A central Alberta school that’s survived a cyclone, fire, measles and polio epidemics is celebrating 100 years of learning with a reunion of staff and students going back to the 1930s.
Dozens of alumni gathered in the gym of Ecole Rocky Elementary on Friday to pay tribute to their school and reminisce with old classmates and teachers.
“I have nothing but good memories here,” said the oldest alumnus at the celebration, 91-year-old Helen Zander, who started Grade one in 1938.
“I remember every teacher and every friend I made here that I was still friends with for years after,” Zander added.
Notable students who learned at the facility over the years were remembered, including former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, former Alberta lieutenant general Helen Hunley, Rocky MLA Ty Lund, and electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack, who once appeared on Johnny Carson’s show.
Tim Bowman, the current and 19th principal, said many changes happened over the years, including to the building itself.
The modern exterior looks much different than the original Confluence School, which was built on the same site in 1921 and torn down in 2005.
But the school maintains its place as a community hub. “We’ve always had Christmas concerts here, teachers built the first hockey rink, there were dances, meetings, and a library — as well as literary club and drama club,” he added.
Back in 1918, Rocky Mountain House only had a one-room schoolhouse but was quickly growing with young families moving to the former fur trading fort. Although community leaders had initially balked at forking out money for bigger school building at the end of the First World War, the need was soon unavoidable, said Bowman.
When the Confluence School was constructed it was built to last: The structure survived a 1927 cyclone that broke large trees on the school grounds.
Bowman said two years before, in 1925, a local women’s group had to fundraise to buy a school bell that cost $140 and weighed 740 pounds. “Nobody can find this bell. Perhaps it was caught up in the cyclone,” he joked.
His historic slide show recounted how the pre-vaccination 1930s and ’40s were marked by measles and polio outbreaks in classrooms across Canada, including at the Rocky school.
A fire in 1940 destroyed 300 school desks. And by 1943, all male teachers had left to join the Second World War effort.
With the post-war baby boom, the school was drastically expanded in 1949, and then again in 1956. It became a true elementary after a separate high school was built in 1962.
During all those decades, student life thrived. Students were treated to field trips to the fairgrounds and as far as Crimson Lake. Bowman recounted how the school developed an acclaimed music program — the boys’ band played for the Royal visit to Calgary in 1939.
Gail Stewart, 68, who started Grade One at the school from 1959, recalled canoe races were held on the river to celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967.
Her mother, Dorothy Williams, 89, was also a student at the school from 1944.
Many other families in Rocky Mountain House have multi-generational connections to the school, including Mona Medin, a former student who is now an Indigenous storyteller. She said three generations of her family members attended classes on the site. “I have happy memories…”
Rocky Mayor Debbie Baich, was a student there in the 1970s. “One of my most vivid memories is in music class, singing Love is Like a Butterfly — to a record!” Baich said.
Another reminder of change came when school officials opened a time capsule from 1989 that included a six-foot scroll of a “letter.” Former principal Bill Snyder quipped, “Kids, this is what paper coming out of printer looked like in 1989.”
Bowman noted the school’s focus on teaching students respectful behavior. Sister Margie, a nun, who came to the school as a councillor in the 1980s, taught “peace education” with mantras that include “hands are for helping, not hurting.”
Current Grade 5 student Layla Mooney said she looks forward to coming to class because she enjoys learning about science and social studies, and likes the teachers. “They care and they help a lot.”