Retiring Red Deer College president Joel Ward has left his mark on central Alberta by helping start the school on the road to becoming a university.
But Red Deer also left an indelible impression on him: “My whole life has changed in the 10 years I’ve lived here,” said Ward.
He’s entering retirement next month with the satisfaction of having met some important professional and personal goals.
Regarding his RDC achievements, Ward stressed it actually took the whole community pulling together to obtain university status for the college from Alberta’s one-term New Democrat government.
“We had been working on it for 35 years, but we had one government that whole time — the PCs, — and they always said, ‘No.’”
Alberta’s large universities had also been exerting pressure against RDC’s degree-granting request, he added.
Clearly, a new approach was needed, so “instead of this being RDC’s ask, we made it the community’s ask.”
Businesses, parents, educators and civic leaders banded together to make an economic and social case for the importance of having a new Red Deer University.
“We had a compelling new narrative to tell and it resonated with the NDP…”
Ward said they proved central Alberta was losing young people to the big cities, as many did not return to work in the Red Deer region after getting degrees in Calgary or Edmonton.
He predicts the college’s gain in local degree-granting programs will have a “tremendous” impact on the entire region, economically, culturally and societally.
“It’s a great credit to everyone’s collective effort.”
RDC has been changing internally to align its faculty and administrative structures with those of universities. Some jobs and programs were dropped and others added.
Ward admitted this hasn’t been a pain-free process — and changes are continuing as RDC prepares for a possibly leaner advanced education budget in the fall. But he preferred making these cuts under his watch, rather than leaving them to his successor, who will be less familiar with the facility.
Ward is pleased with the college’s infrastructure gains, including the Four Centres buildings, the G.W. Harris Canada Game Centre, as well as an alternative energies lab and a solar-powered residence.
On the personal front, he’s also seen great changes.
No longer married, Ward now has a new partner, who will soon be moving with him to Victoria. He’s also discovered he’s part of a large family, having tracked through genealogy research and some genetic testing the five half-sisters he has through his father’s side.
Born in Thunder Bay, Ont., to a single mother, Ward didn’t know his father — and his father, apparently, hadn’t known about him, either.
His dad, a Second World War veteran and electrician, was deceased by the time Ward discovered his identity. But Ward has since gotten to know the younger sisters that he never knew he had — including actress Rena Polly (Dead Ringers, Designated Survivor), wife of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy.
In reflecting on his time in Red Deer, Ward said, “I did some of my best work here … discovered my father and five new sisters … I couldn’t be in a better place in my life.”
But he still plans to leave because he can’t take any more snow.
“If it snows in Victoria. I’ll be on a plane heading south…”