On Looking Over My Shoulder - Sedbergh - 1980-2010
Bob Chambers, the Guest Speaker at the Sedbergh Closing in June, 1981, the year following the great fire of April 9, 1980, stated to the parents sitting on the front lawn in front of the newly-constructed school, “To rebuild is not as important as the decision to rebuild. The decision to rebuild is in itself an act of imagination and faith.” A little over a year before, while the School was still burning, the Wood family – the Old Man, Madame, Tom, Ann, Debbie, and Ken – had already made a decision and the Board of Trustees had agreed to it: rebuild in exactly the same place. And now – the result was there in front of the parents. The phoenix had risen!
The original Sedbergh, from 1939 to 1980, is a story in itself, told in remarkable detail by Ramsay Derry in his gripping tale, Sedbergh, the Founding of a School. It reminds us of the details which were responsible for building character in boys in a country setting, of teachers who believed that the out-of-doors and the environment were crucial elements in building that character, and of Founders who had dreams of a “country school” and who, when asked by disbelievers whether there was value in this idea, simply quoted the Gospel of St. John – “Nathanial asked, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ and Philip replied ‘Come and see.’”
I did just that in 1950. Having then passed my student years in the Valley, most of my teaching career was spent at Sedbergh. After reading Ramsay’s book in 2014, I somehow knew that there needed to be a sequel to his story. After all, Sedbergh continued after the fire for another thirty years, closing only in 2010. Didn’t the students and teachers of that era need to know they had not been forgotten? What about their story?
This sequel reminds us of the rebirth of Sedbergh, of its leap into coeducation, into bringing international students into the student body, into the Round Square, into official outdoor education, into the building of the Duxbury Cabin, and into a myriad of other elements which defined the School during those thirty years. It reflects upon the values of the original School, while it considers how we built the important elements of what we became.
I wrote the following in my diary in 2003: “The end of a school year and the frenzy of the final week is over. We no longer whirl like dervishes. The Valley eases into its summer slumber and the School settles back to its calm and peaceful silence. This is a good time to reflect on what we are and where we’ve been and where we were going, and how we are getting there.
This morning I wandered through the building and around the huts as I have done so many times over the years when I was wearing a number of hats. It’s true that without the students, the place has about it an almost eerie discomfort – like shoes that don’t quite fit or a jacket that’s too tight under the arms – there's something not quite right. Looking over my shoulder, I half wonder what the students are up to – everything is so silent!
Glancing into corners and out of windows, I realize that Sedbergh has been my home for much of my life, so it is no surprise that images of the old school and of today’s buildings, of incidents recent and long ago, and the voices of Sedberghians ancient and modern ‘flash upon that inward eye’ in a remarkable cascade of colourful and poignant images. On reflection, what strikes me most clearly is how similar and yet how different the Sedbergh of today is to the Sedbergh of yesteryear.
Old Sedberghians have, for the most part and understandably, a vision of the school which became more or less frozen when they left the Valley for the last time as a student, but I have been privileged to watch the evolution of the School over many years.”
Today, in 2023, there is a recurring question – “Were there, in fact, two Sedberghs? Two different schools?” Certainly there was “the old” and “the new”. First, the buildings themselves bore no resemblance to each other. But does that matter? After all, approaches to education had also shifted in the time between 1939 and 1980, but the Sedbergh Mission Statement, boldly proclaimed on the wall of the Founders’ Room, had not. And that message was not much different from T.J. Wood’s version which he had carved into the sofa in front of the old fireplace in the Living Room in 1939 “To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and Not to Yield”. Yes, approaches had shifted, but Sedbergh values had not. Add to that the natural evolution of the times. The Department of Education had demanded certain things, so yes, there was some change. Students from the old school will no doubt say, “Well, it’s not the school I remember” and I, who participated in both schools, do not deny that shifts in policy were evident and expected – but Sedbergh was always Sedbergh and the outcome for students and in their values remained the same after the fire as they had been before. Didn’t the “Singing Sixth”, that group of Senior boys, face the Headmaster on the day following the fire and refuse to go home, informing him that they were staying to help with the cleanup! Despite his protestations, they stood their ground, just one example of Sedberghian values never faltering, even in the worst of times. Sedbergh itself remained an outstanding school with outstanding teachers and an outstanding educational philosophy. Throughout its history, Sedbergh was a leader in the style of education it practiced. The building of character, of self-reliance, of physical and emotional challenges, still remained the hallmark of what it was all about. Since 1939, Sedberghians had always been moulded into constructive and creative citizens of the world. That certainly did not change after the fire.
