Life & Times of 8027 Ron Dickenson Before, During & Beyond RMCC

E3161 Victoria Edwards interviewed 8027 LCol Ron A. Dickenson (Retd), RMC, Class of 1969.

e-veritas: What do you consider to be your home town?

Ron Dickenson: I was born in Apeldoorn, Holland – a “product” of the Allied liberation of that country in 1945. Like many others, my father was a Canadian soldier and my mother was a Dutch girl. I was fortunate in that my parents married in Holland and I was brought to Canada by my mother, landing at Pier 21 in Halifax. We settled in Aylmer, Ontario (population 4,000) and that’s where I grew up. Like many returned veterans in Aylmer, my dad worked for Imperial Tobacco. There were eventually four kids in my family – me, one brother and two sisters. My mom was a housewife for most of the time but did work at the tobacco factory for several years. As an aside, I learned at an RMC reunion that a classmate, H7860 Romeo Dallaire, came from similar origins.

e-veritas: How did you become interested in a military career?

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Ron Dickenson: I was very involved as a boy in Cubs and Scouts, learning about bush craft, knots and such, and rose to the top positions in my cub den and scout troop respectively. In high school joining Army Cadets was compulsory but I enjoyed the training – even the drill! I spent two summers at Ipperwash Army Cadet Camp, rose to Cadet LCol of our High School corps, and went into the Canadian Army (Militia). I joined an armoured regiment in St. Thomas as a Trooper, where training was done on week-ends.

In the Militia I qualified as a gunner, driver, radio operator, and earned the rank of Sergeant. Training on Sherman battle tanks was done at Camp Meaford (by Lake Huron). I spent one summer as a Corporal instructor and two as a Sergeant instructor at the Ipperwash camp. Our proudest moment in the regiment was when I was a Sergeant and we won the Worthington Cup trophy for best armoured unit in Canada. It was a natural step for me to enrol in the Canadian Army (Regular) after that. I saw becoming an officer through the ROTP program at RMC as the best way to do this.

e-veritas: What memories do you have of RMC as a cadet in the 1960s?

Ron Dickenson:  Well, my first memory was of taking the train from Aylmer to Kingston in August, 1965. We rode in one of the old parlour cars, which were like fancy rolling lounges at the end of a train, with plush sets, round tables, a bar, peanuts, etc. As other recruits got on we got acquainted and made good use of the bar. We were 19 years old and the drinking age was 21 then, but the bar staff were quite liberal with serving we “soldiers.” Many of those guys have remained good friends for 50 years!

When our train pulled into the old Kingston outer station on Montreal Street, RMC senior cadet officers were waiting for us on the platform. They came in to the car and very sternly ordered all of us to remove all rings and watches, and to get off and line up outside. One guy was so freaked out he refused to get off and rode the train to Montreal. We never knew what happened to him.

On arriving at the College the normal recruit treatment was meted out. Some of us with previous cadet or Militia experience knew the “game,” but many were quite shocked. My recruit room-mate was 8065 Brian Paradis, who came from Gimli Manitoba. He was a hell of a good hockey player but knew nothing about the military. We became good buds and I helped him to quickly “learn the ropes.”

We were in the Stone Frigate (1 Squadron) and our spirit was high, along with classmates in the other five squadrons. Our seniors were almost all great guys and we respected them. Our commandant was 2364 Air Commodore Birchall. He was a class act, even though most of us didn’t yet appreciate his outstanding leadership and sacrifices in WWII Japanese prison camps. When I came back to RMC as a professor I was honoured to share his story with cadet students in ethics and military professionalism classes.

The Recruit Obstacle Course was run en masse in those days, with 2441 LCol Brownlee, DCdts starting us off by firing a shotgun. I don’t remember much about the course, other than being exhausted at the end and the relaxed rules that night in the tradition of “Lids Off.” Our class remained recruits until the “Marching Off the Square” ceremony in the Spring. That marked the time when we could march across the parade square, instead of having to stop at attention on the edge, look both ways (for possible officers and professors to salute), and then run on the double with forearms and knees up.

In those days our social life revolved around going to the Manor (a student tavern, now the site of upscale condos in Portsmouth Village), drinking beer, eating delicious “Hilda Burgers” (she was the cook), and breaking swagger sticks over the heads of impolite (so we thought) Queen’s students.

