McConnell, Irene

(1912 - 1996)

Irene McConnell was born in Calgary on the first day of spring, March 21, 1912. She was the third of the four children of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) conductor James McConnell and his wife May.

When Irene was three years old her mother's sister Nell Tedford came for a visit. There was an immediate rapport between Irene and her childless aunt and when Nell, half-jokingly, suggested she take Irene home to Mortlach, Saskatchewan for a visit. The little girl piped up immediately that, yes, she very definitely wanted to go. So it was arranged that Irene would spend some time with Nell and her husband, Eber.

The "visit" eventually lasted for ten years as the Tedfords who owned a store, a lumberyard, and a farm, lavished affection on Irene and, possibly more importantly, bought her a team of Shetland ponies to drive!

But all dream vacations must come to an end and in her early teens Irene returned to Calgary to complete her high school education and go on to take a year of Normal School. Thus, at the age of 18, she became a qualified teacher.

It was 1930. The Depression loomed ominously ahead. Jobs were almost impossible to find-especially for young teachers fresh out of Normal School. But then a glimmer of hope. Some wilderness school district called Eidswold might be interested in hiring Irene.

By this time the Tedford's fortunes had undergone a drastic reversal. As kind-hearted Eber extended more and more credit to dried-out Saskatchewan farmers his own store business eventually failed. The Tedfords moved to Alberta where Eber worked in a lumberyard at Hartell. It was with the Tedfords in their old car that Irene set off to find Eidswold.

It was quite a journey. The school board had sent directions but some points were rather cryptic. Being instructed to cross the Dog Pound and the Fallen Timber (the word "creek" was not included) left them wondering about the dangers of stray canines and whether the car would be able to make in through all those downed trees.

At last they reached Eidswold. (The school was located 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) west and 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) south of the Bergen Store on land now owned by Olive Halvorson. It must have seemed like the end of the world at that time.

The log school was several years old and the chinking had fallen out from between some of the logs, literally letting the sun shine in—not to mention letting the icy winter winds whistle through. Books were scarce and ancient. Blackboards were literally that—boards painted black.

Accommodation for the teacher consisted of boarding half a mile away and sharing a bedroom with the couple's teenage daughter. Here, Irene would make her first acquaintance with the ubiquitous bedbug. This is not an aspersion on her landlady's housekeeping. Bedbugs were a fact of life in most of the houses in the district at that time.

In spite of all the drawbacks, Irene was grateful to accept the job. That fall she found herself in charge of a classroom full of children from grades one to nine. The oldest ones were only a year or two younger than she was.

It was a challenging year. Irene was dismayed by the abject poverty of many of the children. With bathing facilities minimal and water often carried from a creek or a spring, hygiene was not a priority in many families. She recalled a boy whose chapped hands were almost black with ground-in dirt—except for a clean white rim where milk washed his fingers when he milked the cows. Clothing was in such short supply that Irene's family in Calgary, not well-off themselves, collected outgrown items for her students.

Of course, being young and new made Irene a target for "testing" by some students. There was one boy in particular who was incorrigible. In fact, he even engaged his teacher in fisticuffs at one point. However, Irene's Irish name went along with a good Irish temper and she "cleaned his clock," resulting in a considerable improvement in behavior. Some forty years later he dropped in for a visit and had only good things to say about his long-ago teacher.

But despite the discomforts and hardships of the old school most of the children were eager learners and many of them went on to successful careers in various areas. Years later they looked back on the Eidswold days as a happy time in their lives. There were picnics and ball games and nature hikes, all made so much more enjoyable by the rarity of entertainment in the children's world .

Penmanship was one of Irene's specialties and her own handwriting was beautiful. Many students from those early years grew up to write with a style very similar to that of their teacher. She also loved literature, having received the highest grade in Calgary on her grade nine literature exam. She shared this love with her students and was able to make poetry come alive for them. In the last months of her life Irene could still recite a long excerpt from The Ancient Mariner or give a stirring rendition of The Owl and the Pussycat.

During Irene's years at Eidswold a disaster occurred. It was a cold winter morning and Irene was sick in bed. As soon as her landlord finished his morning chores he would go to the school and leave a note telling the children to go back home. As he worked around the yard he suddenly saw a terrifying sight. Flames were shooting from the school half a mile away. Had any children arrived there early and been trapped? There were a few minutes of utter terror for Irene while they rushed to the school to check. Fortunately, the building had been empty. The boy who did the janitor work had lit the fire in the stove and then gone home again. Somehow it had gone out of control. The school was destroyed but the children were safe.