Both in tiny and in great ways, the similarities ring out; the wild flowers and the tree recognition competitions, so important to Vera Wood, continued to be an exciting challenge for the whole school after 1980, while the Ski-Marathon, Mount Baldy, Point to Point, the Johannsen Meet, Home Run, Push, Huts, the Terry Fox Run, and Quinchees (Bivouacs) still held centre stage in the Sedbergh scheme of things.
Bicycles still bounced their way across the Valley, cross-country skis still swooped around Wagon Wheel, Fox Loop and the Blais Trail, camping at Big Rock and swimming at High Lake (but only rarely cliff jumping) remained on every student’s agenda!
It’s true the old playing fields in the Valley were resurfaced, so students playing ‘the beautiful game’ (soccer) no longer had to run up and down through the furrows of the ancient farmland of the Valley floor!
Jane Wright’s Art classes in the new school stirred our imaginations with the same intensity as John Macaulay’s and Martha McDougall’s had done in the early days.
Huts, the perfect escape from the school week, continued to offer that uniquely Sedbergh retreat in an increasingly demanding academic schedule. “Reporting out, sir.” By 2010, there were 32 huts scattered around the property, many built by the students themselves. “I’d rather live in a hut than in school, just come back for a shower! That’s how much I love huts, especially the one I’m in now, Coyote. And huts are the funnest things in the world!” (grade 6 student). Mind you, the Wolfobello story continued to make the rounds!
And what about academics? Those of us who were privileged to sit in T.J. Wood's ancient History classes will never forget Leonidas and his 300 and the cheeky Spartans, or his Canadian history classes with maps drawn in a flash across the blackboard to embroider the rich tapestry of our past. Who will forget weekly Verse “Visions of the world and all the wonders that would be..." and Tom Wood's Mathematics class, which began even as he thundered down the long wooden corridor calling out questions to his pencil-poised students in the end classroom. You had to know your stuff! Or, of course, Pat Pettigrew’s Literature classes where generations of Sedberghians learned to love books and reading, thanks to his passion for words and images. Each Old Sedberghian had, no doubt, his own particular memory of some teacher or some class that changed his life.
But lest we become nostalgic and sentimental, let it be clear that the new school’s students were just as privileged – in Paul Gifford’s WIC class, students lived the history they were taught – by visiting the forts of the 1812 War while crewing a windjammer on the Great Lakes, by stalking the armies on the Plains of Abraham, by following in mid-winter the footsteps of the Voyageurs, using snowshoes and hauling sledges that they had built themselves in the school workshop. And Andy Convery had them carve out their own canoe paddles for the trips they took into the wilderness on a regular basis. And, yes, every student in the school built a “quinchee” for quinchee night.
WIC students marveled too at the Group of Seven, while hiking to the sites where those artists painted. They did their own sketches there, and these students didn’t just watch the Duxbury Cabin being built – they built it, using the old logs from Vincent Lavoie’s cabin and squaring other logs from the trees that had come down on Joe’s Hill in that savage ice storm in 1998. The cabin stands, its memories intact, waiting for their camaraderie and laughter to return.
Math classes were just as intense, just as demanding as in days of yore and could be just as much fun. Andrea Douglas and Peter Grant’s exciting Environmental Leadership Course (ELC) in Grade 11 focused in a very hands-on way on the individual’s response to the global issues in our world today and combined that with leadership training.
In grade 12, Denise Stockdale’s Environmental Science Thesis program tied together the integrated studies of Grades 10 and 11 and required year-long research into environmental issues, culminating for each student in a thesis which had to be defended in public.
Some students participated in Bruce McMahon’s Archeology course. “Slowly, with painstaking accuracy, small items and larger features began to appear from their earth-entombment. These were not things of value, nor gold or silver or items that treasures are made of, these were things used by the average people, not kings or queens! And in an instant, the true nature of archeology came to me.” – words from the introduction of a grade 12 student’s final year project. Also, Kiersten McCaw’s Fun Machine, or Patrick Peotto’s Mock Trials and so many other courses like them, offered important opportunities to develop learning skills. All these programs successfully prepared Sedbergh students for the rigours of university courses. I know it is easy to blow our own trumpet, but comments from graduates justifies our doing so. “University classes are easy; Sedbergh prepares us so well!” And certainly Sedbergh students went on to the universities of their choice, some having received several offers, a number even on scholarships, and all with a rich background of experiences very different from those of students in the educational mainstream. Sedbergh continued to pride itself on its difference, as it always had.
So what else was different about the new Sedbergh ?
