“It Was A School Like No Other” — Port Elgin’s Regional Memorial High School

The village of Port Elgin and surrounding area can lay claim to three important reformers in provincial education. The first two, originally from Murray Corner and Baie Verte, were to play key roles in establishing a new consolidated school in Port Elgin; a school that was destined to be described as like no other. The third member of this Tantramar trio built on their foundations and will be introduced later.

It all began in 1918. In an election held the previous year, a new government under the leadership of Premier W.E. Foster (1874–1947) took office. One of its promises was an overhaul of the educational system. The first major reform came from the report of a special committee on vocational training, chaired by one of the newly elected MLAs representing Westmorland.

The secretary of the committee was a career civil servant, and native of Murray Corner, Fletcher Peacock (1884–1949). Years later, he was to recall an occasion when an opposition MLA, opposed to reform of any kind, resorted to procedural delays in the committee. Not to be outmaneuvered, the chairman thundered: Were going to sit here until this report is adopted even if it takes until all Hell freezes over. By now, many readers will have guessed the identity of the outspoken MLA — Fred Magee (1875–1952).

The Vocational Education Act of 1918, later adopted by the legislature, called for instruction in industrial, agricultural and commercial subjects and where warranted; the establishment of agricultural and vocational high schools. Both Magee and Fletcher had attended rural schools and knew firsthand, that the traditional academic curriculum was unsuitable for many students. Before joining the Department of Education, Peacock had taught in one room rural schools. In 1911, the year of his graduation from Mount Allison, he was appointed Director of Manual Training and Home Economics for the province.

The new legislation, which was well ahead of its time, also called for the establishment of a Provincial Vocational Board of seven members. Four to represent various governmental agencies and three from the province at large. It was specified that two of the latter should be recruited from the ranks of capital and labour. To no ones surprise, one of these appointees was Fred Magee. Over the next few years educational reform was in the air; so much so, that Magee became known as the father of vocational education in New Brunswick. A major achievement was the founding of the renowned Saint John Vocational High School; one of the first of its kind in Canada. Later Fletcher Peacock took leave from the civil service to launch this school, and serve as Director of Vocational Education in Saint John. In 1932 Peacock, because of his many contributions to education,was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Mount Allison. He later returned to the Civil Service.

Unfortunately this burst of educational reform did not last, and for several years, progress slowed to a crawl. Magee was defeated in the election of 1925 and refocussed his attention on business and industrial pursuits. Soon the province was in the grip of the Great Depression, to be followed by the Second World War; and other priorities prevailed. We have to fast forward to the late 1940s to find another period when vocational and technical education occupied centre stage.

Although retired from active politics, Magee never lost interest in educational reform. As a member of the Board of Governors of the University of New Brunswick he fostered the development of a degree program in Business Administration. Now he sensed an opportunity to do something creative for his native turf. Over 70 years of age, Magee also recognized this would be his last chance to see a school tailored to the needs of rural communities. By this time, fellow reformer, Dr. Fletcher Peacock was the provinces Chief Superintendent of Education. A friendship forged so many years earlier was reactivated.

Upon Magee’s insistence, a local advisory committee was established to assist in planning the new school and to act as a sounding board for many educational concepts dormant since 1918. This included a course of study designed to meet the special needs of rural students, and at the same time, to be relevant for both academic and nonacademic streams. In Magee’s view, education was a provincial responsibility; the Port Elgin area deserved a consolidated high school, and they were going to have it! Needless to say, at the provincial level, he received strong support from Dr. Peacock.

Named chair of the advisory committee, Magee threw himself into the project with all the gusto that characterized his earlier life. On one point he was immovable. The new facility must have sufficient grounds for outdoor athletic activities and a gymnasium. He also visualized the latter to be a centre for community activities. To ensure this, his wife, Myrtle McLeod Magee donated a fifteen acre lot for the new school; while Fred Magee provided $50,000 for a 700 seat auditorium-gymnasium.

On the evening of Sept. 7, 1948 all roads led to Port Elgin. The occasion was the official opening of the Regional Memorial School by the Lieutenant Governor Hon. D. L. MacLaren. It had been suggested that the new facility might be named in honour of Mageee; but he rejected the idea. Instead he suggested that the school be dedicated in memory of the fallen in two world wars. Estimates of crowds are often unreliable; however, there is agreement that on this occasion, the auditorium was filled to overflowing; as upwards of 1,000 people were in attendance. Mageee was in the chair and confessed with pride that he felt like Joe Louis after winning a championship boxing match. Dr. Fletcher Peacock was also present and reminisced about his long career in education.

