Mightier than the sword

Class of 1913 Valedictorian Richard Orland Atkinson’s pen takes him around the world

Richard Orland

By Aloma Jardine

Richard Orland Atkinson was a gifted scholar.

Mount Allison’s valedictorian of the Class of 1913 graduated with honours in English and went on to a brilliant career that saw his pieces published in magazines like Harper’s and the North American Review. He made a particular study of international issues, traveling extensively in Europe and Asia. He was also a well-known public speaker and radio commentator in the U.S. and first cousin to Canadian Prime Minister R. B. Bennett.

But Atkinson’s years at Mount Allison were a time of great personal upheaval. His father, James, died in January 1910, then in September 1911, he wrote to President Byron Crane Borden:

Letters by Richard Orland Atkinson“Dear Sir, I am sorry that I am not able to resume my studies at present on account of the serious illness of my mother. Her present state is such that I do not feel I can leave her.”

Atkinson’s mother died on Nov. 1 and in January 1912 he was home again, this time to care for Adda, his older sister, who graduated from Mount Allison in 1910.

Adda suffered a mental breakdown after her mother’s death and Atkinson mentions the doctor administering “electric treatment,” which seems to be “proving very beneficial” in a letter to Borden on Jan. 8, 1912.

Adda died just five days later.

Despite this series of personal tragedies, Atkinson excelled at Mount Allison. He was the  Senior Class President, President of the Eurhetorian Society, and editor-in-chief of the Argosy. The Argosy, in describing his success as leader of the debating team, wrote, “… as the expression goes, ‘he could talk the legs off an iron pot.’”

Elizabeth Millar, associate librarian at the R.P. Bell Library, became intrigued by Atkinson while working on a project to document Allisonians in the First World War (Fall 2014 Record).

“He is an example of what Mount Allison hopes its students will be,” she says. “He was really involved in campus life and 100 years later we have students that are still so involved. It seems to be the type of student that Mount A attracted and still attracts.”

After graduation, Atkinson stayed on to complete a Master’s at Mount Allison, then earned a Master’s at Harvard in 1917, just as the United States was entering the First World War and Russia was going through the revolution that ushered in more than 70 years of communism.

Atkinson, along with 10 other men, was chosen by the U.S. government to go to Russia in a non-military capacity, ostensibly to establish friendly relations with the new Russian republic. The October 1917 issue of the Record, however, gives his work a more covert bent.

“He and his comrades will go direct to the firing line and will engage in moral and social work among the Russian soldiers, their special work being to offset the work which has been carried out throughout that country by German Socialists,” the note reads.

Although it was rare, Millar says Atkinson wasn’t the only Allisonian to serve in Russia or in the U.S. Army.

“But they weren’t writing of their experiences in Harper’s magazine,” she says. “I think his experience writing for the Argosy and being part of the Eurhetorian Society stood him in good stead to pen articles that Harper’s considered worthy of publication.”

Atkinson died on July 16, 1973 in Los Angeles, leaving behind one son, also named Richard, and his second wife, Lee Lane Atkinson.

Allisonian Archives was produced with the invaluable assistance of University Archivist David Mawhinney and Associate Librarian Elizabeth Millar.


Read one of the many articles Atkinson wrote during his time in Russia: Traveling Through Siberian Chaos, which appeared in the November 1918 issue of Harper's magazine.