Well, for starters, the School became coeducational – over one third of its students were girls. Coeducation made the School kinder, more tolerant to difference in culture, more relaxed, less ‘macho,’ and the girls helped to create a social atmosphere closer to that of the outside world. No longer did boys graduate with little or no understanding of the opposite sex. They moved more naturally into the next phase of their lives.
Sedbergh was no longer a traditional school in its academic direction – the new strategic plan focused on learning how to learn in a layered and integrated curriculum, on semester as well as trimester courses and on using its extensive wilderness areas as a formal classroom. The Environmental Science Centre (constructed near Beaver Pond) and the Duxbury Cabin (on the site of Frank Duxbury’s old retreat) resounded with students doing research and ‘hands on’ studies. Sedbergh consciously marketed its Outdoor Education, Environmental Studies, and Wilderness Integrated Course (WIC) programs.
The new Sedbergh became an international school in the strictest sense of the word. At least 30% of the students came from foreign countries, and outside the classroom, several languages were spoken at Sedbergh; the cultural diversity impressive, and encouraged. As an English-speaking school in a French province, about 70% of the staff and students were acceptably bilingual in Canada’s two official languages.
Sedbergh was the 24th member of the Round Square organization, which the School was elected to join in 1985; it became its window to the world. “An international association of schools which shared a commitment beyond academic excellence to personal development and responsibility through service, challenge, adventure, and international understanding.” Started by Kurt Hahn, a former Headmaster of Gordonstoun, these schools all followed the same academic principles and believed in good citizenship and in working on useful human projects around the world. Once a year, one of the schools of the Round Square held a Conference to which selected Sedbergh students travelled with all member schools of the Round Square.
Reflections of a Sedbergh Round Square delegate following a conference. "Why is it we don´t feel happy when our brothers from other continents are not at war anymore; why don´t we feel sad when they are dying because they are starving? I’m confused by this."
And finally – Building character was never simply a slogan at Sedbergh. It was at the centre of its mission in everything it did, more than simply in academic success, more than simply in achievement in sports, more even than simply in personal growth because, of course, it embodied all three, and so much more.
So, were there two Sedberghs? Two different schools? Surely not!
Since the fire, and the retirement of the Wood family during the 1980s, the Sedbergh Board of Trustees took over ownership of the school.
Four Headmasters and their wives were hired over the remaining years after Tom and Ann Wood left the Valley. Terry and Sue Guest, Duncan and Janet Hossack, Jeremy and Bunny Mclean, and Andrew and Barb Blair all served the School in their turn for a part of those thirty years, giving of their particular abilities, knowledge, experience, and care to this amazing institution.
During these thirty years, many new ideas were introduced by talented and committed teachers who loved their work, and loved the lifestyle that Sedbergh offered them. These men and women were significant contributors and Sedbergh’s strength. A great number of exciting educational results were achieved by them and by the many GAPS who joined them on the great adventure. Only a few teachers’ names have been mentioned in this essay, but all of you are remembered by your students and by this writer. Thank you and bless you. Sedbergh remained in the forefront of caring for the environment and was a leader in protecting and caring for the natural world. Students learned to use their hands, their heads, their hearts, and their wits to be useful citizens, caring for those with whom they share this world. Sedbergh students returned to their homes in Canada and to many countries on other continents after leaving the Sedbergh Valley, and many of them continue today to speak of Sedbergh and its special qualities and how important the School was to them in their formative years. And yes, after all this time, whenever I leave the Valley, I still stop at the brow of the hill, get out of my car, look back, and nod my head!
So why, with such obvious excitement and such an interesting educational model did Sedbergh close its doors in 2010?
Sedbergh closed because, over several years before 2010, too few students had applied to the school, and also because during those years of decline, not enough could be done by those in charge to stop that decline.
“Is this a fair assessment?” some will ask.
I think it is for the following reasons, and because I was there.
The comments of a 10th grade boy have ever since focused my attention about what happened. While chatting with him at lunch one day, he said,
“Sir, I am not coming back next year,” “Oh, why not?” I retorted. “Well, because there are not even enough of us, my age, to make up the soccer team. I have so few friends around here now.”
I looked around the dining room and I knew he was right.
As a small school in the country, every student counted at Sedbergh and each one made an important difference to the financial stability of the operation. Sedbergh had never been a well-endowed organization, so by its very nature, it lived on the edge of the razor, relying on committed parents and past students who donated because of their personal belief in the worthiness of its mission. Obviously, student numbers were essential to its financial stability.
