PORTRAIT OF A HIGH SCHOOL by Ray Gardner MacLeans Magazine (1959/9/12)
Four million kids are thundering back into classrooms across the land this month to start one more of the best years of their lives. At Vancouver’s King Edward High the traditions may be mellower but the rambunctious spirit’s the same.
This month a thundering herd of four million, two hundred thousand children will stampede into schools across Canada. They’ll take their places in buildings that range all the way from the little red schoolhouses of the backwoods to the cities’ gleaming modern structures of glass and chrome.
By the time they graduate, these schools will have had a greater impact on their lives and will have done more to fashion their future than any institution but the home; and probably no group in Canada is more cognizant of this influence than the thousands of former students of Vancouver’s King Edward High School.
In its seven decades. King Edward has seen them all come and go, from the unspoiled children of the city’s pioneers to the worldly adolescents of the Space Age. It has suffered all their fads from yellow slickers to black-stockinged beatniks and heard all their slang from “Twenty-three Skidoo” and “So’s your old man!” to “Drop dead!” and “Daddy-O.”
Whatever their generation, the school has taken them as they came, taught them the best it could, and then sent them out to make their mark on the world.
This a few, like a double Olympic champion and a Hollywood star, did in spectacular fashion. Success came to others in law, medicine, politics, and industry, and one even became an ambassador. Some went to fight and die for the things the school taught them. But most have made their way in the world obscurely, building ordinary, useful lives in a myriad of commonplace ways.
Year by year the flowering dogwoods that flank the entrance, where a teacher planted them long ago, grow taller and the school grows physically older. Every now and then there is talk of ripping it down and building anew’. But, in spirit, it stays eternally young as each September a new’ crop of youth enters to take the place of those who left in. June.
Known in the beginning as Vancouver High School, King Edward was Vancouver’s first secondary school and, for almost twenty years, its only one. Because most of the city’s early high schools as well as its technical and commercial schools were direct offshoots of King Ed and drew many of their first teachers from its staff, it is called the Mother of Schools. The University of British Columbia also sprang from its campus.
Even now the principals of nine of Vancouver’s sixteen secondary schools are men who either graduated from or taught at King Ed. In the fall of 196o a unique tribute will be paid to a former King Edward teacher, the late Dr. Annie B. Jamieson, when a new elementary school will be given her name. It will mark the first time Vancouver has ever named a school for a teacher, sometimes called “Vancouver’s Miss Chips.” Dr. Jamieson taught at King Ed from 1907 until 1927 and for ten of those years was the school’s vice-principal.
Vancouver was not quite four years old and had hardly lived down its pioneer name of Gastown when, on Jan. 6. 189o, twenty-five boys and girls enrolled in its first high-school class. This month more than sixteen hundred students will pour into King Edward to begin a new term. For some two hundred grade-nine pupils, aged thirteen to fourteen, it will be their first year at the school.
“They’ll be the same as all those who have gone before.” observes William Wilson who will then begin his thirteenth and last year as principal. “They’ll be young and full of hope and promise. And the school will not mean nearly so much to them until after they’ve left it. Then many of them will come back to visit, to recapture a glimpse of their youth.”
At least once a week through the school year a former student will return to wander among the graduation pictures that line the walls of one long hallway, and to find the one that means most to him. A few of the earliest pictures are missing, gone no one knows where, and there is a gap of several years in the Thirties when a dollar was needed for more practical things than a graduation photograph. The rest are all there, each as full of memories as a family album.
Almost inevitably some of today’s students will, in time, return to their old school as teachers, for this has always happened at King Ed until now it is a tradition. The principal, Bill Wilson, graduated from the school in 1911, returned as a teacher in 1927, and has been there ever since. “I’ve never considered applying for another school, and no one has ever suggested I should.” he says. “We’ve all just assumed that King Edward is my school.” When he retires next June he will have spent thirty-six years at King Edward as student, teacher, and principal, a period that spans more than half the life of the school.
In that time, Wilson has seen both former classmates and his own students become his teaching colleagues at King Ed. Last year twelve of his staff of seventy-one teachers were graduates of the school. They ranged the years from William Maxwell, a physics teacher from the class of 1912, to Sheila Moore, a French teacher who graduated with the class of 1949.
King Edward is known among Vancouver teachers as “a happy school,” a description that is emphatically confirmed by Miss Moore who says, “I loved it here. I could hardly wait to come back. I was dying to come back.”
