VIU’s oldest living alumus revisits his roots

Site where Art Baker took an automotive course and where VIU began designated as an historic site

Art Baker

Art Baker

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.”

Just Posted

Retailers say they’re ready for the ban on single-use plastic checkout bags in Nanaimo when it takes effect July 1. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Retailers report they’re ready for Nanaimo’s single-use checkout bag ban

Business operators say there’s been plenty of time to plan and prepare for bylaw that kicks in July 1

Nanaimo Fire Rescue crews on scene at a boat fire near the boat ramp at Long Lake on Sunday, June 20. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Boat burns up on Nanaimo’s Long Lake, man and child unhurt

Jet skiers attempt to put out fire by circling around to spray water on burning boat

Nanaimo Track and Field Club athletes are off to a fast start this season after no competition last season due to the pandemic. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo athletes back on track, starting with club competitions

Nanaimo Track and Field Club registration filled up

A conceptual rendering of a commercial plaza at 1130 Rocky Creek Road. (Town of Ladysmith image)
Commercial plaza in north end of Ladysmith passes public hearing

Councillors debate proposed land use at 1130 Rocky Creek Rd.

The Nanaimo sign at Maffeo Sutton Park could be hazardous for children, says letter writer. (News Bulletin file photo)
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Nanaimo sign will cause falls

Children can’t resist climbing on sign, says letter writer

Nanaimo Fire Rescue crews on scene at a boat fire near the boat ramp at Long Lake on Sunday, June 20. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
Boat burns up on Nanaimo’s Long Lake, man and child unhurt

Jet skiers attempt to put out fire by circling around to spray water on burning boat

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

Robin Dutton, left, and Peter Sinclair are taking their mountain bikes and travelling down trails in the Mount Benson area June 19 as part of a 24-hour fundraiser benefiting Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Full-day mountain bike fundraiser gives financial support for Nanaimo food bank

Event part of Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank’s Food 4 Summer campaign

A Lotto 6/49 ticket purchased in Parksville for the June 19, 2021 draw is a $3M winner. (Submitted photo)
Winning Lotto 6/49 ticket worth $3M purchased on Vancouver Island

Lottery prize winners have 52 weeks to claim jackpot

(V.I. Trail/Google Maps)
Now 90% complete, Vancouver Island trail forges new funding partnership

Victoria Foundation takes on Vancouver Island Trail Association; fund valued at $40,000

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Most Read