Friday, May 28, 2010
St. John's High School Salad Days
Winnipeg Free Press
Friday, June 21,1985
It was the time when the school's
stars were young and innocent
By Doug Whiteway
TUNICS. PINCH the memory of any of the women back in town for St. John's High School 76th Reunion this weekend and what springs forth immediately is a reminiscence of tunics. In the golden years when the school was St. John's Tech, the girls wore the navy blue uniforms with a white blouse, black stockings and black oxfords. And they had to be worn every day. No excuses. And no makeup, either. A girl who showed up in anything but a tunic and a scrubbed face had better have a note from her parents explaining why.
Fashions came and went, and hemlines with them, but tunics could be no more than six inches above the knee. Not many days went by without some reckless female being forced to her knees to prove to a teacher that her tunic was regulation length. If the skirt touched the tiles while the knees were bent, then it passed inspection. If not, trouble.
St. John's High Reunion chairman Janet (Olin) Boonov (class of '54) remembers girls who gathered their tunics at the shoulder so the skirt was lifted. If caught in a raid (they had raids for these things), they could drop the hemline by undoing the shoulder stitches. Then sew them back up at night.
There may have been minor skirmishes over the length of the tunic. But no one questioned the idea of wearing one. "I think they were fantastic," says Eileen (Morris) Jefferson (class of '37) in Winnipeg from Vancouver for the re-union. "We were freed from any ties of how you looked."
Perhaps it's the contrast to modern life at St. John's High that stimulates discussion of school uniforms. At a long table in a school hallway, alumni crowd around, registering for the three-day 75th anniversary gala celebration which officially begins tomorrow (unofficially last night at Kelekis Restaurant) with the renaming of O'Meara Street to Monty Mall Street. It runs through a full schedule of sock hops, softball and a sit down dinner for 4,300 at the Convention Centre, and ends Sunday with breakfast at the school.
Is that you?
As they cluster with old friends ("my god, is that you?"), they can't help but notice the current crop of St. John's schoolgirls in their fluorescent shirts and bubblegum pants, the Madonna makeup, and wonder at the change time hath wrought. Today, high school is a fashion parade. In the old days, fashion was kept well away from the school yard.
On purpose. A microcosm of the North End of the '30s, '40s and '50s, St. John's Tech was an amalgam of rich and poor, ethnic and Anglo, immigrant and native-born, which could have meant a school divided into exclusive and explosive cliques.
But wise and scholarly G. J. Reeve, principal from 1925 to 1952, kept the girls in uniform (the boys weren't fashion-conscious, any- way) while other schools were liberalizing dress codes.
At Reeve's school, class distinctions stopped at Church and Salter where the red-brick 40-classroom structure stood. And he picked teachers who followed his lead.
"We grew up where there were Ukrainians and Jews and nobody drew a distinction," says Provincial Court Judge Ron Meyers (class of '52). "We were all alike, and the teachers had every reason to harbor prejudice in those days. I don't want to get maudlin but I would say Reeve was a saint."
The school this remarkable man presided over and left as a legacy to succeeding generations produced an abundance of talent in its heyday. What Winnipeg high school reunion has been able to mount for its alumni a 2%-hour stage product-ion, A Galaxy of Stars that includes two Hollywood producers (Allan Blye and Aubrey Tadman), two opera stars (Morley Meredith of the JVlet, Norman Mittleman of the San Francisco Opera), a rock star (Burton Cummings) and that TV host of hosts, Monty Hall — not to mention an 80-voice choir primed for Gilbert and Sullivan and the old school song, Jerusalem?
And did we mention the sports stars who came from St. John's? The supreme court justices? The judges? The politicians? The United States senator? And the professionals? Should illness overtake someone at Saturday's dinner and a cry of, 'Is there a doctor in the house?' be heard, 400 doctors will rise.to the occasion. If someone slips on a banana peel and feels inclined to sue, 400 lawyers will present their cards.
In the crucible that was the North End of the '30s, '40s and '50s — a bit of urban geography in a slice of time which seems to have passed now into myth —the drive to achieve and excel (and in many cases, to get out) was tangible. Most of the students were children of immigrants who saw in education the key to advancement in a new and less oppressive society.
"It was probably the demographics of the situation," muses Rainbow Stage's flamboyant executive producer Jack Shapira (class of
'43), who describes himself as a shy lad, "one of the three virgins of high school."
"We were all children of parents who came from Europe. We had to prove ourselves."
Medicine was the goal. "Everyone was going to be a doctor in those days," says Morley Meredith (class of MO), who didn't and went on to be a Metropolitan Opera star instead. Why the vagaries of the entertainment business should at- tract so many of these children of security-conscious immigrants seems inexplicable. Could it have been a literal interpretation of the school motto, Usque ad Astra — Up to the Stars?
"I don't really know," says Hollywood producer and writer Allan Blye (class of '53), who abandoned two years of architecture at the University of Manitoba to become a singer and then a producer of such TV hits as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Sonny and Cher Show, and Bizarre. "People ask what was it about the North End that produced such an array of people. There was just such an environment."
The shrug is palpable in his voice. What is it about a time and place that produces a concentra tion of excellence? Parental encouragement and peerless teachers help. Many point to Elsa Handel — "a dynamic little lady," says Meyers —who presided for years over the musical productions, discovering and encouraging talent. Meyers says Norm Mittleman, the San Francisco Opera star, was about to try out for the Bombers but Handel persuaded him to stick with singing.
But alumni say St. John's was more than academics and doing well at school. In a pre-television age, in an age before kids had cars and after-school jobs, and mobility, and money, school was the hub of social life.
"We spent 80 per cent of our waking hours at Tech," says Blye. It was on teams, and in clubs, in school politics and the operetta, as much as in the classroom, that students found their direction in life.
"I'll tell you what was special — most of the girls married the boys they went to school with," says Clare (Rasch) Pudavick (class of '41), who remembers her husband- to-be waiting outside the chemistry room to catch a glimpse of her, and remembers skipping out of class to consume the best jam busters in town at Salter Drugs. A dozen years later, in Boonov's time, the hang-out had changed to College Drugs, known as Room 41 because the school rooms ended at No. 40.
"I wasn't a skipper," Boovov says, but when a teacher she re- members as "Mr. Allison" said to her in his Scottish brogue, "get your hoot, and your coot, and get oot," she got oot and had to go somewhere other than home.
Many returning to Winnipeg for the first time in ages see a school that isn't the school they went to. The charming post-Victorian brick pile was torn down in the mid-'60s to make way for the baby-boom bulge. Seeing today's St. John's, a squat, fortress-like structure, was "a shock," says Los Angeles chiropractor Harold Reuben (class of '29). "It isn't the same thing and it couldn't give the same spirit. The old school was a symbol of the fellas and the gals and people of the north end of the city who were immigrants or the children of immigrants."
School is the people
But Boonov says "the school is the people, not the building," and those who hear her agree. Rhoda (Kirkpatrick) Cummings (class of '38), mother of Burton Cummings (class of '66) sighs over memories of meeting friends on the now-gone big high front steps with the curved balustrade but remembers the athletics, and the teachers, and the fun. "They were wonderful years, the best two years of my life."
The people who went to Tech in the golden years are convinced of its unique place in the social fabric of the city, not to mention their hearts. Never again, they suggest, can that grafting of striving and innocence in a safe little corner of the world bear such rich fruit. "It was," says Pudavick, "a very romantic time."