Dr. David Baird: Preserving the Past

By: 26667 OCdt (II) Matthias Bowles

In the midst of the ongoing rivalry between the faculties of Engineering and Arts at RMC, there is another faculty that has been quietly pumping out well educated officers since 1876: the Science Department. Up until 2013, there was no comprehensive account concerning the department’s origins. Dr. David Baird, a member of the Physics Department at RMC since 1952, took on the task of piecing together the many sources and accounts, producing a narrative about the department: Physics at RMC. I personally had the privilege to meet with Dr. Baird and interview him about the writing process, its challenges, and its rewards.

In 1998, the Canadian Association of Physicists decided to create a comprehensive history of the various physics departments throughout Canada. RMC’s Tom Racey commissioned Dr. Baird with the task of piecing together RMC’s history. During my interview, Dr. Baird mused on his being chosen for the role: “It was likely because I am the longest one to survive. I’m a relic, a fossil to this place.” It also likely had something to do with his archeological background from his time in Edinburgh during his formative years then again at Oxford University in 1980-1995.

To start his research, Dr. Baird visited the archives in the library. “There was nothing, nothing at all there.” So he attempted to contact any remaining ex-cadets who could give him any personal stories. Over 11,000 letter were sent out, and surprisingly, the replies poured back in, some being quite detailed: “I received a letter from an extremely elderly chap, who claimed, ‘I can’t recall much but…’ then spewed out page after page of anecdotes” The result of this was, as Dr. Baird referred to it, a “personal” history rather than a formal history: “It wasn’t about the glorious achievements but the day to day occurrences.” By piecing together the many personal accounts he received, Baird produced two copies of the history of physics at RMC, each one consecutively larger than the other. With the final project, Dr. Baird was assisted by our very own Bill Oliver, describing him as: “The warmest, most supportive, caring individual.” Thanks to Bill Oliver’s connections throughout the ex-Cadet network, the book received an almost endless supply of support, both content-wise and financial.

Though most of this information could have been gleaned from reading the preface of the book, having the origin story of Physics at RMC told to me in Dr. Baird’s soft, Scottish accent, with the glow of pride in his voice added so much more. Over and over again he emphasized how “It was a most rewarding experience, seeing this extraordinary community” as he marveled at the overwhelming support for his hunt for information. “All I did was collect the stuff,” he claimed, referring to his role in writing the book, “My wife Margaret did most of the editing to make sure it read intelligently.” He also could not contain himself over the awe and privilege he felt coming in contact with so many from the RMC community. He referred to individuals such as Phil Summers, an Air Force officer in Colorado Springs who came to visit him personally with the intention of creating a Space Studies program at RMC. He mentioned Martin Edwards, an avid bird watcher to his dying day. He was ever grateful to Michael Gainer, the head of the ex-cadet club in Toronto, for his contribution of $25,000 to cover book production costs, and to Marnie Dunsmore, one of the first female officer-cadets to graduate from RMC who funded the donation of his book to the entire graduating physics class of 2014.

Dr. Baird’s work is a true reflection of his personality, a man who is humbled and awed by the support in the community found among those from RMC. This sentiment is expressed through the personal stories of which his book is comprised, the lack of self-importance concerning the success of the book, and through the amount of gratitude shown towards this community. As a last note during our interview, he even expressed appreciation in my interest in his book, “We immortalized our history in this book, and thanks to people like you, we continue doing so to this day.” So here I am, continuing the tradition, passing forward the history of the men and women of the physics department at RMC.

Copies of Dr. Baird’s book, “Physics at RMC” are available at RMC Club Gift Shop – located in Panet House – more details.

Dr. Baird and his wife, Margaret, are currently under the weather, suffering from a persistent virus. Support and good wishes appreciated. MandDBaird@aol.com