Grant MacEwan was a unique person.
He was born on a farm in Manitoba, raised on a homestead near Melfort, Saskatchewan, earned a BSA degree (1926) from the University of Toronto, a MSc degree (1928) from Iowa State College and then was hired by the University of Saskatchewan where he began his long and distinguished career as educator, agriculturist and historian.
He moved from Saskatchewan in 1946 to become dean of agriculture and home economics at the University of Manitoba. Returning to Calgary in 1951 as head of the Canada Beef Council, he became involved in politics, serving five years as alderman and mayor, as MLA for the Calgary constituency, and then as lieutenant governor of Alberta for two terms, 1966-1974.
He died in Calgary in 2000 at the age of 98.
MacEwan was a frugal person. And it was that frugality that gave rise to many stories of his career. He disdained the ‘Robber Barons’ as he termed those who operated the railways and hotel systems. When invited to speak at functions, be they civic events or livestock meetings, he always traveled by bus and patronized YMCA accommodation.
Invited as mayor of Calgary to address a board of trade meeting in Grande Prairie he walked from the bus depot to the meeting hall only to be stopped at the reception desk and asked for $10. “Why the charge?” he asked as he made payment. The reply: “We have to cover expenses for the geezer they’ve invited from Calgary to speak today.”
And there never were expenses; MacEwan refused to accept even a proffered honorarium! And the same frugality became a hallmark of his tenure as lieutenant governor of Alberta. The Vice Regal chauffeur related a story (one of many) of the time he drove MacEwan to address a meeting in Lethbridge. When he called to pick up his passenger at MacEwan’s private residence (MacEwan did not use the ‘official’ residence) he was directed to the garage where a number of items awaited loading. Then they were on their way, the chauffeur looking forward to the fine meals and accommodation he had experienced on trips with MacEwan’s predecessor. But that was not to be this time.
At Calgary there was no stop at an up-scale restaurant; simply a brief pause at a grocery store while MacEwan made a few purchases then on to the Highwood River. Here on a picnic table in the roadside campground MacEwan arrayed his purchases – a wedge of cheese, a carton of milk, and a loaf of bread. But the chauffeur knew that Lethbridge would be a different story, a regal banquet in the Marquis Hotel with MacEwan as the guest of honour followed by a night of rest in this historic hotel.
The banquet lived up to expectations but the night of rest did not. It began with the drive homewards. Not until well after midnight, and some 30 miles north of Calgary, did MacEwan call for a halt. Here, in a grove of trees beside the highway, he rolled out the sleeping bags they had loaded in the trunk that morning.
The position of lieutenant governor of Alberta includes the role of chief scout for the province. This was a role MacEwan embraced, welcoming Guides and Scouts alike to award ceremonies held in the legislative chambers where he presented the Gold Cords, Chief Scout, Duke of Edinburgh and other awards for these organizations with a personal message for each recipient.
He was also a voice for 4H and donated his 143-acre property situated beside Battle Lake for development of the Alberta 4-H Centre. In fact, any activity involving youth and the wilderness was bound to command his attention.
The last time I saw MacEwan in action was at an agricultural meeting in Saskatoon where he was the guest speaker for the annual meeting of the Canadian Wool Growers Association. By now he was the Honorable Dr. Grant MacEwan for he was not only the ex-lieutenant governor of Alberta but also the recipient of four honorary LLD degrees.
It was a January morning when my brother and I caught up with him along the city street about two miles from his evening lodging — the YMCA of course. We gave him a lift the last two miles to the meeting hall. He had come to Saskatoon by Greyhound. When the meeting concluded he boarded the same bus line for an overnight return to Calgary.