Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada and, as Canadians, we have much to be thankful for. This day alone is a gift to be thankful for here in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Calm, crisp, sunny, and brilliantly decorated with the splendor of the fall colours. It’s my favourite season, especially when there’s no wind so the leaves last a bit longer. As I walked along the beautiful St. John River that transects our fair city this morning, enjoying this absolutely spectacular fall day along with many others taking advantage of the holiday, I was regaled by the honking of the many families of geese that have spent the past several weeks along the shore of the river, flying from one side to the other, then back again, honking the whole while. I’m not sure if they’re debating whether they should leave or not, considering how beautiful it is, or whether they are giving their adolescent children lessons in flying in formation before attempting a migration. But they are busy and chatty, that’s for sure. On my walk I also spotted a heron, which is rare these days, an osprey, and several ducks. The bird activity added to the sense of well-being that the beauty of the day was providing.
I also spent time on my walk reflecting on the outsized impact one person had on me and many, many of my colleagues and their families simply by virtue of a dream he had to build something new in his province, at his university.
We can have an impact on people in many ways. Most typically, it is simply by offering a listening ear and a kind word of encouragement, one person at a time. It seems like such a simple recipe, doesn’t it? Why, one has to wonder, is that apparently so difficult? But despite the fact that we don’t always make this effort when we might or receive it when it could make a big difference, for most of us we can identify who has stood out in our lives for their kindness, for going the extra mile for us. And those people may well not even have known that they made that difference; it was just who they were. It can be a salesclerk at a local store who never seems too busy to inquire about you despite the pressure all around. It can be the customs agent who smiles and looks pleasant, when all around her are rushing people through with no regard to age, infirmity, or obvious discomfort. It can be the doctor who really seems to be listening to what you say and treats you like an equal player in the visit instead of the next person to be talked at. Those people are making a difference in our lives. They are taking the time to connect. And it doesn’t just make you feel better, it makes them feel better.
The person I’ve been reflecting on doesn’t exactly fall into that category, although he was a very kind man. And the reason I’ve been thinking about him in particular is because the first part of this Thanksgiving Day weekend was spent at his celebration of life. It was a true celebration of life because, first of all, he had led a life very worthy of celebration and, secondly, he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past several years, so there was some sense of release in his passing, both for him and his family. But seeing so many of my colleagues over the years present to honour him, colleagues from computer science and the computing centre at our university over decades, brought into focus the enormity of his impact not just on computing but on so many lives.
Dana Wasson was the founder – the father – of computing at the University of New Brunswick and in the province of New Brunswick. He was a visionary, having recognized the potential and the power computing machines would have on – well, everything – way back in the 1950s when he was a young electrical engineering student. He somehow convinced influential people and institutions to get on board and brought the first large mainframe east of Montreal to our university, to be shared with the provincial utilities. He started the university’s computing centre, serving as its director. He was just about to turn 30. Realizing that the computing centre needed to train people to work there, he developed one of the first computer science programs in Canada so that he’d have a work force. This started as a master’s program and then in the early 1970s he introduced an undergraduate program. For a while he was director of both the computing centre and the department of computer science, and then, as the world of computing grew rapidly, he chose to concentrate on growing and leading computer science, which he did in spades. The rest, as they say, is history.
[Many of his students have followed in that same path of innovation and growth by building successful IT companies that have employed many and made incalculable contributions to our communities.]
The people I sat with at Dana’s celebration of life on Saturday included many of us who had taken his initial computer science program and had gone on to develop fulfilling careers leading UNB’s Computing Centre through technological transition after transition … after transition. Others of us sitting there had been hired by Dana as professors or in other capacities to support a strong computer science program. Nearly everyone in either department for a period of 30 years had been hired by Dana. We came from local areas, from central Canada, from western Canada, from the U.S., Poland, India, China, Germany, Russia, and Iran. We came, we helped grow programs to be proud of, we raised our families in this very special part of the world, and many of us who had come from elsewhere became proud Canadians. All because one man had a vision and brought us in to share in that dream. And for that we all are thankful.
If you have people in your lives who have had a big impact, consider reaching out and letting them know. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.