Remembering Roger McAfee: Tenacious Ubyssey editor, litigious AMS president and ‘real shit-disturber’

In honour of his life, The Ubyssey looks back on his achievements and controversies alike to understand the man who helped to build the campus we know today.

Roger McAfee arrived at UBC in 1959, when the hottest topic on campus was a measly proposed $100 tuition fee increase by the Board of Governors.

Drinking was banned on campus, a student union building was only a glimmer in students’ eyes, and arts and sciences were still housed under one faculty. The student population had just reached 10,000, and campus debate centred around where the growing student population should hang out now that Brock Hall had banned gambling.

By the time he left Point Grey, McAfee helped transform the campus in many ways — first as an editor at The Ubyssey and then as president of the AMS.

In honour of his life, The Ubyssey looks back on his achievements and controversies alike to understand the man who helped to build the campus we know today.

Once a hack

McAfee’s time at UBC began with a bang.

When he became the photo editor at The Ubyssey in 1960, the entire staff had been laid off by the AMS in retaliation for a “goon issue” of the paper that painted the society in a less flattering light as well as openly mocked recently widowed former First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to campus to open International House, and the Jewish faith that bordered on “sacrilege.” After the editor-in-chief and city editor the year before McAfee were caught with stolen artwork from Brock Hall and laid off, McAfee worked to rebuild the paper first as photo editor, then as managing editor and finally as its editor-in-chief.

It was a commitment for McAfee to work to rebuild the paper — and for the UBC administration, too, as The Ubyssey began to cover more controversial stories.

During his year as editor-in-chief, The Ubyssey published scathing coverage of the extent and cost of UBC’s parking penalties. The paper also advocated reforming academic guidelines to increase the number of seminars compared to lectures offered because of reports of poor lecture quality.

“They turned it into a real paper where they were covering stories that were controversial and that got them the ire of the administration at the time and got them into trouble in some cases,” said his son-in-law Garth Kirkham.

“But at the end of the day, they were right and they evoked change.”

McAfee graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature in 1962.
McAfee graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature in 1962. Courtesy the McAfee family

This same tenacity for his projects was reflected in his devotion to his family and grandchildren, according to Kirkham and McAfee’s daughter-in-law Pascale-Sara Frenette.

Kirkham described him as a “pitbull” whom nothing seemed to phase. McAfee’s young granddaughters, according to Kirkham, are the only members of the family he couldn’t bring to shouts in a debate, in which he always took the contrary position just for kicks.

“Getting into an argument with him was a commitment, to say the least,” he said.

In 1962 — the same year McAfee completed his Bachelor of Arts in English literature — he led The Ubyssey to its first-ever win of the Southam Trophy for general excellence among university newspapers as editor-in-chief.

“He took pride in stirring the pot,” said Kirkham.

Always a hack

After graduating and taking a year to serve as the president of the Canadian University Press, McAfee decided that UBC still hadn’t had enough of him. He returned to study law in 1963, and was elected AMS president in 1964.

McAfee’s term was not without controversy nor pizzazz. After being accused of “railroading” policies through AMS Council without proper consultation — it would not be the last time such an accusation was tossed at an AMS president — a cartoon of McAfee was published in a 1964 edition of The Ubyssey, taking the complainants' train vocabulary literally.

Screenshot from The Ubyssey’s October 29, 1964 issue.
Screenshot from The Ubyssey’s October 29, 1964 issue. Courtesy UBC Library Archive

Perhaps most dramatically, McAfee threatened a lawsuit and wrote a cutting response in The Ubyssey after an editorial published by the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity, said it “mourn[ed] for the UBC students” who had recently elected him AMS president. At the same time, he stressed the importance of “facts and rationality” in decision-making as AMS president, clashing directly with the newly founded Communist Party at UBC and also working with student employees of UBC Food Services to negotiate fairer pay on their behalf in 1964.

Coverage of McAfee’s spat with The Varsity in the Tuesday, February 25, 1964 edition of The Ubyssey.
Coverage of McAfee’s spat with The Varsity in the Tuesday, February 25, 1964 edition of The Ubyssey. Screenshot via UBC Archives

Despite his often divisive leadership style, McAfee did much to unite his contemporaries and future generations of students alike.

His decision to renegotiate building plans with the university is the reason the Old SUB — then known as the New SUB, and now officially called the Life Building — exists in its size today. McAfee’s determination made room for the old movie theatre, the original Blue Chip Café and now a Subway to serve students in its hallowed halls.

Ubyssey for life

As long-time AMS Archivist Dr. Sheldon Goldfarb writes in his book The Great Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC, “The student society, one might say, was growing up.”

So too was McAfee.

Graduating law school led him to practice for several years as a crown prosecutor and then move into private practice later in his career. Kirkham noted the law was never his calling, despite debate being “in his blood.”

“I don’t think it was the law that was his life’s passion, I think it was the writing that was, and that probably stems from his days at The Ubyssey,” he said.

Later in his life, McAfee bought the North Shore Weekender and managed the North Shore News, and contributed to Pacific Yachting and other marine and boating-focused publications well into his later years. He even wrote two books on marine history in Canada, often investigating and refuting previous beliefs surrounding particularly significant events.

Group photograph at 1999 Ubyssey reunion
Group photograph at 1999 Ubyssey reunion Courtesy UBC Library Archive

The importance of his time at The Ubyssey never escaped him. McAfee was present for the the paper’s 1999 reunion, and remained connected with the paper and broader publishing community. Whenever old friends from The Ubyssey were in the Vancouver area, there was a standing offer for a barbeque at his place, and they would laugh together into the night, “shooting the shit” for hours over the din of hockey on the TV.

“In our youthful years, we accomplished some important things together. In later years, my visits to Rog and [his wife] Mel (and extended family) made my life better,” wrote former Ubyssey Editor-in-Chief Fred Fletcher.

“He will indeed be missed.”

Indeed, from all positions and even after many years, McAfee fundamentally shaped the campus we walk today.

“He didn’t actually lay bricks, but [...] at the time everyone wanted to stay at the status quo, and Roger was adamant that the status quo wasn’t the way to go,” said Kirkham, noting that McAfee was a “driving force” in everything he did.

“It’s funny how we’ll do things on the side and that ends up being the thing that drives us for the rest of our lives.”

A celebration of life for Roger McAfee is planned on Saturday, October 13, 2018. Please contact sonofrogermcafee@gmail.com for further details.

The Ubyssey would like to thank AMS Archivist Sheldon Goldfarb for his assistance with this article. Much information about historical events was retrieved from his book, The Great Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC.