As I wind down my term as President of the University of Regina Alumni Association (URAA), I think of the numerous sponsorships and partnerships of which we've been a part. At the same time, I congratulate the University for being such a welcoming host for the community engagement it strives to achieve. In particular, I think of Slam Dunk, now an annual event for my family. From the festive spirit of the pep rally to the electric energy of the packed house cheering on the Cougars, one can't help but feel proud to be a U of R alumnus. After every game, the UR Ambassador in me can't help but give my young family a tour of the campus to spur the feeling of opportunity I always experience when taking in the modern architecture and rich history. At the same time, I think back to my education — now an entire generation ago — and always feel the same way: bittersweet. The "old" me wishes time could've slowed down during my five years so that I could have experienced even more. Yet, I remember how the "young" me couldn't get out the doors fast enough. Being a part of the URAA has enabled me to stay connected to the University in a new way and has allowed me to make a difference for the next generation by lobbying for them.

In the time I've served, the URAA has been part of mentoring initiatives, scholarships, sponsorships & partnerships, strategic planning, the establishment of both a new governance model and a new website, building and strengthening relations with faculties, designing a new memorandum of understanding with the University — and, of course, celebrating our alumni through our flagship event, the Alumni Crowning Achievement Awards. I'm particularly proud to have designed our most recent logo, and to be able to stand on stage at convocation to shake the hands of thousands of new alumni. I wish I could shake all of our near-90,000 (at the time of this writing) hands, but I hope this message suffices.

The University of Regina empowers anyone with a thirst for knowledge to go far. Together, the alumni — the product of the University — have the ability to shape our community, our country and even our planet. By showcasing ourselves, we are also directly showcasing our University. My mandate has been to amplify the presence of the URAA as a bridge between alumni groups and the University. As we begin celebrations of our 50th anniversaries —of both the University and the URAA — now, more than ever, is the time to engage with your Alma mater. To that end, I encourage you all to visit our website and consider joining our board of directors. Most importantly, I hope you get to experience one of the many alumni events planned for this fall, and rekindle your best memories.

Thank you again to our University Engagement team for giving our alumni a platform.

—Scott Carson BSc'03, President, URAA (University of Regina Alumni Assocation)

URAA logo
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The year was 1967 and the future was brimming with promise and potential. Tie dye, bell bottoms, and peace signs were everywhere as millions of visitors from around the world descended on Montréal's Expo 67 to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday.

Radio stations were playing Lulu's hit To Sir with love on repeat - the story of a young student's gratitude for a brilliant teacher who opened their mind to the world.

Stepping into this world was another brilliant young teacher by the name of Bernard Wilhelm - a Swiss intellectual whose visions of a bilingual studies centre would emerge in the middle of the prairies.

"At that time, the University of Regina was known as the University of Saskatchewan, Regina campus," begins Bernard's oldest son, Pierre Wilhelm BA'77, speaking from his home on the Sunshine Coast of BC.

"It was nothing but a dirt field, with a gym, library, several classroom buildings, and a heating plant. Campion College had just been built. But thanks to my father's vision, the French cultural hub known as the Bilingual Centre - later renamed La Cité - would become a gathering place for French speaking students."

The early years

"My father was an adventurer through literature and was fascinated by American writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also by French writers like André Malraux" says Pierre.

"Most young Swiss teachers ended up pursuing their studies in England, but my father felt that his destiny was in America. He met and married the love of his life, my mother Rita Finnerty, when the two of them were in teacher's college in Upper New York State. We like to say my father was fascinated with Rita Hayworth and wound up marrying his own Rita."

When Bernard returned to Switzerland, he proposed to his love by mailing an engagement ring in a Swiss Chocolate box because "he couldn't afford the duty that a ring would have cost."

Rita joined her fiancé in Switzerland and Bernard earned a living as a secondary school teacher. As was customary of the times, Rita supported Bernard as he pursued his PhD in comparative literature while she devoted time to raising three children: Jane BA'75, Pierre, and Christophe BA'81.

But Bernard felt stifled by the conservative European academic climate where politics and connections - not necessarily hard work - resulted in higher promotions. He made the decision to return to the United States and applied for numerous teaching positions; however, it was a small, relatively unknown university in Regina, Saskatchewan, that caught his eye.

"The position came with the opportunity to set up a bilingual centre. So, we put our belongings in storage and made the five-day transatlantic trip to New York with our little terrier pup named Whisky," remembers Pierre.

