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Alumni unpack history, share student stories across generations at Oak Bay High

Space under social staircase dedicated to highlighting the school history

Giggles emanate from a small room tucked under a grand set of stairs at Oak Bay High. The laughter gives no hints to the decade that spans the ages of the women working there. They represent graduating classes between 1958 to and ‘68 and love to share stories as they unearth history for the Oak Bay Alumni Association archives project.

When Oak Bay High was packed up to be torn down, all its archival materials were tucked safely away in boxes, bins and file cabinets.

Construction of the provincially-funded $51.6 million Oak Bay High began on July 5, 2013. The new school opened its doors to the first cohort of students on Sept. 8, 2015 – 100 years after the first high school in the community opened where municipal hall now stands.

The historic materials remained packed away in storage – they call it the vault – beneath the theatre stairs. In the old school, a full-size classroom showcased the items, but the new school didn’t have a purpose-built location.

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Principal Tom Aerts realized the space below the social staircase held promise. The staircase, located roughly in the centre of the building, offers wide steps ideal for sitting and hanging out with friends. The wood used to build the seating steps are milled from a tree that once stood outside the old school. The concrete corner underneath previously housed vending machines and was basically unused.

The school district determined it would cost $20,000 to enclose the space and the alumni organization quickly raised the funds. The glass walls and double doors went up in summer 2021 and a team of alumni started tackling items stored in the vault.

“We had no idea what was here, but we knew there a lot of great stuff,” Bronwyn Taylor said. She tagged the expertise of fellow alumna Jean Sparks, the District of Oak Bay’s original, and longtime archivist.

A half dozen people – give-or-take and not all women – meet twice a week to unpack and document, working through decades of memories and sharing a few of their own. Reliving good times and sharing stories, they work to a backdrop of young people making music in the band and choir rooms down the hall.

They’ll document and store everything to the standards set by the Archives Association of B.C. Organization is key. Many of the items were packed away without documentation.

The volunteers are learning all about assigning accession numbers to donations. For example, a bundle of items donated by a 1995 graduate are the second for this year, 2022-2.

“My goal is we get it digitized. There’s no point in having paper-based records anymore” Sparks said.

The alumni association also hopes to find someone to create a website, affording access to the information.

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Every item holds a human story. For example the trio of keeper trophies earned by James (Jim) Kinghorn in 1937, ’38 and ’39. After he died in 2014, his daughter sent the cups back, with a brief letter about the man’s life.

“It’s about the people,” Sparks said.

With waves of illness and safety of students and volunteers foremost on minds, the team really started in earnest the last couple months. The plan is to create rotating displays to highlight a class hosting a reunion, special holidays or other events.

Email attn: Bronwyn Taylor to volunteer to help with the project.

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

I'm dedicated to serving the community of Oak Bay as a senior journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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