By Glen Herbert
“It was minimum security,” says Grant Wilson ‘72, “they weren’t murderers. It was just white-collar crime.” Wilson is talking about how, when he was a student at RLC in the early 1970s, they played baseball and soccer games at the Beaver Creek Penitentiary in Gravenhurst. It was the first years of the school, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for extramural sports. So, R. H. Perry took them to Beaver Creek to play against, yup, actual inmates.
It seems too good a story to be true, but it is. We were speaking at the 50-year reunion, and others around the table remember that, too. They pipe in with details. John Shelly ‘69 says that, really, it’s a sign of how progressive Perry was, though he doesn’t specify why he thinks that. Maybe because of the joy that it must have brought to the inmates, something so gracious and giving, so different from the day to day of incarceration. Just a bus of students arriving to toss a ball around. “We didn’t care who won,” says John East ‘71, “it was just so fun.” No doubt the inmates thought that, too.
Wilson recalled those games after someone suggested that they go around the table sharing memories, thoughts, anything that comes to mind. There’s talk of the fires of course. Some were arson, we know that, but the feeling in the room is that the estate—they call it “Main”—was a victim of outdated wiring. There’s also talk of the board the meeting in Toronto convened to close the school. Most of them had attended, there to make the case with the parents that the school had to remain open. “We just don’t know how to quit,” says Morris. Which could sound sarcastic, but when he says it, it doesn’t sound that way at all. He says it with pride, almost as if it could be a school motto. Quitting isn't in our nature.
The Old Boys were on campus to attend the Closing Ceremony and then stay on for a cruise on the lake—Kim Morton ‘88 had chartered the Peerless II—and a dinner. Some have visited many times over the years, though others haven’t. Jim Wallace ’70 was back on campus for the first time since he graduated. There were two sons of the founders, Bill Morris ’73 and John East ’71. A few of them were staying that night in the Bricks, though it wasn’t called that when they were residents there. It looked different, too, three buildings instead of one.
There’s also the school’s first valedictorian, John Shelly ’69, and he introduced this year's valedictorian at Closing. As we were waiting for the ceremony to start that morning, I asked him what his speech was about, now more than half a century ago. He says “the coureur de bois” though is hazy on the details. Yet, unbeknownst to us, Kim had found a framed copy of the speech in the archives, and we came across it just before dinner, set on a table with other photos, books, copies of the “Gazebo Gazette.” It began, “Your Honour, Mr Chairman, Mr. Perry, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is indeed a great privilege to give the first valedictory address at Rosseau Lake School.”
The mention of the coureur de bois was in reference to the school year they had just completed. “Like the coureur de bois struggling in this vast country, we too have had to face certain hardships weighing heavily on our frames.” Which was maybe pouring it on a bit thick, but, then again, maybe not. I watch as John bends to read it and then take out his phone to take a photo. “My grandkids will never believe this,” he says.
During the dinner it’s the high jinx that they talk about most, at least at first. Like how Wilson drove over a student’s foot with a snowmobile, requiring a run to the hospital. “Well, it’s just one of those stupid things you do as a teenager,” he says. Snowmobiles become a bit of a theme. John East talks about how he stashed one in the woods. He’d take it out in the night on the sly, just to get out in the world on his own. It’s an impulse that apparently is undimmed—he arrived at the reunion by float plane, solo. After dinner, he took off, on his own, circling the campus and dipping a wing as he went.
All but inevitably, there’s also talk of girls. John Gehrke remembers taking “the most beautiful girl in Mactier” to the prom, which understandably gets a laugh. R. H. Perry gets lots of mention, too. At one point during the dinner John Shelly turns to me and gestures around the table, noting all the mustaches. There’s easily far more than you’d expect to see in a random sampling. “That’s because of Perry,” he says. Perry had one, and they wanted to be like him, with mustaches too. And here they are, still wearing them.
“My parents set up this interview with a guy called R H Perry for a 10 o’clock meeting on a Thursday,” says Shelly. “I went into Perry’s office with my parents and he asked them very nicely if they would kindly leave. So, I had the interview and we talked about life. And he listened. He said very few words but he did say, ‘would you like to come here?’ and I said ‘yes I would.’” Because he listened.
Shelly ended that first valedictory speech by saying “Rosseau Lake School is still in its infancy, but already it is helping to produce young men who, when they leave, will have fond memories of the school and will, we trust, become leaders and responsible citizens.” Looking around the table, you can see that they did. Wilson went on to become president of the Canadian Children’s Rights Council. Jim Wallace became a blacksmith, and his commissions include the gates to the University of Guelph Visitor’s Centre, the portico gates at Osgoode Hall, and a railing for the Canadian Film Centre that depicts Eadweard Muybridge’s film “The Horse in Motion.” Greg Roy '73 has made a life as a tour director, helping others experience the breadth and diversity of our world. (At one point he comments that, while at school, he wondered why they had to study history. Becoming a tour director, he says, answered the question.) And on it goes. They’ve all been successful, yet successful in different ways.
With dessert the conversation becomes more thoughtful. “Going skiing in the middle of the week was great,” says Jeff Mitchell ’72. “Every night that I went to dinner, it snowed, and I thought how wonderful it was. You didn't get to do that in the city.” Certainly, it didn’t snow every night, and he’d admit that too, but it reminds me of the boy in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales saying that "December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers.” It’s mostly true, and in any case, that’s the image he keeps in his mind’s eye for whenever he needs it. “It was just great,” he says.
“When I was at Ridley, it was real old school, with such structure. I really wasn’t a structure guy. And being here was just phenomenal for me. It allowed me to really express myself, to be myself, to embrace what nature had, and to embrace what Muskoka had. Our family had a long history with Muskoka dating back to the early 1930s, so to me it was just great. I was at home. I was at peace.” He says that at Ridley he felt lost in the crowd. “Here I felt like I was really part of it. It was such a diverse group of people, but we all had our own story. And that’s what makes such a great collage of what the school was about. That we all have our own stories … to me that’s what Rosseau is all about.”
He admits that it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, but while there were some challenging times, there were an awful lot of great times, too. “One of my favourites was going down Morgan Bay in the Albacore with the sails butterfly and just flying with the wind and just at ease, you know, at peace with myself and at peace with the world.”
“Fortunately for all of us, we were able to see the Main house,” says Wallace, to nods all around. But it’s more than that. Beautiful as it was, the building is a symbol of something larger. They feel fortunate for sharing a slice of time, a particular way of being together. “It was everybody going for runs together,” says John Shelly. “It was everyone participating as a team. It was just a bunch of active kids having a lot of fun.” It was, and they still are.