As an all-male college, we socialized primarily with nursing students from Queens and the two Kingston hospital schools of nursing. One custom was for a busload of ladies to come to the college for a Sunday night dinner and movie. The girls loved this because they got to eat real dinners, and we loved it because we got to meet girls. The first night my class was allowed to participate in this, the bus came to the RMC Guard House with the ladies. Each one had one half of a ticket, and each of us had the other half of the ticket. As the ladies stepped down from the bus, their ticket number was called out and the cadet with that number would be their escort for the evening… all very civilized and proper. After graduation there were many marriages that can trace their starts to this custom. I met my first wife this way.

I must confess that as a cadet at RMC I was a horrible student. I regarded it as just another military unit in my first year until December, when I realized we actually had to write exams! During my four years I did not appreciate the quality of the professors and courses, or the opportunities that existed. I ended up in “pass English” with unimpressive marks in most areas except physical fitness, French literature and military. I’m not proud of my lack of academic motivation, and certainly “paid” for it later when I had to upgrade in honours psychology and take post-graduate courses to earn my Master’s from Queen’s. This involved years of taking night courses, intersession and summer courses, all the while working full-time in the military, with a wife and three children. I use myself as an example of how not to go through RMC as a student.
e-veritas: What was your military career like?

Ron Dickenson: While at RMC I spent summers being trained as an Infantry officer at the Royal Canadian School of Infantry in CFB Borden and qualified as a platoon commander the summer after my third year. Upon graduation I went to the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, which was then at Wolsely Barracks in London, Ontario. I started as a mechanized platoon commander in Delta Company, which was good because in my last phase of training we were among the first officer candidates in the Army to learn mechanized tactics with APCs and how to work with armoured forces. The “combat arms” had not yet been officially created then, so we were fortunate to be a bit ahead of the curve in that respect.

Being based in London, we got to be experts at road moves, convoying regularly to Petawawa, Meaford and Gagetown for field training and exercises. Less than a year after arriving in 1 RCR my unit deployed to Cyprus on UN peacekeeping duties. I was the officers’ mess secretary for the first half of the tour (many military and diplomatic functions were the norm) and then a platoon commander on the Green Line for the second half. It was a relatively quiet tour, nothing like the later so-called “peacekeeping” tours in the Balkans in the early 1990s.

We were there for seven months and after arriving back in Canada, were called out again on operations, this time to go to Quebec for the FLQ crisis. It was surreal in the sense that here were had been looking forward to being back in Canada where you didn’t see people with guns on every street like we did in Cyprus, and then quickly being in a theatre of operations where – you guessed it – there were armed military everywhere! We finally went home after a month and bit. Needless to say our wives weren’t too pleased!

After being a platoon commander and assistant operations officer in Quebec, I was Assistant Adjutant of our battalion. This was a very challenging position dealing with 800 personnel and I learned a tremendous amount about personnel and people, especially in relation to careers, training and welfare support. There was never a boring moment! After a normal period I then was made battalion transport officer, directly responsible for 40 drivers, 100 vehicles and unit transportation operations. Just weeks after starting the job I led an 80-vehicle convoy from London to Gagetown where the battalion participated in a major exercise called Running Jump. The convoy was too long to travel in one group, so we organized it into more manageable packets of vehicles. It took four days of travelling at 45 km per hour along Highways 401 and 20, staging overnight in Kingston, Montreal, and Rivière-du-Loup before reaching Gagetown. Talk about a steep learning curve!

One of my most vivid memories was of when the convoy entered the outskirts of Montreal. The plan was for each packet to follow the same specific route from Highway 20 to the barracks in Longueil. Despite having sent a recce party in advance to sign the route and explicit directions to the drivers, imagine my reaction when I saw our packets criss-crossing each other on overpasses and underpasses as we got into Montreal. It was a long time before all vehicles finally reached Longeuil! Fortunately there were no major accidents, except for a ¾ ton truck which arrived on a flatbed truck after being rear-ended by a 2 ½ ton truck. Fortunately no one was injured, although the ¾ ton was a write off and the deuce and a half experienced “minor paint damage.”

e-veritas: I see from your bio that you are a qualified parachutist. Were you a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment?

