Just over a month from now, the final bell will ring to mark the end of the 100th year of instruction at Penticton Secondary School.
To celebrate Pen High’s history, organizers have planned a three-day celebration for this weekend that will welcome alumni and the community to recognize the milestone.
The modern building at the centre of the celebration bears no resemblance to its earlier self, yet the heart of Pen High has apparently changed very little in a century.
It’s hard to imagine a humbler beginning for Pen High than the converted workshop that welcomed its first class 101 years ago.
The shop, rented from a local contractor, occupied the northeast corner of the intersection of Winnipeg Street and Westminster Avenue, now the Bank of Montreal parking lot.
Accounts vary, but the first class, on Sept. 5, 1911, numbered between 20 and 26 students. They shared textbooks and sat on benches made of long lengths of rough lumber.
The one-room school didn’t even have a blackboard, but it did, apparently, have soul.
“Our school room had none of the comforts of the modern school building, but it is not the splendor of the building that makes a school, but the character of the boys and girls who sit at its desks,” founding principal John Marr reportedly said.
That first class got to work with little fanfare.
“There was no opening ceremony,” Marr recalled, “we just met and started work.”
The school’s population grew to 32 students by the end of that year.
MOVING RIGHT ALONG
Pen High first pulled up stakes in 1913, when it took over the elementary school between Main Street and Fairview Road where the library-museum complex stands today.
The elementary students had been moved across the street to the new Ellis Building, leaving behind their four-room facility for the high-schoolers.
By the time the Shatford building opened next door to the Ellis in 1921, Pen High had grown to 69 students.
The student body kept growing until 1937, when the school’s third incarnation opened on the site that it occupies today. That building only lasted until 1949, however, when it was destroyed by fire.
During construction of the fourth Pen High, classes were conducted in the Anglican Church basement, portables, the Legion and the armoury. Students were finally brought back together again under one roof in 1953.
The school’s current chapter began in 2006, when demolition and reconstruction began on today’s Pen High, from which 300 students are expected to graduate next month. The $40 million rebuild was conducted in three phases and took three years to complete.
Since it moved to Eckhardt Avenue in 1937, Pen High, and the historic buildings that surround it, have anchored the city.
PILLAR OF THE COMMUNITY
In a physical sense, the site boasted the city’s biggest buildings on one of the highest — and highest profile — spots on the valley bottom, which is unusual, said Penticton Museum curator Peter Ord.
“In most western communities, for hundreds of years, that was always taken over by the church.”
What’s more, the brick buildings, made from locally sourced materials, were among just a handful of such structures in the community, said Ord, so they were “something quite distinct, quite prominent,”
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
Once Penticton hit its stride following the Second World War, Pen High became the city’s youth headquarters, which helps explain the strong sense of nostalgia it inspires.
“I think Penticton really is a youthful town,” Ord said. “It’s hard to believe now with all the retirees, but if you kind of see the imagery you get, particularly in the 1950s, it was a place where youth was celebrated through festivals, through sports, through arts and culture.
“And all that springs from Pen High,” he continued. “It’s kind of been the fountain that provides the youthfulness.”
Local historian David Snyder agrees, but says the school has lost some of its star power since it was rebuilt minus its auditorium.
The 750-seat venue had excellent acoustics and hosted countless drama productions, concerts, all-candidates forums and notable speakers.
“All of the community events took place in the auditorium,” Snyder said.
And all of that was lost when the auditorium was demolished in 2008, despite a legal challenge and considerable community opposition.
END OF AN ERA
“The whole destruction of old Pen High was a sad thing,” said Snyder. “ The community and the school were linked vitally; nobody’s been in the new school.”
The former English teacher has just published a book, Tales out of School, containing 15 months’ worth of newspaper columns that illustrate important people and events from the school’s past. He has also spent the past four years researching Pen High’s history, which he hopes to publish in book form later this year.
Snyder’s 33-year teaching career there ended with retirement in 2003. He considers the years 1974 to 1987, under the direction of principal Dave Shunter, to be the school’s golden age.
In that era, Snyder said, the school’s staff rivalled any in B.C., sports teams won pennants by the bunch and its drama students staged top-notch productions, like Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar.
After Shunter’s departure, the school saw two new principals in 21 years, before the reins were taken in 2008 by Bill Bidlake, whose own era is quickly coming to a close.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Bidlake’s career as an educator began as a student-teacher at Pen High in 1977, and will end when he retires as the boss there this summer.
“I don’t think you can go out in a better way. This 100th anniversary is not about me, but it’s lovely in the fact that you happen to be a part of it,” he said. “I think somehow the stars were lined up that way.”
Bidlake, along with architect and Pen High alumnus Cal Meiklejohn, are co-chairs of the event organizing committee.
It’s anyone’s guess how many of Pen High’s graduates, estimated to number around 20,000, will return for this weekend; the 75th anniversary in 1983 attracted 1,700. About 800 people have registered for this Friday night’s gala at Pen High, while all 600 tickets are gone for the Saturday night dance at the Lakeside Resort.
WHAT WOULD MARR THINK?
It’s doubtful John Marr could have foreseen how the Pen High he opened back in 1911 would grow and change and eventually occupy such an important place in the city’s lore.
And despite presiding over what is one of the most modern schools anywhere, Bidlake still agrees with his predecessor that it’s what’s inside that counts. He doubts, however, that Marr would comprehend what Pen High has become in a strictly physical sense.
“He wouldn’t understand why we’ve gone to that extreme,” Bidlake said. “I think it would knock his socks off.”
For more on Pen High’s celebration, visit www.Penhigh100.com.
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
FRIDAY, MAY 18
-Welcome reception with beverage and culinary tastings $20 (Pen High)
-Classroom of the decades display opens (Shatford)
-Cars of the decades opens (Pen High parking lot)
5:15 p.m. and 6:15 p.m.
-Guided tours of the school (Pen High front entrance)
-Great Canadian Improv (Pen High drama studio #122)
-Student and community talent showcase (Pen High)
– Historical films starting every 30 minutes (Pen High media arts room #133)
-Visual arts display and pottery sale (Pen High)
9 p.m. – 11 p.m.
-Reception and festivities continue (Pen High)
SATURDAY, MAY 19
-Late registration (Shatford)
10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
-Open house and tours (Shatford and Pen High)
-Classroom of the Decades and Teens over Time displays continue (Shatford)
-Pen High 100 group photo (Ellis)
-Celebrate the teachers (Pen High)
-Teams and clubs reunions (Pen High multi-purpose room)
-Peach royalty tea for past queens and princesses $10 (Shatford)
-Reach For The Top game show revival for teams of four (Pen High multi-purpose room)
– Rock of Ages dinner and dance with live music SOLD OUT (Lakeside Resort)
SUNDAY, MAY 20
-Pen High 100 breakfast by the Kinsmen, proceeds to charity $10 (Pen High)
9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
-Mini-reunions, displays and home rooms open (Shatford)
-Field hockey tournament for past and present players, equipment provided (KVR field)
10 a.m. – 12 p.m.
-Lakettes girls’ basketball reunion with Len Cox (Pen High multi-purpose room)
10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
-Drop-in volleyball and basketball (Pen High gym)
1 p.m. Alumni golf tournament $60 for non-members, $10 for members (PGCC)
7 p.m. Golf tournament dinner, food and drinks extra (PGCC)
Meadowlark Festival (www.meadowlarkfestival.bc.ca or details)
Peach City Radio broadcasting at 94.5 FM
All events are free, except those where a ticket price is indicated. For more information email email@example.com, visit www.penhigh100.com or phone 250-770-7668.