For several months there was no school as the district men constructed a new building. This enforced holiday came back to haunt Irene many years later when, planning retirement, she was told she would have to teach a few extra months to make up for that shortfall in her service.

In her free time Irene enjoyed many adventures of pioneer life. She recalled trips to Sundre (about 12 miles (19.3 kilometres) away) with the team and wagon to deliver cream to the creamery. On one occasion in winter it was already dusk as she, along with her landlady's son and daughter, drove up the big hill south of 'Sundre with the young boy singing "Hold the fort for I am coming..." at the top of his voice to keep the bogeymen in the shadows at bay. Suddenly, one of the horses slipped on the icy road and fell, unable to regain its footing. The three resourceful young people managed to slide a blanket under the horse and finally it scrambled to its feet.

One of the best adventures involved going to pick up the mail. The nearest post office was at the Bergen Store but it had become a practice for the Halvorsons who lived a couple of miles closer to the store to pick up the mail for a number of Eidswold residents. When Irene went to the Halvorson's to get the mail she eventually got the "male" as well. She fell in love with Trygve, the Halvorson's oldest son.

They courted for several years, too poor to marry. Trygve's father had been incapacitated with rheumatoid arthritis and bedridden for seven years before his death. With three younger siblings at home Trygve had left school after grade six to become the man of the family. He was nearly 30 before he could move on to homestead a quarter section and set up a home of his own.

Irene and Trygve planned to marry in the summer of 1937. In 1936, now a seasoned teacher, Irene was offered a job in a more prosperous district, Yankee Valley, east of Airdrie. She taught there for a better salary while he built a log house on his homestead. On her birthday he hitchhiked and walked to Yankee Valley carrying her birthday present-a perfect replica of her future home made of red osier dogwood "logs."

Many of the Eidswold taxpayers were in arrears with their school taxes, hence Irene had not collected much of even the small salary she had been promised. The matter was settled by the farmers giving her cows. Thus started the Halvorson herd.

On July 8, 1937, Irene and Trygve were married at their new log cabin. The bride and attendants carried bouquets of wildflowers. As was expected when female teachers married at that time, Irene resigned from teaching.

The early years of their marriage were marred by two tragic events, the birth and subsequent death of two baby boys.

A few years later the war was on and many male teachers were leaving for the army. Irene found herself with an empty spot in her heart where children should be and she returned to teach at Eidswold. She now lived 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) from the school and generally rode horseback to get there. In winter it was a bone-chilling ride and she sometimes stopped halfway at her mother-in-law's house to warm up. In better weather both she and the horse were feeling their oats at the end of a day of being shut up at school, Trygve described her arrival at the house: "She'd be going so fast when she turned in at the gate that horse was leaning over like a motorcycle!"

Shortly after her second session of teaching at Eidswold Irene spent some time teaching at the Red Deer Valley School, located 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) north of the Eidswold School and about two miles (3.2 kilometres) from her home. Again she rode horseback which would have been quite pleasant had her horse at the time not developed a problem-possibly with its teeth or perhaps its brain-that caused it to rear up and threaten to go over backwards quite frequently.

In 1947 Irene began a new project. She was pregnant again! In January of 1948 she gave birth to a daughter, Marilyn. This child would live to grow up. She is, in fact, writing this account so the recollections from here on will be hers. (mine)

Despite being happy with motherhood, the teacher in Irene would not go away. When Marilyn was four Irene taught her to read- Then, a year later, while Irene and Marilyn were working in the vegetable garden a strange car drove up to the gate and a dignified-looking man got out. X.P.Crispo, school inspector. The Bergen School, (the same one that is now part of the Sundre Museum) then located where the Bergen Community Centre is now, was desperately in need of a teacher. Would she take the job? She couldn't. She had a five-year-old to look after. That was no problem . The inspector said, "Just bring her along and let her start school." So, Irene's teaching career resumed again.

