Keith McCallion retrieves a master key from his pocket, his breath quick from the four-storey climb towards Victoria High’s attic.
Beyond the door, a century of graffitied graduate names cover plywood and brick walls once used as a firing range for student cadets.
“The rite of passage is the grads get to come up here and sign their names,” says McCallion, a former Vic High principal and enthusiastic board member of its alumni association. “You can actually go and pick out bullets from the walls down at the far end of the room.”
Vic High’s 138-year history makes it the oldest public high school west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco, according to the school’s archivists.
Its expansive Fernwood building wasn’t completed until April 1914 after its previous three schools burned down, the multi-tonne steel support beams and tens of thousands of bricks exhaustively transported by horses, carts and pioneering builders.
Vic High’s students, teachers and thousands of alumni will officially celebrate the centennial of their enduring building next month, May 16 to 19.
The school’s centennial in 1976 attracted more than 10,000 people, while its 125th anniversary brought nearly 3,000 alumni back through the school halls, says Vic High principal Randi Falls.
“I think we honour their memory, and as a result, they honour us,” says Falls, who began her teaching career at the school in 1986 and returned four years ago to take the helm.
“I tease the kids sometimes, I talk about the spirits. … There’s just something about the building. People come back and it looks exactly the same.”
The school’s extensive archives were first organized in the run-up to Vic High’s 100th anniversary in 1976. Its catalogue now includes thousands of photographs, team jerseys, instruments and yearbooks to breathe new life into the past.
“There were things all over the school, in the basement and attic,” says Debbie Blackie, volunteer archivist and 1967 alumnus. “A teacher, Faith Reimer, was assigned to start pulling all those things together and that’s where the archives started.”
The school’s deep connection to the First and Second World Wars is a proud thread recognized by two plaques commemorating Vic High students who fought and lost their lives on the battlefield.
“Those memorials are something unique to a high school, I’ve never seen it anywhere else,” McCallion says.
Beyond the memorials is the school’s original auditorium, its 856 wooden seats still intact or refurbished thanks to $35,000 in donations from alumni.
Near the school’s east entrance, an immaculate steam heater – “It still functions,” says McCallion – glistens in a glass encasement after being restored by another alumnus.
Over the years, student population has ebbed and flowed from up to 1,200 in the 1960s (when the Fairy Technical building still existed on the school grounds) down to 600 in the early 1980s.
“We’re now at a very solid 800 or so, and for me, that’s OK. I get to know my learners and my staff,” Falls says.
The school’s visual and performing arts training has been a flourishing success since inception. Students in music, dance and drama regularly make international trips to showcase their talents at European and U.S. competitions.
Trades training is another strength of the school, which includes an auto body shop, metal fabrication, woodworking and even a hair salon to introduce students to hands-on training early.
“Nobody else has a spray booth for painting cars,” Falls says. “What we’ve said is, ‘how can we best serve our students to provide something comprehensive and rich,’ and that’s what happens at Vic High.”
Famous former students include Emily Carr, who left after Grade 11 to attend art school in San Francisco; B.C. premiers Byron Ingemar “Boss” Johnson and Simon Fraser Tolmie; and former federal environment minister David Anderson, to name a few.
The Vic High Alumni Association is organizing a fundraising dinner (May 15 at CFB Esquimalt’s wardroom) to celebrate the accomplishments of alumni. This year’s recipients include Jim Taylor, a well-known humourist and sports writer; Richard Hunt, acclaimed aboriginal artist and Order of Canada recipient; Jessica Monroe-Gonin, Olympic gold and silver medallist for rowing; and Maria Tippett, a leading Canadian cultural historian and author.
“We’re probably the most active high school alumni association in the country,” McCallion says. “”There’s just this affinity in the school where grads just love Victoria High School. I can’t explain it any other way.”
For more information, visit vichigh.sd61.bc.ca.