Ron Dickenson: That’s a good question. I did not have an opportunity to serve with the Airborne Regiment, and it was clear to me I was not destined to be a jumper even though I was qualified. Let me explain.

While Transport Officer I went on my second parachutist course. On the first one (in Rivers, Manitoba) I came off the Drop Zone in a box ambulance after my third jump with a badly sprained ankle. Five years later I took the whole course again, this time in Edmonton, Alberta, and completed the course. However, during that course I incurred a permanent injury to my lower back. Not realizing at the time how serious it was, I completed all eight qualifying jumps because there was no way I was going to leave that time without my “wings.” I earned my qualification, but that injury led later to surgery and a permanent medical category. A year later I was medically remustered out of Infantry to Personnel Selection Officer.

Despite the physical limitations and continuous pain for over 40 years now, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently back then as a young man. A great Navy CPO physical training instructor at RMC once said when I was a cadet – “Never say die ‘til you’re dead, gentlemen.” Another of his favourites was “Shit or bust, gentlemen!” One of the axioms I since learned to follow is “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”

As a PSO, I worked at base, command and national defence headquarters levels in a variety of different positions, and had the opportunity to supervise and train other PSOs. My regimental background enabled me to be quite effective as a field PSO, advising commanders on their personnel and doing assessment, testing and interviewing of military members for voluntary and compulsory career change (including occupational remuster and officer production programs), and second career assistance counselling. One of my most challenging jobs was as a human rights analyst in NDHQ from 1992-1994. The learning curve was steep, as the CF was constantly in the news then over two issues – harassment and helicopters. My job was to quickly become the resident expert on harassment.

As part of that, I completed a study on harassment for ADM(Per) [Assistant Deputy Minister (Personnel)], drafted briefing notes for senior officers and the Minister, drafted replies to ministerial inquires, was interviewed regularly by the national media, advised commanders on harassment policy and issues, and was the principal author of a new draft anti-harassment CFAO. I left that job before the CFAO was finalized, and moved to become manager of the CF Second Career Assistance Network. This was a rewarding position and challenging, as the Force Reduction Program (FRP) was in full swing at the time. My team helped a lot of people, but I knew it was time for me to “take off the uniform” and did so in August 1995. I retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel officially in March 1996 after 33 years of military service.

e-veritas: What was your role in the “Debrief the Leaders” project, a major component in the development of Officership 2020.

Ron Dickenson: Officership 2020 was the keystone document for officer professional development in the Canadian Forces (CF). My part of the Debrief the Leaders Project (Officers) was an elicitation study that used focus groups to identify ethical challenges that had been faced by officers on operational missions. The project also involved a broader survey research study and selected individual interviews by others. The report was published in May 2001. After this I also put a team together that conducted a similar elicitation study for debriefing Senior NCOs and Warrant Officers.

e-veritas: When were you on RMC staff?

Ron Dickenson: I first taught at RMC as an assistant professor from 1988-1992. I was a Major at the time, it was a dream posting, and I thoroughly enjoyed teaching. I also was coach of the intervarsity cross-country and track teams, and was a member of various academic committees. My research area was military group cohesion. It was my privilege to do research and present papers at a number of conferences in the U.S., Canada and Europe in this field.

I began teaching on-site courses as a sessional assistant professor in the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership right after leaving the military in August 1995. With full teaching loads I taught courses in social psychology, organizational behaviour and leadership, and military professionalism and ethics. I also taught on-line courses for the Division of Continuing Studies when it began in the mid-nineties. In addition I developed and authored on-line courses in organizational behaviour, applied military psychology, and advanced leadership. I retired from on-site teaching in 2012, and until this year have continued to teach on-line courses for Continuing Studies.

What I valued the most in my teaching with RMC was the opportunity to interact with students and influence their development as military professionals and as people. It was both stimulating and challenging to teach them, especially as the courses I taught were mandatory and not electives. Most of the students came to see the value in the types of courses I taught, although some did not. For me as a teacher, despite the workloads and frustrations, those students whom I know I “reached” made teaching worthwhile and fulfilling. One e-mail I received from a female engineering student several years ago has special meaning for me. This was a student who “got it,” and for me it validated why I taught. In part she said:

I participated in class discussions and group work activities (which by the way, I found very useful for understanding many of the models/theories we learnt from the readings and your lectures. But most of all, I actually found myself using some of the decision making models (in my head) in certain situations that arose throughout the semester. At the beginning of the term I thought it was stupid that we were forced to take an Ethics course, because I’m big on using common sense and see things as simply Black or White for most issues, but over the course I’ve come to realize how important ethical decision making is for a military officer and how there isn’t just one way to think about things. Just like you wanted for us, I, surprisingly, had fun in this course but also learned a whole lot in the process.

e-veritas: What are your academic degrees and qualifications?