She taught the Bergen School for several years until it closed and the students were bussed to Sundre. There were many adventures during those Bergen years. Of course, the high point of every year was the Christmas concert. Planning began in early fall with the selection of plays and recitations to learn. The singing was always a bit of a trial for Irene as she was not particularly musical but she managed it somehow. Some of the students, yours truly, for example , were such dreadful monotones that we were encouraged to "just move your lips, dear." However, if we couldn't sing we could at least talk and we were told to "SPEAK UP so people can hear you!"

The day before the concert Trygve was recruited to build a stage and the smell of fresh rough lumber combined with that of the newly-cut Christmas tree—also Trygve's job—to fill the school with Christmas.

A few weeks before the concert Irene would begin the difficult task of selecting a gift for each of her students. Fairness had to be meticulous. If one grade five girl got a set of barrettes, each of the others had to have one of exactly the same value. I can remember feeling a twinge of jealousy. Although I was very well provided for at Christmas it always seemed to me a bit unfair that my mother bought Christmas presents for every kid in the community but none of these other mothers had to buy me a present!

It was on one fall day while at Bergen that Irene faced a difficult decision. As a teacher of a one-room school all the responsibility for those children fell on her. Under no circumstances would she dare leave the school. However, on this day she knew that Trygve was burning brush piles on a newly-cleared field on the high land of the south quarter. While out with the children at recess she noticed the rising wind. She also noticed the big billowing clouds of smoke rising in the western sky. Instinctively she knew Trygve was in trouble. But this was before the days of phones and she had no way to get help for him unless she drove to alert the neighbors. She made up her mind, sent a note asking the reliable woman who lived next-door to the school to watch the children, and jumped in the car to round up some men to help fight the fire. Eventually half the neighborhood was involved but the flames were stopped before they did more than burn a few acres of brush. Irene's quick thinking probably averted a major forest fire. Another Bergen crisis seems like a tempest in a teapot now but at the time it caused Irene a great deal of lost sleep. Her register disappeared. At that time the school register which recorded attendance each day was treated as an almost holy document. Before the teacher got her year-end paycheck it had to be taken to school division headquarters in Didsbury and the figures all had to balance seven ways to sundown. One did not lose a register. But Irene did. One day when she looked in the desk drawer it just wasn't there. She searched that desk and the whole school room from top to bottom. She conducted in-depth interviews with some of the more mischievous boys who indignantly denied any involvement. At last she had to concede defeat and report this dreadful mishap to the school division officials. Reluctantly, and with considerable disapproval, of her incompetence, they issued her a new register. It was not until years later when the school closed and the desk was being moved out that the mystery was solved. There, under the bottom drawer, held firmly in place between the drawer and the frame, was the old register. It had slipped off the top of the over-filled drawer, down behind it. and finally wedged underneath, there to repose undisturbed throughout the ensuing years.

When the Bergen school closed in the early 60s Irene went on to face a new challenge. She would teach in Sundre and, for the first time in her career, have a single-grade classroom. It was grade one. Teachers' Aids were non-existent in those days and Irene found herself the sole adult in charge of "taming" and teaching thirty "barely housebroken" youngsters. One little boy suffered from occasional epileptic seizures but Irene soon discovered he suffered more from being thoroughly spoiled. Whenever he was not allowed to have his own way about something he began this litany, "I think I'm gonna have a fit!" Eventually Irene caught on that the threats of fits were a lot more frequent than the fits themselves. Exasperated, one day she replied to "I think I'm gonna have a fit!" with a steely-eyed glare and her own declaration, " You know, Johnny, I think I'm gonna have one, too, and if I do you'd better watch out 'cause mine will be a lot worse than yours!" After that fits became few and far between around there.

After a few years in grade one Irene went on to teach a split grade five and six and then to finish her teaching career with several years in grade four. After 3 I years of teaching Irene retired to enjoy some long overdue relaxation with Trygve in the new house they built on what had once been their first tiny hand-cleared hayfield.

Six years after Irene's retirement Trygve suffered a fatal heart attack. Irene was desolate and would never really recapture her zest for life. As a partial antidote for the loneliness she turned to her old first love-teaching. Over the years she tutored several students who were having difficulty with their school work. Again, just as she had done with those long-ago Eidswold students, she showed her new pupils the joy of learning and gave them the confidence to succeed. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

Irene passed away in 1996 at the age of 84 and I am sure that if teachers are needed in the next life she will undoubtedly have a job-as long as she can find a way through that Fallen Timber and they don't make her keep track of a register.

Category: Sundre