It was a time when the era of passenger ships was coming to an end in favour of air travel, and Bernard wanted his family to experience all that a seaward journey would offer. So, he purchased tickets for his family on the SS United States.

The family arrived in New York and paid cash for a white Ford station wagon and made the journey north, camping along the way during the height of Expo 67. After days of travel through Ontario and Manitoba, they finally arrived in Saskatchewan.

"I think my father was in a hurry to get to Regina. We were stopped by the RCMP and given a speeding ticket, but the officer was so friendly and said, 'Welcome to Saskatchewan!'"

Establishing Regina roots

As the family settled in Regina that fall, they soon learned the truth about prairie cold. Bernard also quickly realized that the promise of a "bilingual centre" would come up cold, with no associated funding. Undaunted, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work as an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages.

Things radically changed once funding for bilingual education projects was made available under the Pierre Trudeau government in the late 1960s and early '70s. Bernard's enthusiasm soared as he established a unique academic institution offering students a BA with a bilingual distinction through courses in English and French. The Centre provided a space for English-speaking students to converse in French and become a part of Saskatchewan's francophone (or Fransaskois) community.

"Students and academics flocked to the many social encounters my father organized," says Pierre. "They came to drink fresh coffee, sample Beaujolais Nouveau or enjoy a cup of hot apple cider on a cold wintery day. Many came to read French magazines and newspapers or hear conference speakers."

In the summer, courses were offered for Québécois and French-speaking students who came from abroad to learn English and discover Western Canada.

For many years, Bernard was President of the Association France-Canada and invited academic and culturally prominent personalities to Regina. He was in his element hosting these guests, while his wife Rita welcomed them into their home.

"Rita was an accomplished hostess known for organizing dinners for these speakers," recalls Jane, 70, the eldest sibling, from her home in Geneva, Switzerland.

Jane recalls her mother serving a delicious meal of filet mignon en croûte (beef tenderloin in puff pastry) to celebrity Canadian cook, author, and media personality Madame Jehane Benoît OC, who famously introduced Tourtière (French-Canadian meat pies) to English Canadians.

"I recall Mme Benoît saying that most women weren't confident enough to serve her a home-cooked meal, so she was invited out to restaurants instead. I think she was very impressed that she met her culinary match in my mother and even told Rita the meal was excellent!" laughs Jane.

Rita obtained a master's degree in English literature at the U of R in 1973 and taught French at Luther High School for many years.

Individual at desk in the 1970s Bernard Wilhelm in his office at the University of Regina. All photos courtesy of the Wilhelm family.

A lasting legacy

As the director of the Bilingual Centre, Bernard helped numerous students advance their careers. He organized exchange programs, helping students from Western Canada learn French in France and Switzerland. He also enabled young assistants to become professional translators and interpreters.

"My father left a lasting impression on so many people," recalls Pierre. "This included his research assistant Mary-Ellen Parker-Murray, who went on to head Saskatchewan's Protocol Office before she moved to Toronto. She and her family remain close friends of ours and we still speak to her in French. Another student of French, Craig Pollock BA'87, became an interpreter for the Canadian government."

When Bernard passed away in November of 2016, former students flew back for the funeral from all parts of Canada.

"My brothers and I were really touched by a card that then University President Vianne Timmons sent to our family," says Jane. "She recognized our father's pioneering work at the university and his dedication to French-speaking communities."

Youngest son Christophe, who sadly passed away last year, also recognized his father's contribution to French culture. He once spoke about the similarities between his father and fellow Swiss professor Auguste Viatte, who both believed French-speaking minority cultures in Canada, Louisiana (the Cajuns), and the Caribbean (the Haitians) deserved to have their cultures collected, preserved, published, and shared on radio and television.

Bernard was not only a pioneer of French distance education, but he also published several books in French, including a literary "fransaskoise" anthology, as well as a profile of the French community of Zenon Park. He was an engaging media personality on Radio-Canada and his research helped link French-speaking communities in Saskatchewan with sister communities in Northern Ontario and in Québec via satellite and video phone.

Bernard passed away in 2016, almost one year after his beloved Rita. With Christophe now gone, Pierre and Jane are left to ponder their family's legacy.

"According to his wishes, we took our father's ashes to the Jura Mountains in Switzerland where he grew up," says Pierre. "He now rests next to our dear mother and our brother."

Rooted in higher education

A love of languages and higher learning have followed the Wilhelm siblings their entire lives.

