New book celebrates Western Engineering’s history, traditions

Peter Castle

Jason Winders // Western News

Peter Castle

By Jason Winders, Western News

It's a story 60 years in the making. And Peter Castle, BESc’61, PhD’69, has had a front-row seat for most of it. So, when it came to finding an author to pen the history of Western’s Faculty of Engineering, the choice was obvious.

“Literally, everybody in the book I have interacted with or known, many of them were, or still are, good friends,” Castle said. “Let’s just say I knew all the characters.”

Released this fall, Expansion and Innovation: The Story of Western Engineering, 1954-1999 walks readers from the early days as a department, to becoming a modern engineering faculty with graduate programs and research centres and institutes. Using each dean’s reign as a marker, the book brings that history to life through the memories of faculty, staff and alumni who helped shape the faculty and build its reputation.

And, rest assured, the book does not forget the faculty’s proud history of pranks. From an observatory dome painted as a pumpkin to turning the Middlesex College clock face into a Mickey Mouse watch, the pranks – and their perpetrators – are all here.

“Nobody wants to see us encouraging pranks,” Castle said with a laugh. “But there is no way you can suppress it.”

Although its release is timed to the faculty’s 60th anniversary this fall, the book only encompasses the first 45 years, taking readers through the end of R. Mohan Mathur’s time as the faculty’s fourth dean from 1987-1999.

“The fascinating thing for me, having grown up through it as a student and a faculty member, a lot didn’t really twig until I started this research,” Castle said. “As you live through it, it is hard sometimes to understand how significant some things were at that time. In hindsight, that insight comes through clearly.”

And Castle has seen it all – or nearly all.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1939, Castle graduated from Western as gold medalist in electrical engineering as a member of the fourth class in Engineering Science. In 1968, he joined the faculty as a lecturer in electrical engineering. In 1969, he received his PhD as the first student from Engineering Science to obtain a doctorate at Western. He was a full-time faculty member until his retirement in 2004, and is currently an emeritus and adjunct research professor.

“In a way, it was like writing on my family,” Castle said. “And it was hard to keep perspective on that some times. I had to stand back, and not put my personal stuff in there. I tried to hold back on any personal viewpoints, and let the history – and its people – speak.”

Even with an institutional memory like his, Castle still had a little help on the book.

Several years ago, longtime Western Engineering professor George Emmerson, who taught at the university from 1959-85, wrote a history of the first 25 years, a wonderful, personal account of the faculty and its people. Castle used that unreleased text as a basis for much of his writing on the early years. Hence, Emmerson is credited as a co-author of a book released 13 years after his death.

“I was struggling early on with the book to try and see how I could best weave in his material without it being blatant plagiarism,” said Castle, who admitted the text’s personal nature made that difficult, as much of the writing reflected Emmerson himself. “Then it struck me, the real thing to do was to co-author the book.

“He was a character himself, a brilliant writer.”

Beyond Emmerson, Castle ferreted out pieces of history from all corners of the university. In addition to working with Western Archives, uncovering photographs and Board of Governors minutes, this self-confessed “packrat” used much of his own material to “remind him of events.”

And then there were the interviews of faculty, staff and alumni.

“It’s all about people. And time. And circumstances,” Castle said.

Although the book failed to surprise Castle that much, he treasured reliving the journey.

“I have been close enough to the scene that I didn’t find any real surprises, no hidden skeletons or anything like that,” he said. “All in all, it was a very pleasant job. From my point in my career, to look back and say ‘I was part of that,’ and to reconnect with so many people, it was a real pleasure.”

Castle cautioned, however, that the book, like its subject, is never done.

“The problem with a project like this is it’s a never-ending task. You have to say, ‘OK, this is it,’ because you can always add. Even now, after it is done, I keep remembering things I should have added in,” Castle said. “We left the door open for somebody else, in maybe 10 or 15 years, to take this work and build on it.”

The First 45 Years is available for purchase at the Western Book Store and online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the entire Ingram catalogue (which includes Chapters/ Indigo).