When John Hendley showed up in Ross River on Aug. 19, 1966 to work as the first principal at the local school, he didn’t realize there wasn’t a school there yet.
He and his wife, Gail, had come up from Ontario to teach in the Yukon, and they didn’t really know what to expect.
The original school, a single mobile trailer unit, arrived in the community some time after they did. During that first year, he and his wife were the only teachers at the two-room school, and they each taught several grades at the same time.
“We were very young and we just accepted the challenge,” Hendley said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Ross River school, and all current and former students, teachers and other staff are invited to attend a celebration in the community this weekend.
The event is being organized by Lois Loewen, Hendley’s younger sister. Loewen and her family moved to Ross River in the spring of 1967, before the end of the first school year. Loewen was seven years old at the time. Her older sister, Elizabeth Hendley, was 12.
“I remember that it was really cold, and we were happy to go to school, because it was warmer than our home,” said Loewen, who now works in the school. “It was probably one of the first places that had not only electricity, but running water and fuel oil heat.”
There was no gym in those early days, Loewen said, so the kids didn’t have access to all the same sports and activities that other students might. But they did have hockey and baseball, she said.
“I just remember that the few sports we were able to do, we would excel in.”
She remembers her brother flooding the field beside the school one winter and ordering 100 pairs of skates from Ontario, in all different sizes.
“I don’t know how long they took to get here,” she said. “It was probably months.”
Those years were a time of transition in Ross River. Before the school was opened in 1966, many local children were sent to residential school in Lower Post, near Watson Lake.
By 1968, construction had started in nearby Faro, before the Faro mine officially opened in 1969. Construction of the Robert Campbell Highway, to connect Carmacks with Faro and Ross River, began around the same time.
This development and the promise of mining jobs brought an influx of people and activity to the region, said Bob Sharp, who succeeded Hendley as the second principal of the Ross River school in 1968.
“The school almost tripled in size from when John Hendley was there,” he said. By the school’s third year, he said, it had more than 90 students.
The impact of the Faro development on Ross River was “fairly dramatic,” Sharp said. He said mine workers used to come to Ross River to drink or get into fights on their days off. Some of the students lost parents to violence or alcohol.
But he said the teachers tried hard to keep the kids engaged in school. He started a Kaska language program in the late 1960s, and tried to make classes as hands-on as possible.
He also coached wrestling and cross-country skiing, and he remembers taking the boys to a wrestling competition at a school in Fairbanks, Alaska around 1970.
He said the Alaskan students all had matching uniforms, while the Ross River kids showed up in swimming trunks or shorts. But the Ross River team ended up winning all the same.
“It’s not the uniform that makes the athlete,” Sharp said.
Still, there were challenges. Until the 2015-16 school year, the Ross River school didn’t teach grades 11 or 12, meaning students had to move to Whitehorse to complete high school. Loewen ended up dropping out after grade 10, because she knew she didn’t need more education to find work and make money in the community.
Her older sister, Elizabeth, did go to Whitehorse, but didn’t make it through grade 12. “I floundered,” she said. “I went from one home to another home to another home.” Eventually, she just gave up.
Last spring, the first grade 12 student graduated from the Ross River school, and there are several more that may graduate this coming year.
“I think it’ll make a huge difference,” Loewen said.
The school overcame another hurdle in 2015, when it was closed for several months due to melting permafrost that caused structural damage to the building.
“It was a very tough go,” said Loewen. “But you know, we all stuck it through, we got through it, and I think we appreciate what we have way more now. And I think the kids do too.”
These days, the Ross River school has launched several projects to give students hands-on work experience, including a cafe and a lunch program run in part by students.
Loewen manages the lunch program, which offers by-donation meals three days a week.
“It’s been a real hit, and it also helps the students to get their skills in the kitchen, serving the public,” she said.
She also credits the school’s successes to current principal Fran Etzel, the first principal who is a Ross River Dena Council citizen. Etzel attended the school around the same time Loewen did.
“She’s brought good energy,” Loewen said. “She truly wants to see improvement, and she truly is part of the school. I believe that the kids have a real connection with her.”
Loewen said she hopes at least 100 people will show up to the celebration this weekend. The event will begin on Friday with a potluck, karaoke and local entertainment. On Saturday, there will be a pancake breakfast, an open market, events for the kids and a banquet and dance from 3 p.m. to midnight. On Sunday, there will be a crib tournament and a chance to go to Faro to play golf.
Loewen said there’s lots of parking and room for camping in the community.
“We’re just trying to make a happy event in Ross River and acknowledge that the school has been here for 50 years.”
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