It is King Edward’s most flamboyant claim to fame that the boy who became known as The World’s Fastest Human and the girl Hollywood publicized as The World’s Most Beautiful Girl both revealed their talents while attending the school. They were Percy Williams and Yvonne De Carlo.
Running in the blue-and-white colors of King Edward in the 1927 Vancouver inter-high track meet, Percy set records in both the one-hundred and two-hundred-and-twenty-yard sprints. Only a year later he became the sensation of the Olympic Games, at Amsterdam, by winning the hundred and two-hundred metre races, a triumph that is still regarded by many as the greatest of all Canadian athletic achievements.
Yvonne Peggy De Carlo, as she is listed in the school records, was the dancing and singing star of countless noon hour concerts at King Edward. A Spanish dance and a soft-shoe routine to Tea for Two were a couple of her specialties. One typewritten program, now in a teacher’s scrapbook, mentions her name three times and spells it wrongly, as De Carlos, every time.
Yvonne got B in French, C plus in English, and only one poor mark, E in typing, captained a girls’ volleyball team, and once danced ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ in a gossamer costume that shocked the principal of the time, Dr. J. R. Sanderson. She left the school in 1939. By the early Forties, she was a star of Universal Pictures. Then she remembered the old school, by sending an autographed cheesecake picture of herself to Dr. Sanderson.
“She was a nice child, a nice girl.” Principal Wilson recalls, and one of her teachers, Mrs. Elsie Pain, adds, “Yvonne was highly proper. She was shy and restrained. At night she’d dance at a theatre or perhaps a club, yet she always had her school work done.”
It is a long way back from the Technicolor confections of Miss De Carlo to the Victorian period piece that was Vancouver that January day in 1890 when Principal Robert Law faced the first class of Vancouver High School, assembled in a spare room of an elementary school.
Principal Law was paid one hundred dollars a month to teach his twenty-one girls and ten boys everything from algebra to zoology. All his pupils took English, geography, and history but only eight studied Latin and three Greek, a situation remedied the next year by a new principal who commanded: “You will all take Greek.” Not one of Law’s students took the course offered in temperance, which, perhaps, was to be expected in a town that had until recently taken its nickname from a saloonkeeper — Gastown from the voluble “Gassy” Jack Deighton.
During its first decade the school flourished, growing physically as well as academically. In 1893 it moved into the first home of its own, an eight-room brick building in the city’s centre. At the beginning of the 1899-1900 term it changed its name to Vancouver High School and College and, as an affiliate of Montreal’s McGill University, provided a first-year course in arts. The school still offers senior matriculation, equivalent to first-year university, and is the only Vancouver school that does.
The Klondike gold rush of ’98 had lifted Vancouver out of an economic slump and set it booming. The population soared, from ten thousand in 1890 to twenty-five thousand in 1900, and by 1907, it was to more than double again, to sixty-one thousand.
A bigger building was now needed for the school, and, in 1903, the taxpayers approved a one-hundred-and-twenty-five thousand-dollar bylaw to build it. The night the bylaw passed, celebrating students paraded through the streets and on to the homes of their teachers.
The gold rush was to lure at least one student from the classrooms of Vancouver High. Robert W. Service attended the school for exactly forty days in 1904 before jumping off for the north and eventual fame as a poet. Two of his contemporaries, who also made good, in their own fashion, were George Cunningham and Tillie Cameron, later Mrs. F. J. Rolston. George is the pharmaceutical king of British Columbia, the owner of forty-nine drugstores, and Tillie in 1952 became minister of education, the first woman to hold a cabinet post in B. C.
The school’s pioneer days were virtually over when, on Jan. 5. 1905, it moved into its new home, a handsome brick building topped by a great dome, in Fairview, a residential district only then emerging from the forest. The enrollment had leaped. in fifteen years, to almost five hundred and the university course had been expanded to three years. In 1907 the college was divorced from the high school and nine years later the province founded its own university.
Those were the days of empire glory and when, in 1909. the city established a second high school it was almost a spontaneous act to name it Britannia and to re-name the original Vancouver High after the reigning monarch. King Edward. Appropriately, the head student of Vancouver High’s last graduating class bore the name of a British prime minister. He was William Ewart Gladstone Murray, who was to become, in 1936, the first general manager of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The school’s surroundings were then almost pastoral, and in the five years of peace that remained, they seemed to set the mood for a student life that was simple and unsophisticated. A deep, wooded ravine cut across the edge of the school grounds and there, at lunch time, the hoys gathered to play duck-on-the rock (throwing stones to knock a small rock off a larger one), to trade cigarette cards depicting baseball heroes, ocean liners, or soldiers of the Empire.
