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Chalkdust and memories

A new beginning in a new school district

By Walter Thorne

In the early 1950s as families flooded into the new frontier town of Kitimat, the need for schools - and therefore teachers - soared, the teachers being lured by the promise of adventure aplenty and good wages.

They came from all over: Janette Camazolla from the Persian Gulf, Lois Marleau from a one-room schoolhouse in rural Saskatchewan and some - like Dorothy Gillespie - straight out of teacher college.

Dorothy arrived in Kitimat with her mother in 1956 after graduating from Vancouver Teacher’s Normal School. Like so many others she was full of enthusiasm – teachers would need enthusiasm and perseverance in the bustling new “aluminum city”.

Veteran teacher Jack Schroyer arrived from Pennsylvania and, contrary to public opinion at the time, he wasn’t a draft dodger. In fact, prior to teaching, he had completed three years’ military service in Korea.

Besides the good wages, what sold Jack on Kitimat was the wilderness. He just loved the mountains, rivers and oceans – fishing and hunting became his passions.

When Margaret Gunn Irvine arrived later in 1963, School District #80 was bursting at the seams and still clamouring for more teachers.

At that point Kitimat already had Mount Elizabeth Senior Secondary, Nechako Elementary, Kildala Elementary, Cormorant Elementary and, just that same year, Whitesail (Roy Wilcox) was about to open.

Margaret started with 42 Grade Ones at Kildala – she was no rookie, having spent her first two years teaching in Chilliwack.

When both Jack and Rob Goffinet arrived in 1967 and 1974 respectively, the schools were still expanding. Some years saw the arrival of as many as 50 new teaching recruits – they were always honoured with a reception in September. There were also write-ups in the Northern Sentinel welcoming all the new faces.

Rob still recalls his introduction to the community by an appreciative school board, which at the time included trustees like Hans Brown. The board arranged a first-class walking tour of Alcan’s potlines and a fine follow-up reception at the Kitimat Gordon Hotel.

Rob quickly became acquainted with like-minded colleagues and it was at that reception that he first met Al Passarell, who started teaching at the same time. After Kitimat Al went on to teach in Atlin and eventually moved into politics, becoming the MLA for the Atlin area.

Margaret and her many colleagues say they were fortunate to have known those Kitimat growth years when our little town was a beacon for education in B.C. The enthusiasm was invigorating with so many dedicated professionals keen on giving their best – the students knew they were privileged.

Margaret and other instructors remember well the extras that the district was able to offer its staff such as accommodation in teacherages. These teachers really did get special treatment and felt like royalty.

Jack was impressed with the services for students such as English as a Second Language, specialized gym teachers, specialized librarians and dedicated music specialists. At one point MESS had what is believed to be B.C.’s first public school language laboratory.

Kitimat schools’ music programs were legendary – Dorothy fondly recalls the enthralling Rotary Choir Festivals with brilliant choirmasters - at Christmas the massed choirs’ Hallelujah Chorus was magical.

In those glory days, sports were also well provided for. Schools had strong intra-murals and you could count on a healthy travel budget to ensure attendance at big sports event opportunities throughout the Northwest and the province.

Through it all “Uncle Al” always came through with the cash - Alcan insisted that their town had to have the best so that potential Alcan employees and their families would want to come north to our frontier town and, once here, stay.

In those years you took for granted your privileged status as a Kitimat teacher – being among the best-paid teachers in Canada and instructing in some of the best classrooms in the country was just a bonus.

Most students and staff didn’t realize that Kitimat was the envy of the North with well-proportioned facilities, wider halls, oodles of covered outside play areas to keep dry, top-notch libraries, multipurpose rooms, science labs (even at Nechako and Kildala elementary schools) and gymnasiums with stages complete with mezzanines.

Little Kitimat also had two track ovals for end-of-year track and field and sports days. Anyone instructing in this new town in new facilities (nothing was old in town at the time) was lucky indeed.

Teachers can recall those days when a climate of plenty prevailed with growing attendance into the 1970s as the town welcomed Eurocan Pulp and Paper.

Rob remembers that staff only needed to mention the possibility of a new teaching kit to the principal and it was ordered.

Those days became a memory by the mid-1980s with the decline in enrolment. And in 1996 staff were saddened when Kitimat School District #80 came to an end.

Our lighthouse district, a beacon in the province, had been amalgamated with Terrace - Kitimat’s large industry-generated tax dollars could no longer be freely spent in Kitimat.

It was a great loss and one which was hard to take. There was some resistance. Besides the Kitimat tax dollars, the question on everyone’s minds was whether Terrace was also going to pillage educational supplies.

There are still tales of clandestine attempts to hide some of the expensive band instruments purchased prior to 1980 through Alcan’s sponsorship. Clearly the gravy train days were at an end – but life went on.

No-one could expect the days of 11-cent-a-gallon gasoline and a new car for $600 would go on forever. Nor could one expect that seven Kitimat public schools could go on as if nothing had changed in our shrinking town.

Looking back with nostalgia, many feel those times were better. But were they? Even grim episodes of weather are seen in a more favourable light as the decades pass.

Many can recall the record snowfalls and floods. Marg Irvine remembers the days before Sumgas Creek was fenced, when her students were flooded out of the Riverlodge trailer park and the days when it snowed four feet and the schools were still open.

Marg has always been one to appreciate heritage. Always the organizer, she has been the keeper of photos and records and her precious collection of memories and teaching memorabilia is amazing. Yes, she has saved it all.

Many of her favourites - and perhaps yours too - are in the Margaret Gunn Irvine collection which includes Dick and Jane books complete with their giant oversized teacher’s instruction books.

Who could forget those characters including Spot the Dog, Puff the Cat, Baby Sally, and Tim the Teddybear? Also preserved from those days of yore are her favourite classics like the Littles and Homer Price and of course anything related to Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear.

In a perfect world, all these teaching treasures would be preserved in a museum - we can always hope. Marg’s dream is to have a two-room schoolhouse museum near Centennial Park where all those fine memories and programs would have a home.

One lament is that we never did get fine administrators like Dave Grant and George Neuman together to record their memories.

Those days of Kitimat’s infancy are certainly worth celebrating even with the never-ending chalk dust which would torment hands and clothing, that annoying purple mimeographing fluid and the felt pens which would forever be scarring your hands and arms.

In the words of the 1968 hit song by Mary Hopkin, those were the days my friend.