On Campus

John Demco's lesson in volunteerism

UBC renames the Demco Learning Centre after someone who deserves it, not for a sum of cash

I had the chance to visit UBC for the first time yesterday. It’s a pretty campus, based on what I saw of it, and it’s nice to get out west for a bit. I was at UBC for the official renaming of the Demco Learning Centre, named for one John Demco, who I’m very pleased to know through our shared role on the board of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. It was a pleasant little ceremony, and perhaps one of the few recent occasions I can bring to mind where something on a university campus was named for someone simply because they deserved it, rather than for a sum of cash.

Most students who use the Demco Learning Centre will never know or appreciate why it’s named that, but John Demco is called (with sound justification) the Godfather of the Canadian Internet. He ran the dot-ca namespace on a volunteer basis for thirteen years, starting at a point when “the Internet” still needed to appear in quotation marks. He helped to integrate the disparate networks that coalesced over time to form the modern Internet that we take for granted. He never took advantage of his position to profiteer or in many cases even to profit in reasonable ways from the work and time he put in. And when the time came he very willingly handed the dot-ca registry over to the organization I’m now glad to represent. But what’s most interesting, to me, is that he was never a faculty member at UBC. He was a tech guy. A high-end tech guy, for sure, but still a tech guy. Just another worker in his cubical, who happened to be doing something really cool that almost no one understood.

At this time I’m reminded that all kinds of cool things are going on at universities throughout the country, and much of it is not official or even sanctioned in any way. Once in a while something big emerges from this unofficial activity – such as a band, or a political movement, or perhaps the Internet – and then we notice and think it’s really neat. But quite often what emerges isn’t quite so dramatic. A lot of interesting things are just lower key, and never reach national attention yet remain very cool. Maybe a local drama group, or a wine club that brings together the community, or an organic gardening collective. This is the sort of thing that everyone appreciates, and yet it’s almost never anyone’s job to really make it happen. So if it does happen at all, it’s on the basis of volunteerism and community spirit and genuine caring, from someone like John.

It’s good to pause once in a while to consider what a remarkable place a university really is. It isn’t only about professors and their research, or even about students and their projects and their causes. There are a lot of people on campus doing fascinating things – perhaps folks you haven’t stopped long enough to notice. You might want to make some time for that if you can, because you never know what you might discover.

Twenty years ago John Demco was helping grow the Canadian Internet at UBC when most people didn’t even know what it was. Who knows what’s going on down the hall at your university, right now?

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