Cindy Wilson photo

Saint John High group prepares 250-page history

by Sandra Davis of the Telegraph-Journal - Wednesday, July 28, 2004

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

Do you know this man?
The researching students are having trouble finding information about the late Elmer J. Alexander, who served as Saint John High School principal beginning in 1928.

During his teaching career, he was also principal of Hartland Superior and Chipman Superior Schools and for a time headed the technical department of Saint John Vocational School. He taught at Saint John High School for six years before being appointed principal.

He died in 1962 in Fredericton.

Anyone who can provide the date of his death and any other information is asked to contact the students by phone at 658-5358, fax at 658-3745 or e-mail at
Four Saint John High School graduates are learning more about their alma mater than perhaps anyone else in the school's history, thanks to a unique summer job that will culminate in a 250-page history they are helping put together to commemorate SJHS's bicentennial next year.

Since the end of June, Mona Malik, Craig Estabrooks, David Cullinan and Clarissa Mak have been digging out ancient photographs stored in the school's dingy, dusty basement they fondly call the "dungeon," scrolling library microfilm for obituaries of long-dead former principals and interviewing teachers for funny and poignant anecdotes.

They thumb through yearbooks that date back to 1945, view class photographs back to 1896 and study graduation programs from 1899. So far, they've conducted about 20 interviews which, says Ms. Malik, is her favourite part.

They've visited a nursing home to interview long-time SJHS teacher Gladys Bell, who told them how she always got her way when her girls' teams wanted to use the gym, and interviewed many teachers about the idiosyncrasies of former principal Dennis Knibb.

Important Dates
March 5, 1805 - The New Brunswick Legislature passed "An Act for encouraging and extending literature in the province" that led to the creation of The Saint John Grammar School.

March 19, 1805 - Common Council granted ?100 toward the creation of a school building on Germain Street on land purchased from Thomas Horsfield.

1871 - The Commons Schools Act led to the Grammar School coming under the supervision of the School Board and the creation of the Girls' High School.

1874 - Closing exercises of the Grammar School and the Girls' High School have become a joint venture.

June 20, 1877 - Great Saint John Fire destroys both schools.

1878 - New Victoria School for girls opens.

1897 - New high school built on Union Street for boys and girls and alumni association established.

1903 - Original school colours of brown and blue changed to red and grey.

1932- New facility opens in 1932 with more than 1,100 students and school motto "Vita Vitalis A Life Worth While" adopted.

1966 - New wing adds science labs, a double gymnasium and swimming pool.

1986 - Upgrades include computer labs and an enlarged modern library
The students' findings are passed on to former teachers of the school, husband and wife duo Richard and Sandra Thorne, who decide what to include in the book and how to present it.

The book's 10 chapters include an edited version of an alumnae history published in 1913, a narrative history of key changes and events over the last 100 years, principals and academic life, teachers, student organizations, cultural life, sporting life, support systems, key events of the 20th century and stories and anecdotes.

The four young researchers have been regaled with tales told by former teachers about their colleagues. That's the fun part, the four agree. Running microfilm of newspapers in search of tidbits can be tedious.

"Old English teachers tell the best stories," said Mr. Estabrooks.

There's Bob Edwards, who was well-known for teaching class while smoking a cigar, and of Norman Pope, who once got pinned to the blackboard by his desk.

It seems one day a colleague of Mr. Edwards entered his class and was impressed at how quiet and attentive his students were. He was later told by one of them that they were merely waiting intently for the ashes to fall from their teacher's cigar.

Another time, Mr. Pope's students moved his desk an inch or so every time he turned his back until, by the end of class, he was pushed up against his blackboard.

Andrew Garrod, who directed three drama productions each year, was famous for carting around unmarked papers in a suitcase and often, months after his students graduated, would mail their Grade 12 essays to the universities they were attending.

But it is Mr. Knibb who, at 27 years' service, is the school's longest-serving principal to date and has inspired the most stories. He was the guy who used to walk a Grand Bay-to-Saint John marathon each year dressed in a suit and tie. And it was Mr. Knibb who, during the infamous Ground Hog Gale of 1977, chased a truck from SJHS to King Street picking up the sheets of paper that were blowing off its load.

He once broke his arm when he fell off a chair as he habitually synchronized clocks throughout the school and did bus duty daily to allow his teachers to devote themselves to extra-curricular activities. He even memorized students' faces so he could greet each one by name as they got off the bus.

Mr. Thorne is thrilled with the stories the four researchers have discovered after being given only general guidance when they started. They have toiled away, unsupervised, since then.

"They're working at an excellent pace. It's a question of our having enough time to reflect on the material and on digesting what they've unearthed," said Mr. Thorne.

The students have been given 10 weeks to complete the project. Mr. Thorne hopes to have the book published by the end of the year.

Other events planned to mark the school's bicentennial include an ecumenical church service in March and a Grand Reunion Dinner on July 24.