Dr. John Plant Mixes Dry Humour & Fast Wit With OCdt Matt Telfser

Dr. B. John Plant attended the Royal Military College of Canada. College number 3948. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy from 1953 to 1970; held academic appointments at RMC from 1965 until 1999 – when he retired as Principal.

Dr Plant has been a busy man at the local, national, and international levels since his departure from RMC. He is involved in numerous activities many at the Board level. He is a former President of the RMC Club/ Foundation and is an Honourary member of the RMC Club of Canada.

He recently sat down with Officer Cadet Matt Telfser e-Veritas staff member.

Matt: Tell us a little about yourself.

John: I grew up in Smith Falls, not far from here, went to a catholic grade school, run by nuns and then to the Smith Falls Collegiate Institute, a high school. Graduating from there I went to work for two years in the accounting office of Cockshutt Farm Industries. I was going to become a chartered accountant. They don’t exist anymore; I think they were bought by John Deer. But after two years, I realized that was a hopelessly insane thing for me to do. *laughing*

Matt: So what brought you to RMC?

John: One day I decided to quit trying to be a chartered accountant. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. But I had read in the newspaper that the air force was looking for short service pilots. I though, “well, that sounds like fun,” so, on my way home, in Smith Falls there was a recruiting office, I went in, there was an air force officer who had me do these tests. After he marked the tests, he said to me, “You should go to RMC.” I said, “What’s that???”

Matt: A good opportunity.

John: A real opportunity. So I went down to CMR for several days of assessment by a board that decided who would actually be cadets, and what service they would be in. I failed an eye test, so I couldn’t go pilot. So I decided to go Navy, mostly because I met some guys who wanted to go Navy. We went for a run ashore one day, and they convinced me the Navy was pretty good.

So I offered to go Navy, and I was accepted. So I started RMC in 1953, a first year cadet. Being 20 I was a little bit older than the average.

Matt: What did you think of RMC?

John: I did not admire my seniors. Let’s put it that way.

Matt: Why not. *laughing a little*

John: I thought the whole Cadet Wing thing, the way it was run, the rules, was…

Matt: The whole thing as in First Year Orientation Program (FYOP)? Or…

John: What they would call hazing today, was okay, it didn’t bother me, we were treated fairly. I just thought some of the rules were silly.

In those days, the Navy was enticing people to go train in England at the end of second year.

Matt: Why, because of their naval superiority?

John: Well there was a place called the Royal Naval Engineering College, as well as another college place for future executive officers. Everything was Navy, whereas there was really nothing navy at RMC. So I think their attitude was, to really produce a naval officer, you should send them to a naval institution. The Naval Staff Officer at RMC at the time had a talk with the Naval cadets regarding the advantages of doing this and 6 of us decided we’d go for it.

Matt: Sounds like a fun thing to do to me. Who wouldn’t do it?

John: Well of course, there was a lot higher pay and world travel as well. So we stopped being cadets towards the end of the second summer, and we became Midshipmen. We sailed off to England, first class, in a liner. In those days if you were Navy, you wouldn’t be crossing the Atlantic in an aircraft. We were split up into three groups of two, and we were sent to sea for a year.

Matt: That’s intense. Did you guys still do schooling during this time period, or…?

John: We had a “Schooly” on board the squadron depot ship. A Lieutenant Commander. There were such officers, even in the Canadian Navy during those days, they were instructional officers who gave a few classes a week. We were really just going to sea though. I had a division of boy seamen that I had to get up in the morning and supervise in scrubbing decks and such.

After a year at sea, we went to the Royal Naval Engineering College, in Plymouth England and went year round to school, so that in hours of school time we were caught up with our RMC cadets who had stayed behind. The curriculum at RNEC was not the same as at RMC though, it was less academic, and more practical. When we finished there, we weren’t granted degrees because it wasn’t a degree granting institution at the time, nor was RMC though.

Matt: Oh, that’s right. You had to do an extra year for engineering back then.

John: We didn’t do that extra year. What we got was “Qualified to be an Engineer Officer in the Royal Navy.” *laughs*

All of us went back to sea in Canada, for a year in the Canadian Navy getting an Engineering Watchkeeping Certificate, and we were then all sent back to England for another year to specialize in one of three areas, marine engineering, aerospace engineering, or electrical engineering. We went and did that all together.

