Clara Eileen McCandless Thomas (1919-2013)

Ashley Crippen portrait of Clara Thomas with her hand on her chin. Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC00512.

Ashley Crippen portrait of Clara Thomas. Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC00512.

Dr. Clara Thomas, longtime friend, supporter and ally of York University Libraries Archives & Special Collections passed away peacefully on 26 September 2013.

Clara McCandless Thomas, educator and author, was born in Strathroy, Ontario in 1919 to Basil McCandless and Mabel Sullivan McCandless. In an interview with the Toronto Star in 1985, Thomas noted that her mother, a manager of a local dress shop, set an early example of balancing family life and a successful career “She was a feisty woman, and I got my determination from her.”[1]

In order to support herself through her studies at the University of Western Ontario, Thomas worked as a cleaning maid and babysitter.  An ardent feminist, Thomas often highlighted the value of financial independence for women, as the following excerpt from an interview makes clear:

 I think it’s terribly important for women to earn money of their own.  Feminists speak a lot about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Well, her actual slogan was a room of one’s own and 500 guineas a year.  To me, it’s that 500 guineas a year that’s more important than the room.  Because I believe that you can create your psychological space. I learned, early on in my career, to prepare my lectures while scrubbing the floors and minding my two sons.  Women need to have money of their own to feel independent.[2]

At Western, Thomas met Morley Thomas, and the two were married in 1941.  During the Second World War, Thomas taught university-level courses to Canadian servicemen in Dauphin, Manitoba, where Morley was stationed as a meteorologist. After 1945 the couple settled in Toronto where Morley worked for the Headquarters of the Meteorological Service. In 1985 she attributed the success of their marriage to respect for the other’s intellectual space: “We never got in each others’ way.  We each had our own satisfying careers.”[3] From 1943 to 1944 Thomas worked at Western’s main library and pursued a Master’s degree in English. In addition to raising two sons, Stephen Morley and John David, Thomas also taught extension courses to teachers across Ontario on the weekends through Western’s extension network, and summer school courses in London for 15 years, encouraged by Brandon Conron, her academic friend and colleague. [4]  In a citation for an alumni award ceremony in 1995 she remarked:

There’s nothing better to train you as a teacher than training adult teachers. […] It was a splendid experience. I just loved it.  Western’s extension program was a very big thing in those days.  And I taught everything – English, French, medieval history – all the extension courses they gave in the English Department.[5]

In 1957 Thomas returned to university (this time the University of Toronto) to pursue her PhD in English Literature.  She received her doctorate in 1962 and was hired by the English Department at York University in the fall of 1961 as part of the first faculty of the new university.

Image of York faculty and administrative officers 1961-1962, in front of Glendon Hall. Front row: Douglas Lochhead, Alice Turner, David Fowle, Edith Guild, Murray Ross, Clara Thomas, Geroge Harjan, Edgar McInnis. Second row: John Seeley, George Tatham, Norman Endler, Irvine Pounder, John Armour. Back row: Lloyd Jenkins, Howard Langille, Lester Pronger, Robert Lundell, Arthur Johnson, Douglas Verney, Hugh Maclean, Craufurd Goodwin, Donald Jackson, John McFarland, Denis Smith, Vello Sermat, Donald Rickers, John Bruckmann, Neil Morrison, Lionel Rubinoff. York University photograph collection, F0091, image no. ASC02058.

Clara Thomas in the front row, third from right, posing with York University’s faculty in 1961 at Glendon College. York University photograph collection, F0091, image no. ASC02058.

In an 1985 interview, Thomas reflected back on her first years at York as “a very thrilling time,”noting that “[t]he buildings were just being finished when we moved in.  Everything was happening at once.”[6]  In the same interview she noted some of the systemic barriers facing female academics in Canada. “If there were positions open, they didn’t hire women.”[7] She continued:

I’ve never heard of anyone starting at York with a lower salary than mine.  When I asked why, I was told to expect no more because I was a woman, and besides — there were lots of candidates for the position.  Then my department head showed me a memo written by the first president of York, stating that department heads should beware of hiring women.[8]

At York University, Thomas focused her energies on studying Canadian women writers. She moved to the Keele campus in 1968 and remained there until her retirement in 1984. Through her publishing, teaching and public speaking, she continuously sought to raise the profile of Canadian women writers both within the country and within the international community. She published her doctoral thesis in 1967 as Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson.

