When I read the call to suggest names for new schools in the Thames Valley district one name came immediately to mind. For a number of years a four-room public school was located on the hill around the corner from the historical cemetery. It was closed years ago. It was called the Elliott Fairbairn Public School.
When I began to plan this column I opened Matt Scholtz' new book to refresh my memory. To my astonishment neither the man nor the school is mentioned. I opened Matt's earlier book and found the same absence of information.
Now let's start at the beginning of my association with Elliott Fairbairn.
In 1957 I was teaching in the Straffordville Public School. It was my sixth year in the profession and a number of changes caused much consternation in the minds of the teaching staff and the local school board. The trustees found when they went about setting salaries in the old way, meeting each teacher privately and not being completely honest in presenting the facts, no one would discuss the question. The teachers had called in two unions, one for the women and one for the men, to do the negotiating for us.
My situation was complicated by the question of whether to stay in the profession or to enter training for the ministry of the United Church of Canada. The question was not decided until the month of June. In April the trustees moved to dismiss me. When I drew their attention to the law, they could not force me to answer before the end of May, one man indignantly announced, "We might as well be in Russia."
I opted to stay in teaching.
A Grade 7 class was opened when the teacher accepted a job in another area. I was told it would be my class in the new year. I had been teaching Grades 4, 5 and 6 and welcomed the promotion.
One fine June day the principal came to tell me another teacher had requested the senior class as the deciding factor for her accepting the job.
The boss handed me an ad torn from The Tillsonburg News and advised me to investigate the matter.
I went to Rolph Street Public School and met Elliott Fairbairn in his office. The supervising principal of the three public schools in town was a towering figure with a grey eminence. After questioning me for some time he told me he was waiting for a phone call from a man in another school area, but as far as he was concerned I had the job. There was one further matter to confirm his decision. I was to talk with the chairman of the school board. If he agreed, I'd be in. He did, and my life changed. I served as vice principal of Tillson Avenue Public School for nine years.
An aside: one day the teacher who bumped me in Straffordville told me she never asked for the
Grade 7 appointment. That opened my eyes!
At the end of the first year I was alarmed to be asked to sign a new contract. When I consulted him, Mr. Fairbairn assured me there was no problem. He told me to read the contract I'd signed at the beginning of the year. It was for one year. Always read the fine print.
In time I was trusted to have student teachers from London Normal School practice on my students. At the end of that year the sub-principal announced I would have no student teachers for the following year. It was a slap in the face and a lower figure on my pay cheque.
Mr. Fairbairn appeared one afternoon with a stranger. They sat in the back of the room to observe my performance. After the class was dismissed and the stranger had left, Mr. Fairbairn quietly told me I'd be having students again.
Beyond teaching, Mr. Fairbairn was active in community affairs. To his peers he was called Jake, and generally what Jake supported carried the day.
How can we let a man of that stature evaporate in the mists of time?
NOTE: The deadline for name submissions is Friday, Jan. 16 at 4 p.m.