During the 1990s, the environment for boarding school education had diminished in Canada, and all boarding schools suffered from enrolment problems. All boarding schools were “out of fashion”. Most boarding schools had endowments which allowed them more time to deal with the lack of student enrolments, and when the decline started, their governing boards acted quickly and efficiently with game-plans to stop the decline. Recruiting officers were dispatched to foreign countries (especially Asia and South America) to interest students there to come to their particular school. The results of these efforts were evidently successful because, over time, the decline was stopped or at least limited. Sedbergh had no endowment and was particularly vulnerable to the lack of interest in the boarding experience because of its high ratio of teachers to students (about 1 teacher for every 6 students). Thus, it was crucial that Sedbergh operate at full capacity (about 90 students). The reactions from authorities in all boarding schools had to be very fast and very efficient if the downward trend was to be stopped. New administrative staff positions were placing an additional financial load on Sedbergh and because the School had no endowment to speak of and its student population kept declining year after year, the financial situation ultimately became untenable.
Some efforts were made by a number of alumni to come to the rescue, but the enrolment figures continued to go down and the situation became beyond the capacity of those alumni to meet the School’s financial obligations. The governing bodies were faced with bills unable to be paid and salaries unable to be met. It was clear that the only option was to sell the Sedbergh property, but that required closing the School. Were the authorities prepared to walk that path? They had no choice. The decision that had to be made, was made. Sedbergh School closed its doors in 2010.
Sadly, this unique and outstanding educational institution, which had been a beacon of learning for 70 years, came to an untimely end. For so many of us, Sedbergh had been the shining light that had helped to make us into the persons we are today. We remember our School with gratitude.
Happiness is Freedom, and Freedom is Courage
Felicitas Libertas Virtus
We are not likely to be
What we are for very long
We never were. We know that.
But in some ragged way
We have dressed each other in pearls, shook cloth
Billboards, junk, and treasure,
And granted us the skill to move.
If we needed to dance,
And somewhere, if we needed
to drum the sun until it chimed,
We have been the first thing
Anyone ever dreamed of.
And what I had to say was this:
We are always what we are,
Did, wanted, made,
Our last move is an after thought
A single shrug of the mind.
Its separate directions shred us;
but, fragments of several seasons,
we blow green, go mute, bleach,
and at last grow green again.
And the song that time together makes
is calling from a farther better yard,
its flowers only undone for now,
and somewhere we are always weaving
the same dream –
that the other distant singers
that the drummer set his station
in the moon,
and that the wild dancer we became
collapse the space we have to go into
and bring us back
to dress our tender, unspeakable sun
in the voices that celebrate
circle, shout out, shine.
- Author unknown
If you were a student at Sedbergh in ANY year including 1980 to 2010, your name should be on this list. As the School’s records are perhaps incomplete, some names may be spelled incorrectly, or missing, and I apologize.
Abu Assi, William
Acuna Diego, Antonio x
Agraz Dominguez, Luis Octavio
Alkasemi, Hashem A.
Arias Iglesias, Anton
Awashish, Alijah Luke,
Bartolomeu Fernando, Yuri
Benoit, Jean François
Bernot Bueno, Santiago
Bernot Simon, Daniela
Betancourt, Marie Claire
Chan, Ka Yan
Chang, Chia Wei
Cheong, Chon Hei
Corte Arestizabal, Gianluca
Da Silva Fernando, Darcy
Danesh, Camran Sid
Danesh, Kouros Saam
De Lotbiniere, Edmond J.
De Oliviera Dias, Jahel
Diegel, Jacob Charles
Diegel, Martin Francis
Diegel, Patrick Jordan
Domingo Rajme, Stephania
Dupre-White, Jean Benoit
El Masri, WIssam
Garcia Chervere, Angelique
Girard, Pier Marc
Godina Abasolo, Ana Luisa
Hall, Thomas Jr
Hamilton, Hugh Jr.
Hamilton, Stephane Jr
Harrison, William B.
Hart, Bruce C.
Hartley, E. Vanessa
Hernandez Velazquez, Ruth
Ho, Jennifer Wing To
Hough, Eric J.
Houston, Patrick M.S.
Hsu, Shub Chih (Jack)
Hunter, Scott E.
Hurtado, Juan Carlos
Hurtado, Juan David
Hwang, Sung Jun
Ibrahim, Fouad J.
Ibrahim, Samir A.
Joanis, Falina Mapp
Kantor, Jesse G.
Kim, Han Na
Kim, Hyeong Jun (Brian)
Kim, Joon-Hee (Jay)
Klein, Geregory R.L.
Koh, Won Woo
Kuri, Alberto Jaber
Lam, Van (Kwong Chit)
Lam, Vera (Yu Man)
Lanthier, Anthony J.
Laperle, Nicolas J.