Thomas built a reputation as a champion of Canadian literature and her research and teaching helped nurture the discipline, as well as budding writers who would later go on to make their mark on the literary scene.

Thomas published several works regarding the work of Margaret Laurence, including the critical introduction Margaret Laurence in 1969 from the New Canadian Library and The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence in 1975. The two kept up a lively correspondence and their friendship led to the acquisition of Laurence’s papers by the university archives in 1981. Below are images of Thomas’s edited draft of the first few pages of Manawaka World as well as a letter from publisher Jack McClelland with feedback and opinions regarding the work and McClelland & Stewart’s Canadian Writers series.

A beloved teacher and mentor, Thomas inspired her students to pursue graduate degrees. Several of her former students went on to teach Canadian literature in universities across the country. One such student, John Lennox, went on to teach in York’s English department for many years and they co-authored a book, William Arthur Deacon: A Literary Life together in 1982.[9] At a tribute in 2005, former student Isabel Bassett reflected on how Thomas’s experience as a feminist academic set an example to young women at the university, noting: “You made it all possible by saying ‘go on, pursue your interests and your career.'”[10]

Thomas had a close relationship with the archives and special collections of York and in 2005 the university acknowledged her considerable contributions by the renaming the archives in her honour.  She retained her office in the archives until 2007 and continued to publish several books after her retirement, including her memoirs Chapters in a Lucky Life in 1999.  She became a Fellow of The Royal Society in 1983 and received honorary degrees from York, Trent and Brock.

York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden with Morley and Clara Thomas during renaming ceremony, 24 May, 2005.

York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden with Morley and Clara Thomas during renaming ceremony, 24 May 2005.

In 1985 she noted that her determination to flourish in academia (despite rampant discrimination against women academics during her time and the lack of visibility for Canadian studies during the 1960s) was sustained by her belief that  “we just go on, from barricade to barricade. We don’t ever give up.”[11]

Image of Clara Thomas seated in her office desk, smiling at the camera. Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC07980.

Clara Thomas seated in her office. Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, image no. ASC07980.

Thomas will be mourned by husband Morley, son Steve, daughter-in-law Mary Attfield, grandson Tyler, and by many friends, colleagues, and former students. She was predeceased by son John in 2007.[12]

A celebration of Clara’s life will be held at York University at a later date.

Ode for Clara Thomas...on her retirement dinner, 31 May 1984 by Margaret Laurence.  Poem reads: Let's singa  brave song of those women of old -- Their strengths were as oak but their hearts were of gold. Each one was a lady who spun a fine tale -- Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill.  Anna Jameson's life was no leisurely amble.  In winter she'd study, in summer she'd ramble. S. Moodie, she live in the bush that was rough:  Though her manners were genteel, her spirit was tough.  Catherine Traill was a mover and skaker, no stoic. A true pioneer, she was really heroic. These women, though ladies, could match any male -- Anna, Susanna and Catherine Parr Traill.  To these we must add another name yet --  The novelist Duncan, Sara Jeanett. She wrote of Canadians semi-imperial; Her own life it reads like an old fasioned serial.  Who has taught all these books, and many good others? Who has fought for Canlit of our sisters and brothers? Who has written biographies, articles, reviews? Who has worked to make Canlit a part of our views?  Clara Thomas we celebrate joyously here.  Like those women of old, she's a true pioneer. Her heart is of gold, her strong intellect, oak. She honours our people, Canadian folk.  She's a new pioneer, and they'd understand, Those women who wrote long ago of our land, As we understand and owe her a debt, Writers in our land who are writing yet.  She's a writer, a fighter, a teacher, a friend. Retirement's a start again, never an end. So let's hear it and cheer it, and say a loud "Hail... For Clara and Sara For Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill".  -Margaret Laurence. May 31, 1984.

