Palmer Hall. The choice of this name met with widespread approval. Although James Marshall Palmer (1861–1945) had died 12 years earlier, he was still remembered affectionately by his nickname The Doctor and as a longtime Principal of Mount Allison Academy.

Lets now fast forward to May 2003. As those who travel East Main Street (once known locally as the Academy Stretch) will be quite aware, Palmer Hall, one of the most architecturally interesting buildings on the Mount Allison campus, is being demolished. This is not the time or place to consider this contentious issue. It is, however, an occasion to recall the history of the building and the career of the person for whom it was later named.

One part of the story begins 70 years ago, in March of 1933. In a time span of less than three weeks, (often referred to as Mount Allisons ordeal by fire), three buildings were lost. On March 1st, Mount Allison Academy (located on the site of Palmer Hall) was totally destroyed. On March 16, the Science Building was burned to the ground and by 3 AM the next morning, Centennial Hall was ablaze; to be reduced to blackened stone walls in a matter of hours.

Looking back on this triple tragedy two points stand out. Thankfully, no lives were lost, as was to be the case with the Mens Residence fire of Dec. 16, 1941. And Mount Allison, despite the Depression, quickly rebounded to overcome this adversity. By November 1933, Centennial Hall was completely rebuilt. This was achieved, in part, by utilizing the stone walls and foundation of the building erected in 1883 to mark the centennial of Methodism in the Maritimes.

The construction of a new Mount Allison Academy residence was another matter, as nothing was left but charred remains. On one decision there was no debate; the replacement would be built on the same historic site as previous Academy buildings. In this way, an important link with the past would be maintained, as the first Mount Allison Academy, was the forerunner of the University. It was officially opened 160 years ago this year [2003] on June 29, 1843 and was burned to the ground Jan. 16, 1866. The same fate was to befall the next two Academy buildings as all were wooden structures. In contrast to its three predecessors, the fourth replacement was destined not to undergo an ordeal by fire.

In 1933 no time was lost in dealing with the situation caused by the fires. Within a few weeks a building committee was appointed and architects hired to prepare plans for Centennial Hall and a completely new Mount Allison Academy. An Academy old boy Charles A. Fowler of Halifax was selected as architect for the latter contract. The spring 1934 issue of The Record unveiled plans for the new Academy as it will be. Of Tudor Gothic design, it was built of local sandstone with grey stone trim. Throughout stone, steel and concrete were specified for a completely fireproof building.

The centrepiece was the residence building (see illustration). On the left side was to be a completely separate wing to house classrooms and on the right (site of the present Windsor Hall) a second matching wing was to include a gymnasium and swimming pool. Regretably, the latter two wings were never constructed, due to financial constraints. Both Centennial Hall and the new Mount Allison Academy were officially opened at a special convocation held on on Jan. 19, 1934.

During the ceremony two members of the Building Committee participated. Both were Allisonians and members of the Canadian Senate. Senator Frank B. Black, of Sackville, presented the keys for the reconstructed Centennial Hall, while Senator C.W. Robinson, from Moncton did the honours for the new structure. The citation for the latter read as follows: The building of the new Academy residence is now completed, a former student has made the plans, the stone has been hewn from the Mount Allison quarry and a beautiful building has been constructed. It is fireproof and exceptionally well planned and built. In retrospect, much credit must go to the Building Committee for completion of a daunting task in less than a year.

Now back to the career of the Academys longest serving principal,The Doctor. In the spring of 1894 following the resignation of S.W. Harrison, a new principal of Mount Allison Academy was appointed. James Marshall Palmer, was a native of Canning near Gagetown, NB and an honours graduate of the University of New Brunswick. At 33 he was already an experienced teacher, having taught high school in Campbellton, Chatham and Fredericton.

Immediately prior to his appointment, Palmer was on the staff of Fredericton Collegiate as a teacher of French and Classics. At the time, there were few who would predict that this comparatively young man would remain in this post, until ill health forced him to resign in 1930. Principals of Mount Allison Ladies College might come and go, but as one alumnus recalled: The Doctor he just went on forever. There had to be a reason for this longevity, and further investigation was in order.

University historian Dr. John G. Reid provided an important starting point in his assessment of Palmers long career. Slight in appearance and reserved by nature [he] was sometimes underestimated by colleagues and students. He was seldom underestimated for long, for over his thirty six years as principal, he achieved distinction as a teacher, as a strict disciplinarian, and as a tireless advocate of the best interests of Mount Allison Academy.

One example from many will be cited to illustrate the last point. Soon after his appointment, Palmer was involved in a controversy that spilled over from his predecessors tenure. It was actually a contributing factor in Harrisons resignation, and Palmer was determined to meet it head on. The dispute was twofold and involved the place at Mount Allison of commercial subjects, then being taught at the Academy. Should these subjects be transferred to the Ladies Collge or stay where they were? If part of a joint venture, how might the appointment of faculty and registration of students be accommodated? For the next several years, another strong willed individual Dr. B. C. Borden, principal of the Ladies College and later university president, jousted with Palmer on these matters. In the end Palmer won. The year 1906 saw the Board of Regents give exclusive control over secretarial and commercial training to the Academy.

To obtain personal information about Dr. Palmer, I had the good fortune to interview Eunice Dixon McCormack. A graduate of both the Ladies College and Mount Allison University, Class of 1928, she later taught English and Typing in the secretarial program at the Academy. During Dr. Palmers last year as Principal, she served as his secretary/assistant. and had an opportunity to witness him in a variety of roles. Now a sprightly 97 years old, and a member of the VON Walking Club, Eunice enjoys reasonably good health and is blessed with a clear memory. She was pleased to reminisce about the old days at the Academy.

While agreeing with the assessment that Dr. Palmer was a strict disciplinarian; she was quick to emphasize that this was balanced by a good sense of humour. On one occasion he was returning to his quarters from a meeting down town. It was about 10:30 and well past lights out. Dr. Palmer looked up, and there was a male student coming hand over hand down a rope, leading from a third storey window. Dr. Palmer stopped in his tracks to watch. When the student reached the ground Dr. Palmer said: Now, young man, let me see you climb back up again. The shaken and speechless student fled into the darkness.

Eunice also mentioned that after a long day of teaching, she would work after hours in the Academy office on correspondence and reports. In those days it was the custom to mail to parents an evaluation of each students progress. These always took a lot of time and required burning the midnight oil. As a final note, Eunice made reference to Dr. Palmers kindness and thoughtfulness He made an effort to get to know each student personally. Surely this was one of the secrets of a successful thirty six year career in administration.

In preparing this Flashback I also had the opportunity to read scores of tributes to Dr. Palmer. Throughout all of these there was a common thread. Former students remembered the sterling character of the Doctor. One old boy S. A. Worrell of Saint John spoke for many when he wrote: I learned to respect Dr. Palmer not only on account of his tact, fairness and sound judgement but also by reason of his character. No more need be said. The late Palmer Hall was well named.