Miss Kathleen McGeer Lord Selkirk Teacher Vancouver 1919 to 1927
By Charles Campbell
I remember the first time I walked into the playground. It was a hot, lazy late-August day. My wife and I had been school shopping, and we’d ended up in Lord Selkirk Elementary’s nascent French immersion program through the district-wide lottery, after failing to get a spot for our daughter in three other desirable neighbourhood schools. Yes, we did not choose Lord Selkirk.
Yet as I entered the school’s welcoming oasis, at the end of a wonderfully idiosyncratic two-block stretch of Commercial Street, I knew Selkirk would be okay. I didn’t realize quite how fantastically okay, or how much history I had walked into. Perhaps Lord Selkirk chose us.
I knew that in 1891 the Cedar Cottage stop on the New Westminster to Vancouver interurban line had made Commercial Street, which was then Cedar Cottage Drive, the first business hub in the diminishing East Vancouver forest. But I didn’t know about Timmie. My cousin Tom told me she had taught there. “I think it was 1917.”
Just before the school’s 100th anniversary last May, in a small room at the top of the stairs of the handsome brick building that bears the Selkirk name, I pored over old photos and records. And there it was, not 1917 but 1919 … then 1920, ’21, ’22, all the way to 1927. At first she was Miss K. McGeer, then once McGur, McGeer again, once Miss Prest, and then finally Mrs. Priest. She was born on April Fool’s Day in 1897, in the McGeer family home on 18th east of Main, so she would have been just 22 when she arrived.
What did she think of her class of as many as 40 pioneer ruffians? And what did they think of her, the eighth of 11 children born to James and Emily McGeer?
Not always kissable
Aunt Timmie certainly made a big impression on me. I remember being asked to give her a kiss once, in the foyer of my grandparents’ Point Grey home, these old people all staring down at me smiling, leering it seemed, and I pulled away and shouted “No!”
I remember, age seven, going to her pink row house on West 10th with my father to watch the moon landing. I remember the dinners, the smell of an old person’s home, the roasted, salted almonds in their little silver dishes above the dessert forks. I remember the fierce arguments at a table full of congenital Liberals over the revolutionary influence of young Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. I remember the green parlour chairs that came around the Horn in a ship from Manchester, where my great grandfather had worked as a young reporter for the Guardian. You weren’t allowed to lean back on them, and I thought that was ridiculous.
In time, I grew my hair long and fell out of her orbit, except for the big family occasions. But I never detected any judgment. Timmie could list in detail the great accomplishments of any nephew or great grandniece you could name. She loaned money to some that didn’t always require it, even though she had none herself. She took in brothers and sisters when they needed the help, no matter how disagreeable they might occasionally be. Timmie was an anchor for our family, and I am sure she was a rock for Lord Selkirk.
Salmon gaffed for mink
It’s not so easy, however, for me to conjure the Lord Selkirk she taught at. Our history in Vancouver is so short and the pace of change so quick that most of us have little sense of it. When Lord Selkirk was built, it wasn’t yet in Vancouver but in South Vancouver. Creeks ran through the stump farms where Moses Gibson’s cattle wandered.
When Timmie arrived, had the businesses that made Commercial Street thrive begun to migrate to the newer development on nearby Kingsway, or down toward the fancy homes east of Commercial Drive? Did shoeless boys still traverse the trail from the Cedar Cottage tram stop down to the boggy water at Trout Lake to swim in their birthday suits?
In 1919, were they still gaffing Gibson Creek salmon with pitchforks for the caged mink at 18th and Clark? Did the proprietor of the flatiron drugstore at Kingsway and Clark still go down at noon to catch trout in the creek, which ran through the pilings under the building, and fry one up for lunch?
And what of Commercial Street, now swapping its light industrial buildings for slick townhomes, erasing yet another layer of history? Did the Salvation Army band still play on Saturday afternoons in front of McKee Drygoods when Timmie taught at Selkirk? Were the stores still open until 9 pm on weekends, “just like downtown”? Did they still talk about the 1912 robbery at the (now beautifully restored) Bank of Hamilton, where a bullet grazed a woman’s shoulder before lodging in a butcher shop’s side of beef? Was there still an indoor roller coaster at the amusement hall? And how many candies could you buy for a penny?
I remember a few of Timmie’s stories about her East Vancouver childhood. James McGeer ran a dairy at 15th and Fraser, and his sons would on Sundays after church take a wagon to Richmond to buy milk. As a toddler, Timmie sometimes went with them. She recalled two brothers once getting so drunk they fell asleep in the wagon, but the horses knew the way home. Yet I have no stories about Selkirk, beyond Timmie’s disdain for teachers who believe they can’t properly teach many more than 20 kids when she could handle twice that number with authority.
Stories slowly slip away
I know she married a mining engineer and spent a few years in the northwestern B.C. with him at the Premier mine. Roy Priest died young. Was it silicosis or tuberculosis? Timmie had no children of her own. I wish I had asked her more about her past. Timmie’s resilience certainly gave me enough time for that.
When she broke her foot at 95, she defied her doctor’s prediction that she would never walk again. She played bridge until cataracts made her nearly blind, and she always knew where her sherry was. When my dad had a heart attack, I dropped by the West Van care home she entered in her late 90s to let her know. I told her that his wife would have to help him make some adjustments. “God help the woman who has to live with a man who has to make adjustments,” she declared.
I did once ask her a question about her brother Gerald. As mayor, Gerald Grattan McGeer built city hall in the midst of the Depression, and helped us celebrate the city’s 50th birthday in great style. He was an MLA, an MP, a Senator, a demagogue, a temperance advocate and alcoholic. In 1947, a year after being elected mayor a second time, he drank a bottle of his daughter’s Eau de Cologne at her bedside, and was found dead in his study the next morning. Nearly 50,000 people lined the streets for his funeral procession.
I learned about the manner of his death from his 1986 biography, Mayor Gerry, and asked Timmie if the account was true. She did not look at me, but set her face and said, “I don’t know why they had to put that in there.” She needn’t have worried. People barely remember who Gerald McGeer was, let alone the circumstances of his departure from the scene.
I remember Timmie’s dreamlike 100th birthday, where she held court laughing in the centre of a huge Point Grey arts-and-crafts living room. I visited her the day before she died, at 101, two years short of living in three centuries. She couldn’t speak, but I won’t forget her birdlike mouth, or the firmness of the hand that would not release mine when it was time for me to go.
I have a few photos of Timmie. I have the ring she wore when she died. When the time is right, I will give it to Calla. I have four parlour chairs, although on one the back is broken, because I neglected to mention the risk.
I remember Timmie well enough. Yet as Selkirk celebrated its 100th anniversary, as Vancouver celebrates its 125th, I wish we were all better at remembering our past. We don’t often acknowledge the shortness of time, or truly measure our place in it. Timmie helps me with that. And our children help us with that. They remind us how fleeting life is, and how precious. They remind us that the past shapes the future, and will do so again and again. I’m sure it was like that for Timmie at Lord Selkirk, as she left her own family for the community of a school.
We’re lucky that some things do not change.
Charles Campbell is a veteran Vancouver journalist and contributing editor at The Tyee website. Lucky to Live in Cedar Cottage, an excellent Lord Selkirk oral history project, is available through the school.
Lord Selkirk School Vancouver (circa 1910)