After studying English and French literature at the U of R, Jane went on to pursue graduate studies in literature at the Université de Genève in Switzerland. She then obtained a PhD in comparative literature in Montréal and was later a Marie Curie Fellow at the Université Sorbonne in Paris, with a fellowship for advanced research from the European Union. She has worked for both the Swiss government and the executive council of the City of Geneva.

As a certified professional translator, Jane has also been a language and communications consultant for agencies including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. She has taught French, English, and translation at universities in Canada and Switzerland, with research focused on gender, translation, and intercultural communication.

Pierre completed a 30-year university teaching career, having taught at the U of R's Language Institute as a French instructor. He also became an expert in multimedia and mass communications, helping set up Athabasca University's online distance learning courses. Pierre's research led him to work in Mexico, Cuba, and other Latin American countries. He married the love of his life Mariela, whom he met in Regina - a Chilean woman who grew up in France after being exiled during the Chilean coup.

Pierre says his four children are representative of "Canada's multicultural blend" and they embrace Spanish, French, and English, with a strong attachment to Western Canada.

Youngest son Christophe was a brilliant businessman who rose to be Vice-President Strategy of the avionics division of the Thales Group - a world leader in cybersecurity and data protection.

In the early years, Christophe studied history at the U of R and was awarded the President's Medal when he graduated. He also won a Queen's Silver Jubilee Award to study in Montréal.

He pursued his master's in European history and won a scholarship to study at the Institute of European Studies, whose graduate program was twinned with that of International Relations at the Université de Genève. He later obtained a graduate degree in science and technology policy planning.

After obtaining his MBA in international business and finance, Christophe worked as a leading executive for US and European multinationals in the automotive, rail, aeronautical, space, and defense domains.

Jane says Christophe had access to the most sophisticated top-secret technological and geopolitical information in the world. "The ease with which he navigated between languages and cultures contributed to his success in business negotiation," she says proudly.

A few years before Christophe passed away, he had the chance to speak with the U of R about his outstanding world-level career - something that is especially difficult for a foreigner in France, a country that seldom allows outsiders that level of responsibility.

"I have had the incredible luck to put into practice almost all of what I have studied, working on some of the critical infrastructure projects that our governments - or we, as consumers - now rely upon. This has ranged from ballistic missile defense at NATO, to winning major air traffic management projects and space-based, global navigation satellite solutions at the European Union. My work has also included the negotiation of public-private partnerships in the rail domain and the setting-up and oversight of defense or aerospace joint ventures in Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, the US, Russia, and China."

Jane and Pierre both recall Christophe saying that what helped him most in his work as a brilliant geopolitical strategist was his early studies in history at the U of R. Navigating life without their brother hasn't been easy.  "Like our father, Christophe was charismatic," says Pierre. Christophe's legacy is summed up by former Thales Aerospace colleague Yannick Assouad, who said: "Christophe was a man of experience and wisdom, a true gentleman with outstanding human and professional qualities."

Moving forward while looking back

As world citizens, Jane and Pierre say they will always look back on their time in Regina fondly. Both share an immense pride in the contributions of their father and brother - and to the university where it all began.

"It's amazing to think that my father's decision to move our family there 60 years ago would have such a profound impact on all of our lives," adds Pierre.

Read this story en français!

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Welcome to the Spring/Summer 2024 edition of Degrees magazine. As you read this issue of Degrees, the University of Regina has just celebrated Spring Convocation, ushering 2,529 new alumni into the world - and into a family of more than 90,000 U of R alumni across the globe.

As so often happens, the years following graduation bring many surprises, twists, and turns. Our alumni live in more than 100 countries around the world, making a positive difference in their communities wherever they land. This issue of Degrees magazine celebrates the accomplishments of just a handful of these extraordinary alumni - a celebrated filmmaker, inspiring educators, leaders in business, and advocates for social justice among them.

As the University of Regina prepares to mark its 50th anniversary year, I hope you'll join me for a host of celebrations culminating in a special alumni week in October. You can read more about this - including an announcement of this year's recipients of the Alumni Crowning Achievement Awards - in the magazine.

I'm proud to be serving as your President at this very exciting time for the U of R - a time to reflect on our illustrious past, but also look ahead with optimism at what the next 50 years will bring to our University, and to the communities and province we so proudly serve.

In the meantime, I wish all of you and your families a fun-filled and enjoyable summer, and I hope to see as many of you as possible at Alumni Week this fall!

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Jeff Keshen
President and Vice-Chancellor

 

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