Categories: Arts & Culture

Historian recalls Protestant district’s roots

Teacher, librarian, columnist and historian Dave Geddes has just wrapped up a long-standing assignment that has been on his desk far too long.

After retiring from Paul Kane High School in the early 1990s, he took on the task of writing the history of St. Albert’s separate school district after getting the request from then-superintendent Larry Johnson. Happy to oblige, Geddes spent countless hours in the district office’s record room — he calls it the vault — pouring over all of the meeting minutes from 1958 to 1984.

Geddes is a diligent researcher but after Johnson’s retirement and other circumstances the project was shelved indefinitely. He only picked it up again on his own because he felt it was too important to fall by the wayside. In the introduction he wrote that it is a record of an important piece of St. Albert’s history that should be out in the public where it can be appreciated “for better or worse, hopefully the better.”

“I just found it quite fascinating that the school district was built because, of course, there was opposition to it. It was a product of the changing times after the war. For quite a while, society was still changing,” he said.

Geddes is now the proud author of Building the Lighthouse, an anecdotal record of the first 25 years of District No. 6. In 2006 he wrote The Church on the Trail about the St. Albert United Church, so he is acutely in tune with some of the city’s most significant landmarks and milestones.

Geddes chose his latest title because Johnson always referred to the district as a lighthouse district for education in the city and the province. The post-war boom saw the population grow by 60 per cent in three years. That demographic shift meant that many new non-Catholic families were coming in and demanding other options for their children’s education. It was a social revolution in the predominantly traditional community and it didn’t come easily.

A.J. MacDonald, then chairman of District No. 3, even wrote a letter of complaint to the province’s minister of education that the change would result in “a general lowering of educational standards” and that he was concerned about the segregation of children. It was a fight over moral principles and personal freedoms.

While Geddes qualifies the book as more anecdotal than archival, it still contains a wealth of information that will benefit anyone interested in local history. Granted, apart from the contentious beginning, there isn’t a whole lot more spice in this reading. Even the promise of an internal battle over serving wine at a school function ends abruptly without much ado. The writing is as bare bones as it can go but it works. Geddes wrote this much like an authoritative account, and he did it extremely well.

Building the Lighthouse breaks down the early years of the district school by school and major player by major player. If you’ve heard that Leo Nickerson was a real-life hero but you have never actually heard the true story, then you can just pick this volume up. It’s a valuable record for certain and contains decades of information concisely packaged.

Geddes said that he’s leaving the rest of the history up to someone else. If and when that person comes along, he or she will have a solid footing to get going. This book is like concrete: compact and reliable.

Scott Hayes: Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.