Tour from the heart and soul of UTM

“Comfort Zones” project wraps up with tours by Linda Stroble, Paul Donoghue, and others


Last week I took two of the unique Behind the Scenes tours, the second half of St. George curatorial master’s student Yan Wu’s project “Comfort Zones”. We covered her research process in an article called “Discovering UTM’s comfort zones”. She also worked with Cohabitation Strategies, whose hypothesis, to be explored by the tourists after each event, was that the increasing corporatization of postsecondary education makes it essentially less comfortable.

Before I start, a disclaimer. Part of the point of the tours is that the experience is not the same on paper as it is being there. So you are getting a watered-down version.

The two I took were Linda Stroble’s and Paul Donoghue’s. They were both enjoyable, but they couldn’t have been more contrary.

Everyone knows Linda. She currently works at the Circuit Break Café in CCT serving up cookies and other things, but she’s worked in food service at UTM for 25 years in various outlets. If you’ve met her, though, you know her day is not just about the transaction. It’s about the interaction with the people who come see her. Linda is very quick to make friends, accepts everyone no matter who they are, and will never hesitate to ask what you’re looking so happy or sad about. She genuinely cares, and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love her back.

I couldn’t say no to a tour of UTM from Linda’s perspective.

We met with her, Yan, Blackwood staff, Lucia Babina and Miguel Robles-Durán from CohStra, and a few others in the Blackwood Gallery to be introduced to the project. Then it was off to the greenhouse, which is on the mysterious fifth floor of Davis, only accessible by elevator. Why the greenhouse? Because it houses a few tropical plants, including some from Bermuda, where Linda grew up. She introduced us to technician Susan Dixon, and then showed us around a little inside.

Some of the stories: There was a “match me if you can” plant with green and pink-speckled leaves. When Linda was 11 or 12, an uncle said he’d give her 10 pounds if she found two leaves that matched. After she’d been searching for a while, she overheard someone say to him, “You know she won’t find no two leaves alike!” and realized a joke had been made at her expense. There was another plant whose bristly, mint-tasting leaves the children of Bermuda used to brush their teeth with on their way to school, just by rubbing. One other tourist bravely tried it out.

There was a papaya tree; a neighbour used to grow prize papayas and Linda would eat them as a child. One day years and years later she happened to meet him in an airport in Toronto.

“You know who I am, don’t you?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she replied; “you were my neighbour. I used to eat your papayas.”

“Linda, you ate the one that was meant to be first place!” he said, comically angry.

Linda Stroble has been on campus for the past 25 years.
Linda Stroble has been on campus for the past 25 years.

The scene could have been in a book or movie. But it was just part of the fabric of Linda’s life. It was really touching to be let in on memories like this.

The rest of the tour passed by the temporary office of Keith Nablo, another vibrant person whom most of us will know from the times when our profs can’t manage classroom tech, the Faculty Club (which someone had apparently, sadly, booked over the tour), and Spigel Hall. What was amazing was that these various places were largely lifeless in themselves except for Linda and the people she wanted us to meet. She brought the life in them with her.

We went to the TFC. Linda read us a short poem she had written almost at random the other day. It wasn’t high literature, but it was powerful. It was about how the Bermuda of her youth was deeply segregated between black and white, and now she meets people of every background freely interacting every day. “Boy how time changes; you meet people from all walks of life,” she read. “We all meet at the round table.” The realization that what you and I take for granted, what has become almost invisible to us, was something rare and beautiful to her—that was deeply moving.

Then the actual moving began. Her husband, who was along for the ride, busted out a stereo from a plastic bag and turned on Pharell Williams’ “Happy” at full volume. Heads turned to watch Linda dance, gracefully, unabashedly, slowly, out of the cafeteria. Most of the group was half-dancing along, but to see Linda in her element was something else. She led us right into the Meeting Place and went out into the tables as the music blasted. People began applauding. I kept imagining that some nervous official would appear and tell us this was a disruption, unprofessional. I would have told him he was trying to put out one of the few truly bright lights on campus.

A quick Zumba dance followed with Brenda Mazur, who leads a secret double life as assistant to the chief administrative officer, Paul Donoghue (so maybe my characterization of officials is unfair). Maybe I was the only one not to dance in front of the mirror. Maybe I should get unrepressed. Whatever. It was good just to be along for the ride.

Then we headed back to the gallery for the analytical part of the tour. The two good folks from CohStra had a map of UTM with a plastic sheet on top that we were supposed to paint and mark up with our impressions of the tour. Sounds fun. But first they had Linda point out on the map everywhere we’d been. She found it hard, but they wouldn’t let anyone help. It was excruciating. She doesn’t think in terms of the abstract, looking down from an aloof place, as we learn to do in our courses. Instead she inhabits places and indeed makes them what they are. That’s her strength and it’s why she’s such an amazing person. As for this part of the project—maybe it would have been better left to the other three tours.

Anyway, it was an amazing experience. But it wasn’t about the places. It was about the person.

Paul Donoghue’s tour was good, too. Now here’s an abstract thinker who can look at a building and see everything that went into its making. He started off with a presentation on the master plan: the incredible growth of the campus in the last decade or so alone, the delicate balance between green space and the need to expand growth, complications like avoiding tall buildings that would obscure our views of the surrounding nature, and the sudden flashes of artistic inspiration that lead an architect to redesign a building. It was very intellectually interesting.

We walked around campus in the cold—I’d never seen the CAO in a rather stylish coat and beret till now and kind of wished I’d brought something warmer, too. As he gave fascinating details on the buildings’ histories, we took a look at the subtly expanded Davis Building; CCT, whose green glass in imitation of the London Plane trees in the courtyard was eventually taken out because the light made anyone it shone on look sick; the library; IB, about which there has supposedly never been an official complaint; the soon-to-be demolished North; and finally Deerfield Hall. The naturalness of the materials in Deerfield was surprising to me, actually. You know that cladding that looks kind of like plastic? Turns out it’s clay formed through quite an intricate process developed in Europe. The library’s wood panelling is from Spain, by the by.

I asked about roofs. Why don’t we make them more usable, grow gardens or solar panels or something on them? Paul said one reason we don’t let people walk up there is that we have a young population, and the thought of open roofs keeps him up at night. Very fair. It was only a few years ago that a student died at St. George while trying to jump from one roof landing to another.

Paul said that the copper cladding of IB gets that green, speckled look by being chemically treated, accelerating a process that normally takes place over decades. No two panels are alike, he said. A big match-me-if-you-can plant.

The enthusiasm was high throughout, and the analysis at the end fruitful and varied, with a long, highly insightful, and retrospective talk on the four tours by the two CohStra folks. I really enjoyed it. All in all, the tours I went on were a careful, lively look at our campus through eyes that, I would argue, are rarely open to what actually makes this place special and worthwhile. No, actually. It made me wish I’d been able to go on Wednesday’s tours: a behind-the-scenes look at EDSS’s film projects and an archaeology tour by Michael Brand. They both sounded cool.

Even if they were unlikely to include spontaneous dancing.