Ron Dickenson: I earned a Bachelor of Arts (English) from RMC (1969), a Master of Arts (Psychology) from Queen’s University (1988), and have a Certified Human Resources Leader (Ontario) designation (1989). I also completed various courses and programs including Dispute Resolution and Mediation Skills, Workplace Harassment, Coach – Level 2 (NCCP), and Stress Management Leader.

e-veritas: What are you doing these days?

Ron Dickenson: I started Dickenson Group in 1995, a home-based company involved in professional development and organizational behaviour. The work has been stimulating over the years but I probably should retire from that soon. I began taking singing lessons in 1995 and currently enjoy singing baritone in the Kingston Choral Society and Kingston Capital Men’s Chorus. During high school I played clarinet professionally in my own Dixieland band, and played the bagpipes in the RMC Pipes and Drums for three years. In September I had the opportunity to begin learning how to play the trumpet, which has been a lifelong dream of mine. Learning to play this instrument demands much more physicality than I expected. However I enjoy it and persevere in trying to develop good “chops.” My wife and I try and get to the Kingston Military Community Recreation Centre regularly, and to stay fit and healthy. I have three adult children, two adult step-children, and live in Kingston with my wife.

e-veritas: You taught on-site at RMC for a total of 21 years, and on-line for 20 years. Do you have any last comments?

Ron Dickenson: Yes, thank you. I believe RMC is a high-quality university with four “pillars” (academic, military, athletics, and bilingualism) that are unique in Canada, and serve the Canadian Armed Forces and Canadian society well. I have seen many changes over the years – some good and some not. There has been a sense of continuity through the Board of Governors and the Ex-Cadet Club that has kept RMC functioning effectively. The new governance model will hopefully continue that tradition.

RMC has excellent academic programs, teaching and support staff. What has impressed me the most however is the students whom I have been privileged to teach. There are different categories of student that I have interacted with:

On-Site Students

  • Those who come right out of secondary school enter as enthusiastic, well-motivated teenagers, eager to learn and succeed. They learn what to most of them is an alien system, deal with it, learn within it, and develop and mature into adults who are prepared to take on the heavy responsibility of leading others;
  • Those who are already commissioned officers who have been selected in competition to take post-graduate degree programs at the Masters and PhD levels in arts, sciences and engineering enter as university graduates. Their advanced education enables them to contribute in enhanced ways to the effectiveness of the CAF;
  • Those who come from the ranks are former NCOs who have been selected in competition to become commissioned officers enter as mature, responsible adults. Many have been on operational deployments such as the Balkans and Afghanistan, many have spouses and children, and many have been away from academic learning for years. They already have practical leadership experience and become even better leaders as commissioned officers with the education and further development they experience at RMC;
  • Those who upgrade their education by taking distance learning courses are officers, non-commissioned officers, and civilians who enter as adult learners with a variety of backgrounds, academic qualifications and goals. Some are in programs that allow them to take courses full-time, while others upgrade while juggling full-time work and families. It is not unusual for them to be operationally deployed while taking courses, with all of the adjustments and accommodations this entails.

Since my most recent teaching has been with distance learning students, I will share two anecdotes that reflect their dedication and perseverance:

  • A number of years ago I had a student who was deployed on combat operations in Afghanistan. On some occasions he was late in submitting work. Now I have had other students who have been late and given excuses such as “the dog ate my homework,” etc. However this individual was regularly “going outside the wire” and actually apologized for his late submissions, explaining that sand had gotten into his thumb drive!
  • More recently another student in Halifax e-mailed me saying he had just been admitted to ICU with a perforated esophagus, was on heavy medication, and would try to submit his work (which was due the next day) on time even though he was quite “woozy!”

This is the outstanding type of student that takes courses at and from RMC. I have tremendous affection and respect for them.

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