Walking with Woolf

The Journal spends a day with Principal Daniel Woolf as he adjusts to his new job

Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf participates in Walkhome’s Walk-a-thon for charity on Nov. 12.
Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf participates in Walkhome’s Walk-a-thon for charity on Nov. 12.
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Principal Daniel Woolf likes to use his Twitter account to keep students up to date on what he’s up to, whether he’s in his office, at the airport or a Gaels’ football game. But I learned far more spending last Thursday with him than I could fit into 140 characters.

I was told I wouldn’t be able to join the principal for his first round of private meetings with some of his advisors, including Academic Advisor Greg Lessard and Special Advisor for External Relations Sean Conway, but would be able to walk with him on his way to flip burgers at the Queen’s United Way Barbeque at the BioSciences Complex from 10:50 until 11 a.m.

Arriving at his office on the third floor of the recently-renovated Richardson Hall, I was greeted by University Communications Director Ellie Sadinsky, who apologetically told me she couldn’t introduce me to people in his office—Woolf had just finished his meetings and was leaving for his first of five public appearances for the day.

Before leaving, I was escorted into his office to be formally introduced to the principal, who started his five-year term on Sept. 1. Woolf’s administrative career began in 1998 as the associate dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie University. In 1999, he became dean of the Faculty of Humanities at MacMaster University, followed by seven years as dean of arts at the University of Alberta, a position he held prior to arriving at Queen’s.

“Haven’t we met before?” he said, remembering our summer meeting at Grad Club trivia night.

For a man who meets people on a daily basis, Woolf definitely has a memory for faces.

He then confessed to feeling less than 100 per cent, having just recovered from the H1N1 virus.

“I typically never get sick,” he said.

If he was still feeling the effects of his recent bout of swine flu, it was hard to tell.

“You wanted a day in the life, but you’re already six hours into it,” he said as we left Richardson Hall on our way to BioSci.

Woolf told me a typical day for him starts at 6 a.m.—sometimes as early as 5 a.m.—for early morning breakfast meetings. In order to maintain his regimented lifestyle, he said he’s in bed by 10:30 every night.

It’s clear Woolf has quickly reacquainted himself with the grounds of his alma mater.

Passing through Summerhill, the principal, who graduated from Queen’s in 1980, is stopped by two men sitting on a bench.

“Rumour has it you were sick?” one of them said.

As we wait for Woolf to finish his conversation, Sadinsky said this isn’t an unusual occurrence for Woolf.

“He always gets stopped,” she said.

Arriving at BioSci, the principal is handed an apron by two eager representatives from the Queen’s United Way campaign.

Sadinsky said my time with the principal would be sporadic.

We reconnected after his “Brown Bag Conversation with the Principal” hosted by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the Richardson Hall boardroom.

The 30 faculty and staff members in attendance were provided a Sodexo sandwich lunch and engaged in a discussion about “recalibrating the balance between teaching and research.” Only staying a few minutes afterwards to chat to his colleagues after the noon-hour event finished at 1 p.m., Woolf was back to his office—conveniently next door to the boardroom.

Promising to emerge sometime within the next couple of hours to continue our conversation, Woolf retreated to his office to respond to three “critically important” e-mails. I took opportunity to meet his staff, including his assistant, Yolanda Thompson.

“Because he’s new, everybody wants a piece of him. So, I get e-mails and e-mails and e-mails of requests for his time that I don’t get to because there is no time to give anybody,” Thompson said. “Everybody wants face time with him.”

Thompson, who’s been working in the principal’s office for the last three years, arranges Woolf’s daily itinerary and keeps on top of his expenses. It’s her job to know what he’s doing at all times.

She also acts as the gatekeeper between the principal and the public.

“Just to know how busy one person [can be] everyday, it blows me away. So many people need his time and everyone thinks they’re a priority, but no one understands how busy he actually is.”

Thompson said Woolf is out of town for at least one week per month.

“Everybody wants to see him. We have [alumni association] branches all over the world who want to see him.”

Around 1:30, Woolf emerged from his large office, simply decorated with a wooden cabinet and desk, two turquoise chairs, photos of his three children and a large poster of the kings and queens of England, keeping to his background as a modern British history scholar.

“Want to go to Mac-Corry?” he said.

With that, Woolf ushered me through a hidden passageway connecting Richardson Hall to Mackintosh-Corry Hall. We arrived at an unmarked office on the fourth floor of the building and introduced me to Ian Hesketh.

Hesketh is the research associate for the “Oxford History of Historical Writing,” an academic text Woolf has been working on for the last seven years, acting as its general editor.

Woolf said the text, which consists of contributions from over 150 authors and editors, is almost ready for publication.

“When you’re in an administrative job, 98 per cent of your time is spent [on] the administrative stuff, but this is the stuff that keeps me sane.”

Woolf said he’s also establishing a presence in the classroom by teaching a component of the HIST 121 course and acting as a part-time instructor for a graduate class.

“If you talked to former principal Bill Leggett, you’ll find that he spent every Friday morning in his lab when he was a principal here for 10 years.”

Sitting in the Mackintosh-Corry cafeteria I asked him about settling in to life in Kingston, where he mentioned that he bought a house in the Sydenham District.

“I hate driving to work, so I wanted to live close to where I was working,” he said. “I haven’t been in my car in two weeks.”

After a time check, Woolf returned to his office to prepare for his next round of phone calls and meetings involving the vice-principal search and advancement briefings, which include looking over travel plans for alumni trips to New York City, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

When I returned to his office at 4 p.m., Woolf was getting ready for a teaching awards reception he was hosting at 4:30 p.m., followed by an hour-long stint working at the Walkhome Walk-a-thon, with the night capped off by a Grant Hall Series concert sponsored by Queen’s Performing Arts at Sydenham Street United Church.

On the way to Ban Righ Hall, Woolf said he spends only a quarter of his time in his office.

“I’m out and about, at meetings, or off campus or at public appearances,” he said. “I’ll often get invitations to things and I can’t stay for the entire time because there’s another one that I have to go to around the corner. Naturally, one wants to preserve a little bit of family time.”

Woolf said in the two-and-a-half months since beginning his term as principal, free time has become a novelty for him.

“Since I started in September, I’ve had one weekend I’ve spent quote-unquote ‘off,’ in the sense that I didn’t have any formal events or appointments, but I used that to catch up on my history work.” As we got closer to Ban Righ, Woolf started getting nostalgic.

“There is a very, very familiar smell here and it’s a smell I didn’t smell between the time I left here and coming back here, and it’s still there.”

It was then, I realized the Queen’s student truly hasn’t left Daniel Woolf.

“You get it between Ban Righ and Chown. You don’t get it around Leonard, and you just get it here. I recognized it the instant I came back here, I’m not sure why. The food is certainly better than when I was here, so I don’t know why the smell hasn’t changed.”

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