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Headline: Claim to fame in a name
Date: January 28, 2005
Reporter: Jennifer Feinberg
His beloved students called him ‘Mr. G’ more than 50 years ago.
Now a new school is going to be named after him.
George ‘Wilf’ Graham, 97, says he’s surprised and a bit curious about who submitted his name to the school board.
“No one told me they were going to do this. But it’s very nice of them. It’s an honour,” the spry retiree tells The Progress during an afternoon visit to his suite at the Birchwood. “It’s the last thing in the world I would have thought of.”
The new combined school is going to be called G.W. Graham Middle Secondary, following a unanimous school board vote Tuesday night.
The selection was one of several considered by a naming committee of the board.
In the rationale summary explaining the decision, Mr. Graham is described as a “loving, noble and respectable” principal, who was “firm, fair and respected.”
One nominator said he “exemplified all that was good and correct in a teacher.”
His integrity, dedication and popularity were mentioned repeatedly, and he’s known as an accomplished athlete who played triple-A basketball in his mid-40s.
“I wasn’t a great academic, but I loved the people.
“The kids all knew me and I knew them.
“I think that’s why I was kind of successful in the field of education,” he adds in a conspiratorial whisper.
The “kind of” is a bit of an understatement.
His illustrious career spanned more than half a century, as a teacher of several subjects including math and phys-ed. He’s been a vice-principal, principal, and inspector for the provincial education department.
“I started teaching at Atchelitz School in 1925,” he says, easily listing his many positions through the decades, ranging from teaching to administrative roles.
He made his mark on students at Robertson elementary, at Sardis High School, at Chilliwack Junior/Senior, being going on to work for the province. He was an inspector of schools whose territory stretched from Prince Rupert to Namu and beyond. He was promoted to assistant superintendent for the province, and then became superintendent.
“My last job was temporary superintendent of schools for Chilliwack in the summer of 1977,” he says. “It is kind of odd that I started my entire career in Chilliwack and ended there on temporary assignment more than 50 years later.”
Mr. Graham was born in the mining town of Greenwood, B.C. in 1907, and moved to Chilliwack with his family as a toddler in 1909. He grew up and went to Chilliwack High School, which was only a four-room schoolhouse at the time.
He graduated at 16 and would later become a teacher and principal in the very school he attended as a boy.
He loved every minute of it, to hear him tell of it.
“I had 25 years of very happy school relations,” he remembers.
“I never had a highlight, every day was a highlight,” says Mr. Graham. “Maybe I wasn’t too orthodox a teacher. But I enjoyed working with all the kids. And they enjoyed me, too.”
His memory for detail is almost crystal clear.
He remembers students’ names and fun projects he completed, right down to what people said. He relishes a little storytelling but won’t let the reporter tell the really good parts.
Mr. Graham relates how he dug ditches, spread gravel and worked at other manual labour jobs to pay for summer school courses to get his teaching degree from UBC.
“It was pick-and-shovel work, good exercise for a young boy,” he says. “I’m a persistent son-of-a-gun.”
It took 11 years of hard slogging. He’d work the year through, then study each summer.
One of the locals who was in his corner for the school name wrote in their submission he put in “a lifetime dedicated to education and is still alive to tell about it…”
Mr. Graham laughs when he hears what some of the nominators wrote to the school board on his behalf. He has a colourful personality and warns that everyone should take any tales circulated about him with “a big grain of salt.”
Ask him what he’s enjoying in retirement and his answer is both clever and funny: “I’m living aren’t I?”
His bright apartment is small, but very tidy. There are cherished mementos in the form of art and curios. A stationary bike faces a window for a good view.
“Things don’t affect you if you just take them as they come along.
“I was very dedicated to the kids I taught. They were a good bunch. Some learned a lot and went on to good jobs. All the kids weren’t duds,” he says with a mischievous grin.
He’s clearly proud that some of his students went on to become judges and high-profile academics.
“But every kid was a pleasure to know, good, bad or indifferent,” he says.