When I say all together, I mean the guys who were RMC, RRMC, CMR, and even some from civilian universities; we all fused back together into the same stream. When we finished that, we all came back to Canada, did a year at sea, again, to do obtain a Certificate of Competency. Having finished that, I was appointed to a ship as an engineering officer, my first real job in the Navy. I got HMCS Outremont a Prestonian Class Frigate.

I had that job for about 18 months, during which time we went into refit at the Irving Shipyard in Saint John NB, spent the winter reconditioning the ship, took it out, went to sea for workups, and got it “worked up”. Then I got a call from my career manager offering the opportunity to become a naval architect. I was offered my choice of three institutions: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The U.S Post Graduate Naval School in Monterey, or The Royal College in Greenwich England.

Matt: Those all sound like pretty sweet deals to me.

John: Yes, but I chose MIT, because I had never been to a civilian university before…

I had a little bit of difficulty getting out of Nova Scotia though because we had just recently adopted our son Michael.

Matt: Oh, so you got married during that time period then?

John: Yes I got married in 1956, while I was in England during the first phase of all this…

Matt: They allowed you to get married? Because I know that back in the day, getting married while at RMC was prohibited, and …

John: But I wasn’t at RMC *laughing* I was in England.

Matt: Ohhhh. Okay, there you go, I see why you went to the U.K. *laughs*

John: I married Kay a girl I met in Victoria during summer training. But that’s not why I went to England. *laughs* It just worked out that way.

So, I went to MIT, and it was a little bit complicated. Because I didn’t have a degree, I was a probationary student in the naval architecture department, which is virtually run by the American Navy. That’s how I more or less smuggled myself into MIT. They respected the Canadian Navy, so even without a degree, they let me in. I was a good student…

Matt: Was it difficult though, not having that extra year?

John: Not really. I was missing things, but I was able to pickup on it. I think you can pickup on a quite a lot, if your focused. I had a straight ‘A’ average, and that attracts professors, because at MIT the professors go looking for good students because they want them to be their students for a doctorate program. That’s how they really get work done. The secret of success for a university is high quality cheap labour. *laughs*

So, these professors from the electrical engineering department came to me, despite my being a marine engineer studying naval architecture, and they wanted me to go work with them as a doctoral student. I was interested in their field because it was automation, a field called Automatic Control. To get into the doctoral program at MIT, they don’t care about your degrees, if you’re recommended by an academic department; you write competitive exams in order to get in. I wrote the exams, and won a place.

Matt: What does that entail?

John: It entailed learning most of the core curriculum for electrical engineering, for the undergraduate curriculum, in one summer.

Matt: Wow. So I’m guessing it was pretty competitive.

John: Once in I need to get an extra year there, because I was only sent there for two years. So, MIT and I, we both petitioned the Navy for an extra year, and we got it. I planned to finish my thesis in that year, and graduate. Once I had my thesis accepted the registrar’s office started asking me to come in and fix up their records, because their records couldn’t be right about me. *laughs*

Matt: *laughs* So, how did you end up coming back to RMC, to become the principal?

John: Well, I had no notion in my head to be an academic, or to come to RMC to teach. I expected to be posted to Ottawa, to the Naval Design Directorate, and become involved in the ship design program. Along came this posting to RMC, on the faculty of Electrical Engineering Department.

Matt: So you started off as a professor at that point?

John: I started off as a lecturer, a military officer in uniform lecturing. That was in 1965.

Well, interestingly enough, I was the only PhD in the department. Doctorates in engineering were rare in those days. Queen’s had yet to produce an PhD graduate in Electrical Engineering. Most Canadians went abroad for that level of studying.

Plaque Reads: Presented to Dr. John Plant on the occasion of your retirement as Principal of the Royal Military College of Canada fro the Wing of Lady and Gentlemen Cadets.

Matt: So what was RMC like when you got there?

John: In 1965, there were 450 cadets, 100% Anglophone, no women in the faculty or cadet wing, and no graduate students. A lot of people at RMC thought that that was just right. *chuckles*

Matt: *laughs*

John: The principal at the time was famous in the college, Colonel Reg. Sawyer. He had been the first principal for post war RMC. He was the principal for 19 years.

In 1970 I was promoted to Commander, and the college asked me to be the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research. There was a bit of a tug of war though, between the Navy and RMC for me, because my 5 years of obligated service was up after my graduate studies. I had to decide whether I should stay on as a civilian professor at RMC and be the Dean, or go back to the Navy at sea as a squadron technical officer, which was necessary and reasonable thing for me to do next in the Navy. In the end, I decided to stay at RMC.

