When the Matheson Learning Commons opened in 2008, its clean lines and airy spaces for studies, seminars or socializing instantly enhanced the student experience at Brock. Which was appropriate, given the facility’s namesake.
The Brock community this week is mourning the loss of William Matheson, who died on Sunday, Dec. 10 after having suffered a stroke several months earlier.
By the time he retired in 1998, Bill Matheson had devoted 30 years at Brock, leaving a deep mark as a scholar, a trailblazing senior administrator and a popular, award-winning teacher. He indelibly impacted students, and helped guide a fledgling University through its crucial formative years.
Matheson’s early career was in banking, but he decided to go back to Carleton University for his PhD, and on July 1, 1969 arrived at Brock as a new Lecturer in Political Science. He would go on to establish a track record like few others in the University’s history.
After several years of teaching, Matheson became Brock’s first Dean of Social Sciences, and then its first Vice-President, Academic. In 1983 he even served as the University’s Acting President for several months. But he opted to return to his love of teaching, and spent his final eight years at Brock as Professor in Political Science.
It was in the lecture hall that Matheson touched many young lives, and his ability to inspire students did not go unnoticed. He was the first-ever recipient of both the Brock University Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Brock University Student Union Recognition of Teaching Excellence Award.
“Bill was legendary with our students,” recalls Economics Professor Joe Kushner, a long-time friend who started at Brock on the same day as Matheson. “Whenever you met his former students, the question was always the same: ‘How is Prof. Matheson?’, followed by ‘We’ll never forget what he taught us and how he taught us’.”
It was that popularity which led to his name being literally stamped on the campus. When the University was collecting some $2-million in donations to build a new student space, Oakville lawyer and Brock alumnus Art Peltomaa (BA ’74) made a generous gift, and received naming privileges for the new centre. But rather than have it called the Arthur Peltomaa Learning Commons, he got to remembering the professor who had shaped his life. Unbeknownst to Matheson, the donor made an extraordinary request about naming the new facility.
“Although his Introduction to Politics course was always packed to the rafters, he took the time to get to know his students individually,” Peltomaa wrote in Surgite magazine in 2009. “He kept his office door wide open to those who needed help or who wanted to engage in lively debate.
“To me, Bill Matheson epitomized all that was and is good about Brock as an outstanding academic institution where the focus and priority is on the teaching of students. That is why I believe there could have been no better name to this exciting facility than the Matheson Learning Commons.”
Matheson, who was “astonished” by the gesture, was matter-of-fact about how he went about teaching at a young university still developing the kind of reputation that attracts students.
“My approach,” he wrote in that same 2009 magazine article, “was to work with whatever students the admissions office and the school system produced, to always be available and to encourage them so that they would have the best possible university experience. I taught thousands of students over the years, and I frequently meet up with them. It is always a pleasure to know that they are doing well and that they remember me and Brock University.”
Political Science Professor David Siegel, who has himself served as dean in different faculties, said his friend and colleague arrived at Brock too late to be regarded as a founder, but that Matheson’s role as one of the University’s first deans and its first Vice-President, Academic made him a truly formative influence on Brock’s development.
“Bill always emphasized the importance of teaching and the centrality of students,” said Siegel. “That’s why one of his students thought enough of him to make a significant donation to establish the Matheson Learning Commons. One of the strongest recollections that Brock alums of a certain age always want to share with me is what a great influence Bill Matheson had on them. That is the greatest tribute that can be paid to a teacher.”
Many got a taste of Matheson’s dry wit. Kushner recalls the time a newly-hired faculty member, preparing to relocate from western Canada, wanted Brock to cover the expense of having his horse transported to Niagara.
“I’ll tell you what,” Matheson, who was Vice-President, Academic at the time, told his academic recruit. “Just ride the horse across the country. It will save me money on your airfare.”
Beyond campus, Matheson was also involved in the local community, serving on the Board of the Niagara Symphony, as a director of the Niagara Regional Development Corporation, the Niagara Centre for Youth Care, Family and Children’s Services of Niagara, Contact Niagara and the Niagara Child and Youth Services Foundation. He was also a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Judicial Appointments and as a Member of the Council of the Ontario College of Teachers.
In keeping with Matheson’s wishes, there is no funeral service. He will be buried alongside his parents in Nova Scotia.
However, the Department of Political Science will hold an event in the new year to celebrate their former colleague and leader. Details will be announced at a later date.
In the meantime, donations can be made to the William Matheson Bursary at brocku.ca/donate or through the office of Development and Alumni Relations at 905-688-5550 x 4190.
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Comments from colleagues:
Tom Dunk, Interim Provost and Vice-President Academic, former Dean of Social Sciences: “Even though Bill retired 10 years before I arrived to become Dean, he was always willing to talk to me about the Faculty of Social Sciences and the University as whole, so that I had a better sense of the institution’s history. His sage advice was always accompanied by a colourful tale that left me laughing.”
Paul Hamilton, Chair, Department of Political Science and a former student of Matheson: “For so many of us, Bill Matheson personified Brock. I had the pleasure of taking his Canadian politics class in my second year at Brock. He was an engaging and demanding teacher, and that brought out the best in his students. He was also a decent and humane man who really cared about the quality of teaching, especially the seminar experience. He was witty and passionate about the politics of Canada.
“By the time I came back to Brock to teach, Bill had retired, but he was still a presence on campus. His contributions to Brock as an administrator and leader are evident in so many ways. For our department, Bill will always be seen as a model of what we all aspire to as engaged academics committed to the success of the University and its values. He will be greatly missed as a leader, mentor and friend.”
Ingrid Makus, Interim Dean of Social Sciences: “We are in deep mourning at the loss of a truly extraordinary academic and educator who was one of the founding members of Brock University. Deeply admired, respected, and loved, Prof. Matheson’s legacy remains not only in the remarkable monument installed at Brock in the form of the Matheson Learning Commons, but in the many, many lives he touched as a gifted teacher, brilliant scholar, outstanding administrator, and overwhelmingly generous mentor and friend. It was an honour to have known him.”