Personal Memoirs: Memories of Devonshire Collegiate Institute

by Ken Howard, Shirley Howard Thompson, Claire Howard Lee, and Lou H. Howard

Selkirk, Manitoba, seated along the Red River, a town of some 5,000 residents in the 1940s, was gradually recovering from the exhaustive poverty of the Great Depression. Funding for education was difficult and educational resources scarce. On 10 September 1939, Canada had entered the Second World War adding huge financial costs on the community. The war profoundly influenced the lives of both teachers and students.

Public exhortations and school leaders urged everyone to do their part in the war. It was everyone’s privilege and duty. Students simultaneously were strongly urged to complete their education. Entry into the armed forces was voluntary. Many students grappled with a disconcerting quandry. When your school pals and neighbours don military uniforms, and especially when they are posted overseas, placing their lives in danger, is it all right for you to stay behind and study? Young men and women were joining the armed forces in large numbers. Schools struggled to maintain targeted enrolment numbers.

School leaders penned their apprehensions in the 1942 Devonshire Collegiate Institute (DCI) yearbook. Principal Sam Wright wrote:

“The conflict in which the world is involved is undoubtedly the main factor about which we are most concerned at the present time ... We realize that we must win.

Probably at no time will a graduating class step into a world in such a chaotic state as it is today.”

Yearbook editor in-chief Helen Ruth Hooker wrote:

“In time of war the picture is cruelly,subtly changed. What chance has a teen-aged graduate, caught in the whirlpool of fear and uncertainty that besets the nation? Where can he possibly find security in his world which is bent on self-destruction?

50 years from the day we graduate any one of us should be able to say in retrospect, ”freedom prevails, I have fulfilled my obligations and completed my task.”

One hundred and forty-five students attended DCI in 1941-1942; 42 were in Grade 11, 35 in Grade 10; 32 in Grade 9A, and 35 in grade 9B. Pupil retention was a pervasive problem. These figures indicate about a 50% dropout after grade 9, probably because of indifference to education and student enrolment in the military.

The 1942 yearbook opens onto an Honour Roll listing the names of former students then serving in His Majesty’s forces, with the motto “They fight for freedom.” The list shows 28 former students in the Army, 40 in the Navy, 42 in the Air Force. and two nursing sisters. Posted overseas: Army 11, Navy: 1, Air Force: 2, nursing sisters 2. These numbers expanded widely following D-Day on 6 June 1944.

The school was located on the southeast corner of Eaton and Main, on the site of the current Selkirk Town Plaza parking lot.

School board:

Mrs. G. E. Hooker, Chairman; Mr. P. Reid; Mr. C. Harper; Mr. J. Clarke; Mr. W. A. Campbell; Mr. R. B. Cockerell; Mr. A Parkes, secretary treasurer.

Teaching staff:

Principal: Mr. S. A. Wright, B.A., Miss M. Anderson, B.A., Miss B. (Betty) Redmond, B.A., Mr. J.E. Mackay, B.A, Mr. V.. Bonin, B.A.

In a “Collegiate Chatter” column the pupils bade farewell to Miss Anne Loutit and Mr. C. Ursel, expressing appreciation to Mr Ursel for his encouragement in getting the previous year’s yearbook out and to Miss Loutit for her ”cheerful patience which made us really enjoy our school days.”

Pupils were assigned to classrooms by their grade level. Teachers moved from classroom to classroom to teach, rather than students moving to teachers’ rooms as in current systems. The ground level contained a small unheated library. To draw heat one had to turn on a fan drawing warm air in from the only classroom in that level.

In 1941 DCI students elected their first student council, with Kenneth Howard as president.

The first issue issue of the DCI yearbook was published in 1939. The third issue, 1942, began with individual photos of all students accompanied by humorous presumed characteristics followed by articles of student activities.

Social notes included the first Memorial Day service ever staged by DCI students on 10 November in United Church, the 7 December Christmas party, and short Christmas service held at Knox Church on 23 December. Following were notes on the 20 February school hike through Van Horne’s farm to the East Selkirk, the weekly debating periods, the stamp club, and the curling windup.

The basketball team was off to an early start playing their first games in the Community Hall, the 1905 fish hatchery. The girls competed for the suburban championship for the second time. Selkirk stars were Mary Netskar and Lillian Thorsteinson. They lost the semi-final to Norwood, the score 12 to 8. The boys’ team won a pennant, defeating St. James and Norwood.

The rugby style changed from tackle to touch rugby, which required “quick thinking, hard running and good passing plays to be successful.” Grade 10 had the distinction of winning in both the Junior and Senior leagues.

In DCI curling, 16 teams and 64 players in the “A” and “B” divisions thoroughly enjoyed their Saturday mornings at the community rink. Two teams competed in Winnipeg in the Manitoba Junior Bonspiel. The yearbook reports “The curlers enjoyed a splendid luncheon at the Hudson Bay Company dining rooms, a picture at the Lyceum theatre, and two hockey games, one at the Ampitheatre and the other at the Olympic, at no expense to themselves.”

The second annual field day was held on 15 and 19 May. Gordon Walterson won every primary event. Mary Netskar was the outstanding girl.

The literary section presented articles and poetry on a variety of topics.

The year book reports: “Cadets had had a fine year, their course being composed of various interesting studies. Among these were Morse taught by Mr. Ursel, semaphore signalling taught by Mr. McKay, aircraft recognition taken up by Mr. Bonin, drill under the supervision the Sgt. Richardson and Sgt. Leithhead; first aid demonstrated by Mr. C Harper. The phase most interesting to the boys was shooting, carried out on Saturday afternoons on the mental hospital rifle range. Various competitions have been held and some fine marksman discovered. Cadets, too, are looking forward to a fortnight at Camp Shilo either early in July or the latter part of August. ... Collegiate students played an important part in Selkirk blackout on 17 January, many the boys acting as messengers between the wardens and the head office.”

One thing that I remember is that during that era girls could not wear slacks, and it was cold in the winter coming to school in the subzero weather with the wind and snow blowing.

We had an hour and a half for lunch, and most students went home to eat.

In the 1944-1945 yearbook there is an Honor Roll listing those serving in the services including the nursing sisters.

There were articles about the 298 Selkirk Squadron of Air Kadettes, and Army Kadettes. ”On decoration day the girl kadettes joined the boys corps for their last parade of the term.”

Teachers listed included Mr. Sam Wright principal, Miss M Anderson, Miss P McArthur, Mrs. W. Gordon, Mr. W. Neufeld, Mr. V. Bonin, Mr. C. Cardinal, Mrs. Leggat, Miss Tucker, Miss Brown Mr. Buelow and Mr. L. Peto.

The library introduced the Dewey Decimal System. There were 1700 books in the library.

Many sports activities were reported. There was competition with Winnipeg schools, with bonspiels and basketball games. The annual field day was well attended by local students, in spite of the uneven landscape, and Manitoba weather to contend with.

Social activities were well attended, with dances featuring current band records, live bands, and piano playing Boogie Woogie.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Devonshire Collegiate Institute / Devonshire School (Main Street, Selkirk)

Page revised: 17 June 2017