The girls wore middies, braided their hair, and some spent the noon hour searching for rare flowers. One of them, Ethelwyn Harris, wrote a poem dedicated to the Girls’ Flower Club that began. “We are the children of wind and wild.”
In spite of this idyllic atmosphere, progress was being recorded on every hand.
In 1912 a new wing and auditorium were built, and, in January 1914, the school’s monthly magazine. The Argus, hailed the purchase of a magic lantern which “any boy who wishes to give an illustrated talk on his collection of postcards is perfectly welcome to use.”
The suffragette movement was gathering steam, and The Argus, in its February issue of 1914, reported that two emancipated female students, Jessie McHaffey and Belle McLennan, had whipped the boys, hands down, in a debate on votes for women. Still, the rules barred the girls from taking part in inter-high debates and. as late as 1918, the boys of King Edward were to stage a gallant but unsuccessful fight to have the ban lifted.
When war came, eight hundred and fifty-one students and graduates of King Edward went to fight. Among them were most of the sixty-five King Edward cadets who, in 1912, made a carefree, five month tour of Australia and New Zealand at the invitation of an Australian cadet corps that had previously visited Vancouver. Eleven of the King Ed cadets died in action.
The 1917 matric annual told what had happened to some of King Edward’s soldiers: Jack McPhail, who only the year before had captained the senior basketball team as it won the provincial 1959 high-school championship, was killed at Vimy Ridge; Wendell Stacy died leading his men in a charge against the Turks at Gallipoli, and Harry McLennan was felled by a sniper’s bullet after he had come safely through the great Canadian attack against the Germans at Ypres. In all, one hundred and one King Edward boys were killed in action.
During the great ‘flu epidemic of 1918, the school’s classes were suspended and, for two months, it became an emergency hospital, staffed in part by teachers who volunteered to act as nurses.
Through the war years and after, King Edward continued to produce men destined to play prominent parts in provincial and national affairs. The president of the class of ’17 was a country boy, Arnold Webster, who in the Fifties was to lead the CCF Opposition in the B. C. legislature. In 1918, A. E. (Dal) Grauer, now president and chairman of the B. C. Power Corporation, enrolled at King Edward. A graduate in 1919 was Norman Robertson, who since has served as high commissioner to the United Kingdom and ambassador to the United States, and is now under-secretary of state for External Affairs.
As if to set the tone for the light-hearted Twenties that were to come, in the spring of 1919 the students staged a prank that rocked the school. They made a shambles of Loud Socks Day. The boys had started Loud Socks Day years before by coming to school, on the day before sports day, wearing gaudy, unmatched socks. The girls soon joined in by tying their pigtails with brightly colored ribbon.
In 1919 they overdid it. Boys and girls came dressed in hoop skirts, old tuxedos, top hats, straw boaters—outlandish clothing of every sort. Given permission to parade along a few neighboring streets, they bolted for town. They invaded a rival school, paraded through the city centre and skipped classes for the day. Only by giving written promises of good behavior were they allowed to continue at school. There was never another Loud Socks Day.
The Twenties were the era of Percy Williams. This lithe, clean-cut youngster and his amazing success, from schoolboy runner to Olympic champion, seemed to epitomize the carefree, optimistic spirit of the times. The boys wore Prince of Wales sweaters and plus-fours, the girls raised hem lines above the knee, everybody sang Roll ’em. Girls, Roll ’em, and the 1924 matric annual noted the ambition of a girl named Helen Lamb was to be Valentino’s dancing partner. Everything, as the saying went, was hot-diggity-dog.
Track and field became the rage of every Vancouver youngster because of the achievements of Percy and another King Edward boy, Dune McNaughton. In the 1929 inter-high meet Dune broke the high-jump record and won the senior boys’ individual championship. Then, in 1932, he won the high jump at the Olympic Games, in Los Angeles, and was the only Canadian to win a gold medal. Large pictures of Percy and Dune, in their Olympic strip, now hang side by side in the entrance of King Edward.
Two other students of the Twenties were Bob Elson, now general manager of Life Magazine, and Harold Winch, CCF member of parliament for Vancouver-East. Before quitting school to become a newspaper copy boy, Elson made his mark by setting a new inter-high record for the mile, and Winch made his by getting fired as editor of the school paper. This was accomplished by writing an editorial criticizing the prefects for smoking.