Matt: So you stayed the route of an academic. Why’s that? To be able to spend more time with your family, and have a more settled life, or..,?

John: Yes but it is more complicated. The Canadian Forces had just gone through integration, and there was a lot of unhappiness amongst some, and the military trade was in decline at the time. I think my main reason was I thought I would be more useful teaching than being in the military. I may be wrong, but that’s the way it was. I stayed on at RMC teaching, and eventually became the principal in ‘83/’84, until 1999. By that time I had 46 years of service.

Matt: Do you have even memories you want to share?

John: There are things I remember as important first off all, while I was the dean of graduate studies, the college became bilingual.

Matt: Due to CF policy change, right?

John: Yes. There was compulsory language training imposed. I think there was a lot of resistance at first in the college. There is always a fear that adding more to the program will hinder student academic development. The bilingual requirement started off fairly light, and the demands for it kept increasingly gradually, up until the Withers Study. This study, headed by the former CDS General Withers, with important academic and military members, was conducted following the closure of the other colleges, RRMC and CMR. Their report was the last report, that I’m aware of, that increased the language requirements, to BBB.

It’s always hard to know what the limits are that Cadets can handle. Cadets can always survive.

The duality of language was an important and interesting change for the college, important for its survival.

Another thing imposed upon the college, by General Dextraze, CDS during the early 1970s, was the university training plan for NCMs. Are you familiar with that?

Matt: Like, Otter Squadron, right?

John: Yeah. I was put in charge of starting that program. So, I was acting dean of that, for its formation.

It was definitely a useful addition to the college. It brought a level of maturity that didn’t exist.

Matt: So what else happened?

John: Well the next big development was the arrival of women in the cadet wing. I was the new principal at that time, and General John Stewart was Commandant. I think it was a great thing for the development of the college, because again, it made the males cadets a lot more mature.

John: The next Milestone in my time was the launch of the part time program.

Two people who were fantastic in setting that up were the then Dean of Science, Jim Barrett, and the then Dean of Arts, Ron Hancock. It was an interesting situation, because the opportunity came soon after Somalia incident. The government of the time decided that to be an officer, you needed a higher level of education, much like they do in the U.S., where most senior officers have graduate degrees. Actually many military people were already trying to upgrade their academic credentials as part time students but in Canada, it’s very difficult to get a degree if you’re constantly moving around. Canadian universities are loath to recognize courses taken at other universities in Canada. So the light came on in our heads one day; every base has classrooms, and each has a major university nearby. So we went to each university, and made agreements, professors from the nearby university would teach courses designate by RMC at the base, for credit for an RMC degree, and for a fee. We controlled the content and standards, so they were acceptable to the RMC Senate for an RMC degree. We went from 0 to 3000 students in a very short period of time like a couple of years.

Matt: In terms of traditions versus changing values, what’s your view on the subject?

John: The traditional military way of developing a group so that they become totally loyal to each other is to put them under stress. This is why RMC classes remain so bonded with one another throughout their lifetimes. Also, part of the purpose of RMC is to inculcate the values of the CF. The Wither’s report argued that a certain percentage of the officer corps need to come through the same system in order to maintain the essential value set of the corps. That percentage does not need to be high. Sociologists might say about 30%.

The best way to assess RMC is to examine the performance of the graduates especially in the early postings. Like how RMC graduates are performing in Afghanistan and related conflicts. Do they have the “right stuff”? I believe they do.

Matt: Grad is around the corner, and many graduating OCdts are going to be reading this; if you could say one thing to these cadets, what would it be?

John: In my experience, if you apply yourself, the CF will provide whatever you need to develop into the best you can be.

Matt: Take advantage of it.

John: Exactly.

One Comment

  • Chris Pratt

    May 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    An interesting interview, John; particularly your remarks about RMC excadets providing the core values of the overall officer corps, and the percentage strength required to maintain that character.
    I’m quite involved with the Pearson College of the Pacific, part of the United World Colleges. Here, after two years of close proximity in living, and participating in challenging activities, and study, impressively strong bonds of loyalty are forged. The youngsters are aged 17-19 and come from more that 100 countries round the world.

    I really found my association with the Naval Reserve during the last few years of my service to have been most rewarding. Best Wishes .Chris [email protected]