The lyrics are as familiar today as they were the first time I nervously walked onto the St. Francis Xavier University campus as a freshman more than six decades ago.
They’re from the university’s rousing “battle song,” Hail and Health, a chant that has been proudly sung at sports events and other Xaverian social gatherings since the early 1900s.
The lines I like the best are at the end: “Years may creep, but still we’ll keep, loyal to the white and blue.”
A lot of years have creeped by, for sure — but I can still repeat Hail and Health from start to finish.
Though my intentions were always to be a journalist, a series of circumstances following high school graduation landed me in Antigonish as an engineering student in the fall of 1956.
From the first puck drop, my niche wasn’t there. Not in physics, not in chemistry, not in biology, not in any subject leading to an engineering degree.
The only professor I really knew was Shorty MacDougall in math — and that had nothing to do with my studies. When I was a kid going to hockey games at the old Arena Rink in New Glasgow, Shorty was the goaltender for the New Glasgow Bombers. Our after-class conversations at X were usually on hockey.
During my time in the cathedral town, I wrote sports for The Xaverian Weekly, the campus newspaper. In my second year, I became sports editor. From that association, the two staff people I got to know best were football coach Don Loney and athletic director Alex MacAdam. Both arrived at X just when I did.
Even while I was a student, both Loney and MacAdam understood my mixed emotions — being in engineering but wanting to be in journalism. Both of them, on separate occasions, told me it wasn’t too late to get back on track and aim for what I wanted the most. I was forever grateful for their advice.
Loney was my first contact when he took over the St. FX football program. As the years became decades, we got to admire each other and became very good friends. It was a friendship that would last until his death in 2004.
We sometimes joked about the day we met.
Loney, a former Canadian Football League star noted for his tough demeanour, was holding practice with his new team. I was just 18 going on 19 as I approached him rather cautiously on the sidelines, his familiar cigar hanging out of his mouth and his huge dog faithfully standing watch at his side. As things turned out, there was no need to be nervous. The big smile and meaningful handshake that greeted me chased away any youthful fears.
The man I met that day would go on to an outstanding career as X’s head coach. He piled up a very impressive record of 133 victories in 166 outings, a performance that produced nine Atlantic conference championships, four Atlantic Bowl victories and a College Bowl title.
He was inducted into a number of halls of fame, including a 2003 entrance into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame with the members of his 1963 championship powerhouse. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the ceremonies that night because of failing health. It was a big disappointment to me because it was the same night I was being inducted.
The next summer — just months before he passed away at the age of 80 — my wife Jane and I spent a full day with him at his modest retirement home in Guysborough County.
He didn’t want to complain about the cancer he was fighting, so the subject was put aside. Instead, we had a wonderful get-together, recalling many of his major achievements in the sport that was his life. Later, as we drove home, Jane said Don was one of the nicest people in sports that she had met. I certainly couldn’t disagree with her assessment.
Back to 1956, Alex MacAdam, who had starred in several sports during his St. FX years, returned to campus to become athletic director and chairman of the physical education department. Again, because of my position with the campus paper, we met on his first day on the job.
As in Don’s case, Alex and I got to know each other very well, our paths crossing numerous times through the years. We were together on many occasions, thanks to his also being coach of the university’s boxing, basketball, soccer and track teams, and his long interest and involvement with the Antigonish Highland Games.
Unlike with Don, when Alex retired, I didn’t run into him for a very long time. I often checked up, however, on his whereabouts when I talked to old Xaverians. Then, just a few days before Christmas, he died in Antigonish at the age of 94.
Reports talked about how he had lived a very busy and happy life, being involved in many personal hobbies while having a reputation as a loving family man. One comment in his obituary stood out: “He touched our lives with love, kindness and generosity, and he will be cherished forever in our hearts.”
That sounded like the personable guy I knew.
Loney and MacAdam had something else in common — both were true Xaverians to their dying days.
Through all this time, I’ve never forgotten how supportive and caring both of them were when I was still a teenager, still trying to steer my life in the right direction.
When I made my decision — prior to the 1958-59 academic year — to follow my dream and switch to the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Don and Alex both said I was doing the best thing for myself.
With them both gone now, the final link to my student days at St. FX has been cut.
Hail and Health!