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As they dash madly between classes at the University of Toronto, the budding engineers take no heed of the big boulder marked Rock of Ajax that sits outside the Galbraith Building, nor the explanatory plaques that hang inside, just beyond the doors.

This week, they would do well to slow down, read the plaques and cast a look back to a singularly unique time in their school's history -- the Ajax years -- when the Second World War's devastating forces gave way to the constructive powers of peace and ingenuity on a sprawling industrial site east of Toronto.

The period began in the fall of 1945, when U of T faced one of the biggest enrolment challenges in its history: Thousands of soldiers were streaming home to resume their lives after the war.

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Drawn by the lure of government-funded education and the promise of plentiful, well-paying jobs, veterans applied to the university's faculty of applied science and engineering in numbers far beyond the ability of the main campus, already at capacity, to accommodate them.

Bill Wright, an engineering professor and veteran of the First World War, was among the first to see the wave coming. In November, 1944, he wrote to his U of T superiors, suggesting they look for an off-campus site for a satellite engineering school.

Soon enough, they had found the perfect spot, complete with dormitories, heating plant, kitchen, small hospital and buildings suitable for study: the freshly obsolete facilities of Defence Industries Ltd. in Ajax, the largest munitions plant in the Commonwealth, where 9,000 workers filled 40 million shells with explosives between 1941 and 1945.

Over four feverish months in the fall of '45, the federally owned plant was converted from dispenser of deadly bombs to a hall of higher learning.

The Ajax campus opened in January, 1946, to a first-year class of more than 1,400, 80 per cent of them veterans. When the next class began in the fall of '46, the Ajax ranks swelled to 3,312. By the time the enrolment bulge subsided and the campus closed in the spring of 1949, more than 5,500 engineers had been trained there.

Tas Venetsanopoulos, who today oversees an enrolment of 1,300 as U of T's dean of applied science and engineering, can only marvel at those numbers, and the work it must have taken his predecessors to deal with them.

"Under pressure and extreme circumstances, we were able to accomplish things we didn't think were possible. We complain about a 5-per-cent increase in enrolment," he said of modern times, but in that first year after the war, "it more than doubled."

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Beyond sheer numbers, Ajax was a novel social experiment, mixing a small number of teenagers fresh out of high school with a larger and more worldly cohort of war veterans in their 20s, 30s and even 40s. While about one in four students made the daily commute from Toronto, the rest lived two to a room on the self-contained site, far from the city's distractions.

That suited many vets just fine, since they were a bit older, accustomed to hard work and eager to make up for lost time. As such, they served as examples to the small minority of non-veteran students.

"There was a maturity about them that we certainly lacked," said Don King, 76, a non-vet who arrived at the Ajax campus in September, 1946. "You just learned a lot about the ways of the world from them."

The veterans were so driven in their work that Prof. Wright, their lead instructor, called them to the mess hall after first semester and told them to slow down. Bob Short, an Ajax alumnus, described the lecture in a 1994 letter to Mr. King, who was compiling a memory booklet.

"He surprised every one of us when he said, 'You are working too hard,' " Mr. Short wrote. "He stated, 'In the service, you had to get 100 per cent on your knowledge level for various activities, or often it meant your life. In university, 50 per cent is a pass.' "

The battle-hardened vets also took none of the guff that university freshmen typically had to endure at the hands of more senior students.

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"In second year, three or four guys from the main campus [in downtown Toronto]came and called a meeting, and said they wanted to introduce us to the joys of initiation," said Gord Schmidt, 80, who served two years with the navy before he attended Ajax. "We said, 'Get the hell out of here. We're not going to put up with that nonsense.' "

Not that Ajax life was all work and no play. Sports programs never lacked for participants, and fire hoses got a workout during water fights between dorms.

The student body, almost entirely male, also found ways to liven up the social scene on their remote academic island, Mr. Schmidt said.

"As we got settled in, we'd call up Bell Telephone or the bank and say, 'We're going to have a party. Would you send down 30 girls?' And they would," he said. "We'd bring in a live band, and sneak a little beer into the back room, but nobody stayed overnight."

To make the surroundings more hospitable, the men would set aside one of their two dormitory washrooms as a ladies' room. To complete the transformation, they would block up the long, porcelain trough urinal, fill it with water and add goldfish, Mr. Schmidt said.

As the 1940s drew to a close, the postwar student bulge thinned and the Ajax campus was no longer needed. In time, it gave way to the homes, factories and shopping plazas that mark the suburban town of 80,000 today.

"There's nothing out there now to tell you the University of Toronto spent four years out there," Mr. King said.

There are, however, two floors called Ajax House inside the larger Innis Residence on the university's downtown campus, thanks to the fundraising efforts of Ajax alumni, about half of whom are still alive, and now well into their 80s and 90s.

There are also those plaques in the Galbraith Building and the Rock of Ajax outside, to remind current students of a time unlike any they will ever see.

"I almost feel sorry for kids going to university today," Mr. King said. "It was marvellous."

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