Building friendships for life

Once upon a time, a group of newly graduated Waterloo Engineering alumni organized regular lunches to stay in touch with their classmates. Now, 52 years later, Jim Pike and Tom Corcoran share why these friendships are so valuable later in life.

By Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering When Jim Pike (BASc ’69, mechanical engineering) was president of the Waterloo Engineering Society (EngSoc), he never imagined he’d leave a legacy for generations of students to come - particularly not in the shape of a very large pipe wrench.

The Tool, a sixty-inch triple chrome-plated adjustable pipe wrench, first appeared in 1968. Pike recalls how they threw their newly acquired mascot onto the University’s Board of Governors boardroom table with much hilarity, leaving a few dents behind. Nowadays, The Tool is a closely guarded symbol of pride for Waterloo Engineering students that only those wearing an Iron Ring can touch. 

Waterloo Engineering has changed significantly over the past five decades since Pike and his classmates graduated. Today’s students and faculty come from all over the world, cohorts are bigger, competition is fierce, technological resources are extraordinary and The Tool got serious.

But one thing remains the same: the Waterloo Engineering student experience bonds you for life.

Let’s do lunch  

Inspired by a story he’d read about a group of Yale graduates who met regularly for lunch, Mike Abate (BMath ’70), a former chemical engineering student, and T.R. King (BASc ’69, mechanical engineering) met for lunch at Ed’s Warehouse in Toronto in 1971. Deciding to do it again, they invited two others to join them - Steve Russell (BASc ’68, mechanical engineering) and Pike.

From there more former classmates were invited to join the next lunch and so it grew into six lunches a year with 20 to 30 attendees with the original crew managing logistics. No small feat in a world before email and cellphones.

The venue has since changed, and most participants are now retired or semi-retired, but these lunches are still going strong with the table as full as ever. As Pike and fellow lunch stalwart Tom Corcoran (BASc ’69, electrical engineering) reflect in the following Q&A, getting together gives them so much more than just a good meal.  

Why do you think the lunches got off to such a good start?

Pike: Plenty of good friendships are made during undergrad but this initial glue typically dissipates as careers take people in different directions.

We got everyone’s attention while we were all recent alumni with the shared Waterloo Engineering student experience still fresh.

Plus, with small class sizes, I knew everyone by name so rounding them up wasn’t too hard.

Does a particular lunch stand out for you?

Pike: Our dean, Waterloo Engineering’s founding dean, Dr. Douglas Wright, attended one of our lunches at Ed’s Warehouse in 1975. He told us how rival universities tried to question Waterloo Engineering recognition as an accredited institution. The University’s first group of engineering graduates weren’t initially assured of getting their professional engineer (P.Eng.) licences. But Wright had a great network; he knew key members of the licencing body, invited them to observe Waterloo’s curricula in action and got the seal of approval.

Corcoran: Wright drummed into us from the start that we were going to the best engineering school in Canada. Was that true back then? Probably not, but we believed him and it certainly is true now.

Pike: Wright was a real innovator. He established Waterloo’s co-op program which is still miles ahead of what other universities offer. He also attracted great faculty members from other universities by giving them the freedom to design their own curricula - this was not the norm elsewhere. He was such a networking genius that upon arriving at that lunch of ours, Ed, the restaurant owner and a well-known character in his own right, recognized him immediately and gave our table a round of drinks on the house, apparently something Ed had never done before.

What has kept these lunches going over the years?

Corcoran: Early on, making the time to meet up wasn’t easy. But after every lunch, I was glad I’d done it.

These get-togethers have been a touchstone for me, keeping me connected to the values that helped shape me and the things in life that really matter.

And let’s not forget, these lunches are a lot of fun.

Today’s student body is more diverse than yours. Do you think this makes it easier or harder to form lifelong bonds?

Pike: Very true, we were a homogenous group. Thankfully, attitudes are evolving and the current student body is a much better representation of society. We still have a long way to go but rather than focus on what makes us different, let’s find our commonalities and build from there - that’s how friendships are made and, in my experience, sustained. And what do we all have in common? We are all Waterloo Engineers.

Corcoran: The Waterloo Engineering student experience is a lifelong bond, no matter who you are. Belonging to a small student circle is a solid starting point but after graduation, everyone moves in very different directions as careers and lives unfold. But even as our circles widened, our lunches continued. And now, as our circles become smaller again, we find comfort in relationships that have lasted a lifetime. Staying connected does require work - but it’s worth it.

Pike: We recently visited campus as a group and felt our Waterloo Engineering pride swell - none of us could have predicted the value we’ve gained from staying connected. We met with Dr. Mary Wells, the dean of Waterloo Engineering, observed student innovation in the Pearl Sullivan Engineering IDEAs Clinic and sat in on a lecture about the intersection of engineering with health care. We all came away prouder than ever with our alma mater - and it’s always fun to tap The Tool.

Interested in building your Waterloo Engineering network? There are many ways for you to get connected as a student or an alum.  Find out how you can get involved.

*Feature image: Waterloo campus visit - Jim Pike (top centre), flanked by the Tool Bearers and holding the Waterloo Engineering Tool, with fellow classmates in front.