An Unexpected Visitor


An Unexpected Visitor


  • 1933 - 1968
  • blueprint of planetarium dome

[Chief Mineralogist Dr. Vic] Meen was in Teheran when an unexpected visitor appeared at my office door in October 1964. He seemed inconsequential: a short, elderly man in a grey overcoat. I was alone in the room and on the phone with Dr Swinton, who was at home with a cold. Sharon, my secretary, was also away. I waved to my visitor across the expanse of the giant board table and indicated he should sit down. It took some time before the telephone conversation ended but at last I asked how I might be of help. “My name is English,” he said. “The director’s secretary suggested I see you. Is it true the Museum is trying to raise money for a planetarium?”

Indeed, it was. Vic Meen had dreamed of a planetarium for years. With Dr Swinton’s enthusiastic backing, a campaign was about to start. But the first steps had not beentaken. How did my visitor know? The answer was: quite by chance. During the recent Canadian National Exhibition a Japanese firm had displayed a small planetarium that projected the heavens on a canopy of parachute silk. Leonard Bertin, the Toronto Daily Star’s science reporter, had written a brief story, only four or five inches long, about thisoddity and had mentioned in passing at the end that the ROM wanted to build a bigger model. My visitor had happened to notice it.

I explained what was being planned. “Well then,” he commented at last, “I have a friend who might be able to help.” I elaborated on our plans and gave him the proof of an article by Vic [Meen] that we planned to publish in the next issue of a new ROM publication, Meeting Place. “I’m sure Dr. Swinton would like to talk to you,” I added. That was on a Tuesday. On Friday morning a recovered Swinton called me from his office while I was in the midst of talking to some journalists. “We’ve got our planetarium!” he exclaimed.

My visitor was the long-time secretary of Colonel Samuel McLaughlin, the retired head of General Motors of Canada, who had made a fortune in the automotive industry and was now one of the country’s most generous philanthropists. In the 1930s McLaughlin had been impressed by the planetarium in New York City that was named after his good friend Charles Hayden, a banker and philanthropist. In the 1930s he had flirted with the idea of donating a similar building in Canada, but the war had intervened and the idea had been shelved. Mr English resurrected it.

In the negotiations that went on between Tuesday and Friday, Colonel McLaughlin asked how much a planetarium would cost. Dr Swinton had no firm idea. “More than a million,” he hazarded. “But not more than two, I hope,” was the response. In fact, once Meen was back and started working with architects and engineers, the cost rose to $2.25 million but the Colonel was unfazed: he wanted the best whatever it cost. With an endowment to maintain the planetarium, his gift amounted to the single largest donation in the Museum’s history up to that time.

Copyright Ian Montagnes 2013

Editor's Note: This is one of four exerpts from a memoir sent by Ian, who worked at the ROM from 1963-66. He went from the University of Toronto Information Department to the ROM and back again as Editor-in-Chief of the University of Toronto Press.