Life took a serious turn at King Edward as the Thirties brought depression and the threat of war, and these became the recurring themes of school debates, oratorical contests, and essays and poems in the matric annuals.
With no jobs to be had, students stayed longer at school and enrollment at King Edward, static throughout the Twenties, more than doubled in the depression years — from six hundred and seventy-four in 1929 to fifteen hundred and sixty-five in 1939.
In his farewell message to the graduates of 1934, the principal, Dr. J. R. Sanderson, apologized for the state of the world into which they were emerging and appealed to them to oppose two evils — “the evil of war for private gain, and the evil of poverty in the midst of plenty.” And, to the annual of 1938, the class valedictorian, Elspeth Munro, contributed a poem, The Nightmare of the World, an appeal for an end to war.
Yet it wasn’t to be long before the one-column cuts of King Edward boys killed in action were to begin appearing in the school paper, Blue and White. By the war’s end, the death toll of former King Edward boys amounted to one hundred and six. More than fifteen hundred had enlisted. The names of all, as well as those who served in the Great War, are now recorded on two huge honor rolls in the school’s main hallway. Lettered in gold are the names of the two hundred and seven who were killed in the two wars. When former students visit the school, they invariably linger before one of the honor rolls, scanning it for names they know.
Many of King Edward’s teachers went off to the war and one, P. C. (Pete) Tees, who taught chemistry and coached rugby, became a brigadier. A veteran of the Great War, Tees kept his shooting eye sharp between the wars by coming to school of a Saturday with a .22 rifle and potting off the pigeons that lofted in the dome of the building.
To mark the school’s golden jubilee in 1940, the students wrote and produced a pageant. King Edward Cavalcade, and in the program credits appear two names that now count for something in the world of entertainment: Arthur Hill, who has become a leading man on the London and New York stage, and Peter McDonald, now boss of the CBCs English language television network.
In the Forties the Quan family—Mary and her brothers, Ben and Dick—set an academic record that undoubtedly will stand for years to come. First Mary, then Ben, and finally Dick, scored the school’s highest marks in the junior matriculation exams, and, in each case, they were well up among the province-wide leaders.
Now approaching its seventieth anniversary — Jan. 6, 1960 — King Edward still occupies the building erected in Fairview in 1905, but the years have brought their changes. The building itself has been enlarged and new structures have been added, its surroundings are no longer rustic, and. recently, its name was changed from King Edward High to King Edward Secondary School.
In and out of the classroom, student life has changed, too.
Instead of being assigned to a class and moving with it from room to room and from teacher to teacher for various 1959 subjects, each student is now, in effect, a class in himself. In the spring each student makes up his own timetable of subjects for the next term and then selects the teacher he wishes to enroll with for each subject. This means that, up to a point, a student chooses his own teachers, and it also means that few students try to excuse poor marks by saying they don’t like their teachers.
French is no longer taught in English, but in French itself, and the classroom is decorated with gay Gallic posters, one even by Matisse. There are counselors for boys and girls, and one of them, Lloyd Baynes, brings to his work an understanding of juvenile pranks gained first hand from his participation in the Loud Socks escapade of 1919.
The girls have long since been emancipated, so that one of them, Tania Mihailoff, became student president last term, and to the point that a handful of them turned up one day last spring as beatniks, in black sweaters and stockings, white lipstick, and heavy eye makeup.
The graduation party, once a simple affair to which the girls brought sandwiches and the boys gave a quarter each to pay for the pop, has evolved into a formal banquet and ball at $3.50 a plate. The girls turn out in expensive gowns, a corsage, often of orchids, at the shoulder, and not a few of the boys rent evening dress at $7.75 a crack.
Yet one thing that never seems to change is the pleasant relationship, the respect for one another that has always existed between staff and students at King Edward and has become the school’s hallmark. Because of it, substitutes and student teachers prefer King Ed to most other schools. It has given King Ed its reputation as a happy school.
At last spring’s graduation banquet, the principal, Bill Wilson, spoke briefly and, looking out upon three hundred boys and girls, all scrubbed as clean as a whistle and dressed to kill, he said, simply, “You amaze me. You all look so beautiful.” It was a remark that seemed to typify the affection that King Edward’s teachers have always felt for their students, and which has made a great school out of what is after all, only a collection of old and ugly buildings.