Ode for Clara Thomas…on her retirement dinner, 31 May 1984 by Margaret Laurence.

Ode for Clara Thomas…on her retirement dinner, 31 May 1984

by Margaret Laurence

Let’s sing a  brave song of those women of old —
Their strengths were as oak but their hearts were of gold.
Each one was a lady who spun a fine tale — Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill.

Anna Jameson’s life was no leisurely amble.
In winter she’d study, in summer she’d ramble.
S. Moodie, she lived in the bush that was rough:
Though her manners were genteel, her spirit was tough.

Catherine Traill was a mover and shaker, no stoic.
A true pioneer, she was really heroic.
These women, though ladies, could match any male —
Anna, Susanna and Catherine Parr Traill.

To these we must add another name yet —
The novelist Duncan, Sara Jeanette.
She wrote of Canadians semi-imperial;
Her own life it reads like an old fashioned serial.

Who has taught all these books, and many good others?
Who has fought for Canlit of our sisters and brothers?
Who has written biographies, articles, reviews?
Who has worked to make Canlit a part of our views?

Clara Thomas we celebrate joyously here.
Like those women of old, she’s a true pioneer.
Her heart is of gold, her strong intellect, oak.
She honours our people, Canadian folk.

She’s a new pioneer, and they’d understand,
Those women who wrote long ago of our land,
As we understand and owe her a debt,
Writers in our land who are writing yet.

She’s a writer, a fighter, a teacher, a friend.
Retirement’s a start again, never an end.
So let’s hear it and cheer it, and say a loud “Hail…
For Clara and Sara
For Anna, Susanna, and Catherine Parr Traill”.

–Margaret Laurence. May 31, 1984.

Endnotes:

[1] Sherie Posesorski, “Feminist professor, 66, leaped ‘the barricades,'” The Toronto Star, 21 April 1985, D8.

[2] Ibid.

[3]”In Memory of Clara Eileen Thomas 1919 – 2013″: Book of Memories. Denning Brothers Funeral Homes Ltd. Available at:  http://www.denningfuneralhomes.com/book-of-memories/1677515/Thomas-Clara/obituary.php.

[4] Alumni Award of Merit citation. Alumni Awards Dinner, University of Western Ontario. Fall 1995. Copy available in Clara Thomas fonds, F0432, Accession 1996-038 / 003 (021).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Posesorski interview.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For archival material related to this collaboration, see the Clara Thomas and John Lennox fonds (F0431) at: http://archivesfa.library.yorku.ca/fonds/ON00370-f0000431.htm.

[10] “YFile – Archives Named After York Pioneer of Canlit Studies.” 27 May 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. Available at: http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=4582.

[11] Posesorski interview.

[12] Online memorial site available at: http://www.denningfuneralhomes.com/book-of-memories/1677515/Thomas-Clara/obituary.php.

Additional resources:

Clara Thomas fonds (F0432). Finding aid available at: http://archivesfa.library.yorku.ca/fonds/ON00370-f0000432.htm.

Clara Thomas and John Lennox fonds (F0431). Finding aid available at: http://archivesfa.library.yorku.ca/fonds/ON00370-f0000431.htm.

Lennox, John. “Clara McCandless Thomas – The Canadian Encyclopedia.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Web. 28 Sept. 2013. Available at: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/clara-mccandless-thomas.

“YFile – Archives Named After York Pioneer of Canlit Studies.” 27 May 2005. Web. 29 Sept. 2013. Available at: http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=4582 .

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to Clara Eileen McCandless Thomas (1919-2013)

  1. Brenda Weeks-Clarke says:

    Rest assured, some of Clara’s students went on to teach Can-Lit in the public high school system as well as well as in university. And with great success! Thanks for the inspiration and the wind in my sails, Clara.

    • Anna St.Onge says:

      Hi Brenda:
      You make a valid point! The role of secondary school teachers in cultivating an appreciation and love for Canadian literature is key!
      Thank you for sharing.

  2. John Kenneth Panaram says:

    Clara Thomas, an outstanding and inspiring life indeed!

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