Its time to introduce our third educational reformer, Dr. George Ernest Bennett (1901–1972) the first principal of the new school. Unlike Magee or Peacock he was not a native of the region; yet he had much in common with them. Born in Heckston, a small rural community in South Gower Township, Grenville County, Ontario, Bennett had come up through the ranks of one room country schools. But more important, as a graduate of the Ottawa Normal School, Ontario College of Education, and the Ontario Agricultural College [now the University of Guelph]. Bennett shared with both, a common approach in education. His strong academic background in both agriculture and education prepared him well for the principalship of RMS. While not neglecting the academic side; he fully understood the need for an alternative to the traditional high school curriculum. As events unfolded at RMS, Dr. G.E. Bennett was, to use a cliché, the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

An educational institution may possess the most modern facilities, as did RMS; but unless it has inspired leadership and a dedicated teaching staff, the school is but an empty shell. Fortunately RMS was not lacking in qualified personnel. The majority were experienced teachers and university graduates. For the record, the first staff included: Mrs. M. Allen, Ms. N. Bostwick, A.C. Collings, R.L. Danson, J.W. Fenety, Ms. M. LeBlanc, L. Legere, R. Mabee, A.P. Ryder, M.F. Stewart and Ms. A. Trueman.

To obtain background information concerning their Principal Dr. G. E. Bennett, I was fortunate to locate, both personally and via e-mail, a number of former students. After the passage of several decades, and recognizing that memories grow dim, I was struck by the almost universal agreement they expressed. One e-mail began: Its a distinct pleasure and privilege to provide some memories of my late mentor and friend… On discipline another wrote: As I recall, he was a strict disciplinarian, some might call him dictatorial but he was always fair. Again He was a hands on Principal with principles. He always taught one class, in order to get to know his students. A former Student Council President recalled his unfailing good humoured but firm and wise encouragement. A trait mentioned by more than one, was patrolling the premises. Dr. Bennett never shut himself away in the office he was always out and about; you never knew when he might appear and this included checking the dark hall behind the stage in the gym!!

Several former students mentioned their service in Army Cadet Corps #2335. Under the critical eye of Captain Bennett the RMS Corps was soon to achieve first rank standing in the province. One RMS graduate, Lieutenant Governor Marilyn Trenholme Counsell has commented on the importance of Cadet Corps #2335. In a recent address she asked the present generation to remember Dr. Bennett and his contributions to the Corps, and to recognize the wonderful training given many young men and women over the years.

Bennett’s rationale in forming the Corps, which held its first parade on Dec. 17, 1948, was straightforward. He saw it as an opportunity to build leadership and encourage physical fitness. However, it accomplished much more, as it led scores of RMS graduates to careers in the Canadian Armed Forces. Two of whom, Don Chandler and Owen Walton were instrumental in helping write this Flashback.

Dr. Bennett also knew instinctively when action was required and when it was not. Don Chandler recalled one such incident Shortly after Captain Bennett appointed me Company Sergeant Major, a box containing assorted rank insignia arrived. [Indiscreetly] I opened it when some fellow cadets were present we wondered out loud who might be receiving promotions when suddenly Captain Bennett appeared on the scene. He enquired frostily by whose authority I was making frivolous promotions. The box was hastily returned to the office and nothing further was ever said of my indiscretion.

Beyond the walls of Port Elgin’s RMS, Bennett was very involved in community affairs. Active in such diverse organizations as the Home & School Association, the Port Elgin Rotary Club and the Westmorland and Botsford Agricultural Society, he believed that the school should be freely available to adults in the community. In his first annual report in 1949, he pointed with pride, to the number of community organizations that were using the school on a regular basis.

On the personal level, Dr. Bennett was an active member of the New Brunswick Handicraft Guild. Owen Walton recalled paying him a visit long after he had retired. He knew I was interested in wood working. He took me to his workshop and showed me the wood turning projects he was working on I spent a pleasant hour with him. It was the last time I saw him. Don Chandler and his wife visited Dr. Bennett during the course of their honeymoon in 1957. They were the recipients of a beautiful wooden bowl, turned by Dr. Bennett on his wood lathe.

While it was probably not obvious to many of those who were RMS students in those early years, Dr. G.E. Bennett was an educational reformer and pioneer. It fell to him to implement the changes anticipated in the long forgotten report of 1918. In so doing, he was creating what one x-student appropriately described as a school like no other. Hundreds were to benefit from the diversified curriculum he helped put in place over a half century ago. Dr. G.E. Bennett’s place in the Tantramar trio of educational reformers was well and truly earned.