Larrinaga, Fernando Estaban
Lau, Martin (Wing Kit)
Lau, Vincent (Wing Shun)
Lee, Kun Sik
Leibovitch, Shawn A.
Liebmann, Tommy D.
Lopez Cordova, Atli
Lutteroth Kochen, Matias
Lynch, Christopher B.
MacFarlane, Richard D.
MacFarlane, Robert G.
MacRury, Sarah K.
Many Chief Garret
Mariel Menes, José Ramon
Martin, Andrew Ralph
Martinez, Aurelio Lopez
Martinez, Sandra Lopez
Mashaal, Ariel Ann
McOuat, Colin Jason
Melo, Jose Manuel
Mendiola Erdman, Mercedes
Morales Pumarino, Camila
Newland, Georgia F
Park, Jae Kwun
Piedalue, Paul C.H.
Prasad Shah, Omkrishna
Prior, Glen Matthew
Quesnel, Maximilian Interim
Ramos Berho, Bruno Alejandrino
Rios Alvarez, Erick
Robertson, Kevin James
Rubalcava, David Martin
Sanchez, Edgar D.
Segovia Alvarado, Gerardo
Servitje Azcarraga, Nicolas
Shih, Ching Tzu
Simha Webster, Edwin
Sorenson, Bryce (Chavez)
Sottil Duprat, Louis Alexandre
Stevens- Da Costa, Katelijne
Stich, Eduardo Sobrino
Thavorn Ronald, Maeleeya
Tkachenko, Justine E.
Togneri, Colin T.
Tomasso, Ricardo Di
Trueheart, Alex Olea
Trueheart, Anahi Olea
Valdes, Ana Sofia
Van Kaufmann, Marlena
Van Volkenburgh, Stephen
Vasquez Chelius Soli, Fernando
Velutini, Vicente B.
Vera Altamirano, Diana
Vera Altamirano, Yessica
Vera, Isabella Castro
Vesey, Derek R.G.
Viau St-Denis, Fanie
Von Kaufmann, Marlene
Weir, David J.
Yull, John David
Zambrano, Maria Lidia
To view high resolution versions of these photos, click here to open the Google Photos album in a separate browser tab.
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This essay would not have been possible without the invaluable support of our Sedbergh webmaster, Andrew Irving ('82-'86), whose patience with me and uncanny knowledge of the web has made my work so much simpler. As well, my neighbour, Jacqueline Grenier, spent long and willing hours at her computer, scanning page after page and photo after photo, while reassuring me that all would be well! I am immensely grateful to them both. The two watercolours in the photo section appear by kind permission of the artist, Deborah Moore.
The Sedbergh memorabilia is now preserved for posterity. It is housed at the Société Historique Louis-Joseph Papineau headquarters in Montebello at 220 Bonsecours. All items are listed in the 'Sedbergh Index', which can be accessed on their website at www.SHLJP.org/fonds-sedbergh.
If there are Old Sedberghians who have not read Ramsay Derry's book, Sedbergh, the Founding of a School, they may still do so through the Société Historique LJP, by making a charitable donation, either for a paperback edition or for the signed, numbered, and boxed edition.
Because the Société does crucial work protecting historical elements of the Montebello landscape and feels strongly that Sedbergh was an important part of the life of the region, if you, as an Old Sedberghian, wish to donate to the Société to help it in the upkeep of its work, please contact the Société at 819-423-5123 - extention 3499 or write them at Société Historique Louis-Joseph Papineau, 220 Rue Bonsecours, c.p. 1656, Montebello, QC. J0V1L0 or contact them by email at
A donation to them of $100 or more receives a charitable tax receipt AND a paperback copy of Sedbergh, the Founding of a School. A donation of $1,000 receives a charitable tax receipt for that amount and a copy of the signed, numbered, and boxed edition of the book.
The Société Historique pays all postal costs for those donations.
Other memorabilia, including two huts (Raccoon and Mink) and all the trophies are on view at the Village Hall of Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, a few kilometres away from Montebello. Photos of many of the items can be viewed on the "Sedbergh Memorabilia at Bonsecours Hall" post on this site.
The following is a list of writings about the life of Sedbergh School. They are available in the Sedbergh Index at the Société Historique in Montebello. For copies of them, please indicate to the Société the appropriate index location where they will be found.
|History of Sedbergh||by Judy Jacques||S1-Box 6|
|Founding of Sedbergh School (1972)||by T. J. Wood||S1-Box 6|
|Sedbergh and Montebello (2003)||by T. L. Wood||S1-Box 6|
|Sedbergh, The Founding of a School||by Ramsay Derry||by request|