Vancouver Island University’s oldest living alumnus returned to the site last week where he studied auto mechanics as a teenager at Nanaimo’s first vocational training school in 1938.
Art Baker, now 91, enrolled in Jack Macready’s automotive program, located at the corner of Machleary and Campbell streets, when he was just 17 as a way of securing employment in a time when jobs were scarce.
Vancouver Island University representatives, city officials and a handful of students from VIU’s current automotive program designated the location, now part of the Sid Clarke Gyro Park, as a historic site with the unveiling of an engraved six-tonne granite rock donated by LaFarge Canada.
Baker said he enrolled in Macready’s program because, like many other youth of this time, he was searching for a better future.
“Things were tough,” said Baker of the Great Depression. “There were no jobs, except in the woods but that wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My dad told me to sign up for the automotive program, so I did.”
It paid dividends. Near the end of the program, a local businessman visited the school to recruit new employees. Baker was one of the first students to get a job at a local Dodge dealership before enlisting in the air force in 1941.
Baker’s wife, Winona, is also a VIU alumnus. A respected writer, she completed several English and creative writing courses while raising the couple’s four children. They still live just a few blocks from the historical site.
To open the school, which expanded from a one-room shed and became known as the Dominion Provincial Youth Training centre, Macready relied heavily on provincial and federal funding.
Because of the school’s success, that funding kept coming, sowing the seeds for what later became the B.C. Vocational Training School in 1959 and eventually Malaspina College, which was located at the old hospital site on Kennedy Street. The college moved to Fifth Street in 1976 and was renamed Malaspina University-College in 1989. In 2008 it became Vancouver Island University.
VIU president Ralph Nilson said that without early success the school, which currently has about 18,000 students enrolled, wouldn’t be where it is today.
“We are proud of the university’s heritage,” said Nilson. “As we stand at this historic location, we recognize our roots and pay tribute to the individuals, businesses and community partners who have shaped VIU.”
Nilson also couldn’t resist a little levity.
“And we’re also grateful that first class was a smart class,” he said. “I think if everyone flunked out we probably wouldn’t be standing here today, the funding would have stopped a long time ago.”
When Baker attended the school, it had just 47 students.
The granite rock symbolizes the university’s strong roots, and the partnerships between government, business and educational institutions, said Don Renwick of LaFarge Canada.
Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan noted that both Nanaimo and VIU have come a long way since the university’s origins.
“Mr. Baker tells me that the entire population of Nanaimo back in 1938 was about 5,000, certainly no more than that, so it’s amazing that VIU alone now has an enrolment of 18,000,” said Ruttan. “We value the strong relationship that has existed between the city and VIU as it evolved from its early days in trades training to become a full-fledged university.”