1972-73 St. Catharines high school alumni are now celebrating their 50-year anniversary. Though they no doubt have witnessed many changes in the last half century, these students also graduated at a time of great change and remarkable events in St. Catharines, Canada, and across the world.
The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, which had inspired youth activism, draft dodging, and counterculture movements across North America, came to an end in early 1973, eliminating a rallying cry of a generation. Political bombshells, however, kept dropping. The Watergate Scandal had been all over the news since mid-1972, with its biggest revelations and Nixon’s resignation still on the way. The U.S. Supreme Court delivered its decision on the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights case in January 1973, Canada having paved the way a few years earlier. North America was entering a modern skyscraper age. Chicago’s Sears Tower, New York’s World Trade Center, and Toronto’s CN Tower, three buildings that would all take turns holding the record for world’s tallest, were either started or completed in 1973. Finally, the Cold War had entered its “détente” period of reduced tensions, culminating in the United States and the USSR signing of the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War in June 1973.
St. Catharines itself was not without its excitement. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the city in June 1973. The couple were greeted by dignitaries and doting fans at the St. Catharines train station, going on by car to Niagara-on-the-Lake to enjoy a Shaw Festival production. Joining the skyscraper craze, construction was happening on three ultra modern office buildings in downtown St. Catharines: the Lincoln Trust House, the Corbloc, and the Taro Building. In the sports world, the 1972 Summit Series, the nail-biting, nation-building hockey tournament between Canada and the USSR, kicked off the school year and featured St. Catharines’ own Stan Mikita. A short trip down the QEW, the Hamilton Ti-Cats hosted and won the 60th Grey Cup in December 1972.
Yes, change, excitement, and opportunity were in the air in St. Catharines in 1972-73, and it must have been an interesting time and place to be entering adulthood. With this context in mind, I thought I’d have a flip through the 1972-73 Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School yearbook. What I found was… poetry. Lots of poetry. There were poems in the grad quotes, poems in a special Literary and Art section, and even poems handwritten into the autograph section. Maybe it was the doors they felt opening in front of them, or maybe it was a reflection of the artistic culture in St. Catharines at the time, but for whatever reason, these teenagers were feeling inspired to express themselves through word. Let’s have a look at what they had to say…
Kenneth Mackay wrote a poem for his grad message in which he seems resigned to the idea that he will lose touch with his high school friends. Perhaps with all the change he is witnessing around him, he feels that they will all move away to different cities, embark on different life adventures and grow apart as individuals. He, nonetheless, recognizes how important these people and this time and place have been in his life. Nothing can take away the role Kenneth’s high school years in St. Catharines have played in his story.
Like Kenneth, Elain Horne’s grad poem reflects on the importance of friendship to her journey. Unlike Kenneth, however, Elain seems fully inspired by the friendships she has made in St. Catharines. For Elain, it seems, this time of excitement, change, and uncertainty is when she needs to lean on her friends the most. It is unclear who Elain’s poem is directed to, but I hope the friendship lasted!
Unlike Kenneth and Elain, Kim Fair is unconcerned with how long her high school relationships will last. For her, it’s all about the journey. Kim knows the world is getting smaller and that life is constantly moving forward. She seems intent on being ready for whatever change comes next. She wants to fully experience everything life has to offer her, and to not be tempted to keep things safe. Kim’s poem beautifully reflects the optimism of the time and I can’t help but wonder where Kim’s great adventure took her.
Hope Dempsey, like Kim, is more focused on the opportunities life will bring her rather than being bogged down with the present. Hope introduces a touch of realism, however, recognizing that the journey may not be an easy one. She sees it as a series of steps to traverse. With any luck, however, the view from the summit was worth the climb!
Carol VanFleet must have been a known poet in her high school, as her piece entitled “People” was published in the Literary and Art section of her yearbook. Carol’s poem promotes the idea that normality is a matter of perspective; the differences between people’s mental or physical capabilities are nothing compared to what makes us the same. It’s a wise sentiment for a high school student but is in line with the climate of education reform in the 1970s. The Hall-Dennis Report of 1968 and similar calls for reform led to a re-evaluation of education approaches in Ontario to favour individual student needs. It was not until 1980, however, that schools became required to provide special education programs and services. I wonder whether Carol went on to work in education, or perhaps for a charitable organization.
George Pekrowski’s poem, “A Moonless Night in a Wood at Wintertime” was also published in the yearbook’s Literary and Art section. It is one of the only poems I came across that is not themed to the high school experience. George writes about the natural beauty of a wooded area in wintertime. I like to think that these words were inspired directly by some idyllic spot in St. Catharines. Maybe he jotted them down after a wintry walk through the Burgoyne Woods, just a stone’s throw from Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School. George’s writing skill is obvious, and I hope he found ways to continue to express himself with his pen throughout his life.
As a public historian, I spend a lot of time thinking about people. What makes people do, say, think, or dream about things at a given time and place? Poetry is a wonderful and fascinating thing, and a truly immeasurable resource to anyone studying human or cultural history. To be inspired enough by an event, a place, or an emotion to write about it in verse speaks volumes about who the writer was as a person. As we are all products of our surroundings, poetry also provides a window into a society’s cultural trends, dreams, and visions for the future.
I wonder what poems the 1973 grads of St. Catharines’ Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School would write today.
Sean Dineley is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre