A golden class reunion

Earlier this month, the emails began arriving in rapid-fire sequence: my old high school classmates from Leamington (Ontario) District Secondary School were gearing up for a 50-year reunion, to be held the weekend of Oct. 14-16. The subject of discussion within the latest flurry of missives: the pop music of our high-school years.

This much is indisputable: If you were a teenager in Essex County during the late 1960s, there was only one radio station that mattered: CKLW, the Big 8. And when I say it mattered, I mean that it mattered to more than just its teen listeners. CKLW, based in Windsor, was a giant influence in driving the pop music trends of the era. At 50,000 watts, it could be heard from Chicago to the outskirts of New York. And thanks to the “golden ear” of the late Leamington-born music director Rosalie Trombley, the Windsor station became a trendsetter, not only among Canadian listeners but deep into the United States. Trombley, in fact, had a huge role in popularising the Detroit sound that became known as Motown.

CKLW was a mainstay for me too, though by Grade 13 I’d set aside my transistor radio in favour of a record collection of my own — an eclectic mix of artists: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert — even the comedian Allan Sherman. The music of Woodstock, held in upstate New York just two years earlier, was still reverberating through pop culture too.

I have five distinct “musical” memories of that Grade 13 year.

  • The way German teacher Ernie Purr wove German folk songs into his curriculum. If we finished our lesson before the end of his period, he’d often lead us in song. Du, Du, Liegst Mir im Herzen, Lili Marlene, Der frölicher Wanderer, etc. All part of German culture. which Purr celebrated with gusto. If he’d had a beer stein handy, he would have raised it with a hearty “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!”
  • An intense conversation, between English II and biology classes, with Karen Otton (now Karen Brown) about Joni Mitchell. Karen had recently purchased Joni Mitchell’s album Blue (vinyl, of course) and she raved about it. We speculated that Mitchell was likely bound for a next-level popularity and fame that transcended the niche Canadian folk scene.
  • At some point during the school year — can’t remember when — the Festival Singers of Canada dropped in for a concert in the school’s gymnasium, under the direction of it founder, Elmer Iseler. The 36-voice choir had recently returned from a triumphant European tour and would return to the continent again later that year. As one who’d been part of several choral groups, including the senior choir at the Mennonite high school I’d attended earlier, I was blown away by the Festival Singers’ range, power and precision.
  • As the end of the school year neared, a group of students from across all five grades prepared for a series of performances of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, directed by English teacher Ronald Dumouchelle. The show had premiered off-Broadway only five years earlier; critical acclaim there had already spun off a show in London’s West End. I was especially interested because Jacquelyn Brown, one of my classmates, was the piano accompanist. She and I would begin dating in summer of 1972, days after the school year ended.
  • Finally, with only weeks remaining in the school year, biology teacher Hugh Cobbledick offered up an unexpected gift and honour. He bequeathed, to a handful of us, a half-dozen or so copies of a barbershop music songbook. He’d had them for many years and, I suppose, figured it was time to pass them along. Published by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), the spiral-bound volumes contained dozens of tunes. The songbooks were put to good use as those of us who were beneficiaries fanned out to various post-secondary schools. Cobbledick led the LDSS glee club and sang in the choir of the United Church of Canada congregation in Leamington for many years. Earlier in his career, he led the choir at First Baptist Church.

Many memories of that Grade 13 year are contained in the student yearbook, the Phoebus. I’ve referred to my copy countless times and re-read the inscriptions there from 13 of my friends. Interesting fact: the Phoebus began publication in 1933; before that, the student publication was called The Moon. The Phoebus’s first editor was Albert Law, who became a prominent merchant of men’s clothing in town. His spouse, Helen (Clarke) Law, founded the Leamington Choral Society.

Author: Cornies

I'm a columnist and writer with continuing interests in arts journalism, Canadian politics and culture, and journalism ethics. I teach occasionally at Western University in London, Ontario. Past lives include coordinating the journalism program at Conestoga College, teaching at Ryerson University's School of Journalism, editing A-section news pages at The Globe and Mail, and various roles at The London Free Press, including arts and entertainment editor and editorial page editor.

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