Education provides life-long boost to VIU alumni

October 14, 2011 - 8:51am

Arthur Baker has witnessed tremendous changes in his life but one thing remains the same – the need for young people to get a quality education.

Baker, 90, was front and centre during Vancouver Island University’s 75th anniversary party for students, staff and faculty on Wednesday, Oct. 12. He graduated from the automotive mechanics program in 1939, and is recognized as one of VIU’s oldest alumni.

“Getting a good education gave me a real boost in life,” says Baker. “Certification through a technical school was a huge stepping stone. It’s the same for young people today.”

At the festivities, Baker was delighted to meet President Ralph Nilson and 17-year-old Sophie Cloutier of Coombs, a current automotive student at VIU who is completing her grade 12 year through School District 69’s (Qualicum) Head Start program.

“Rebuilding engines is my favourite thing,” says Cloutier. “It’s amazing that Arthur Baker graduated from the same program. so many years ago. He’s a real inspiration.”

Baker was also 17 when he started automotive mechanics at the Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Centre. It was the era of the Great Depression and like many young people, Baker was searching for a job and a clear direction.

“Things were tough at that time. There were no jobs, except in the woods but that wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “My dad told me to sign up for the automotive program, so I did.”

Jack Macready, a local mechanic, had opened the city’s first trades school with the help of local business owners in 1936. Macready saw it as a solution to youth unemployment plaguing Nanaimo and other cities.

His one-room shed-turned-classroom had no indoor plumbing and was heated by donated firewood smoldering in an old barrel. But this didn’t stop the eight eager students who came to learn the basics of automotive mechanics.

The school was so successful it won the support of the federal and provincial governments who announced they would sponsor vocational training schools as a way to solve the high unemployment rate among youth. Now with government funding, Macready moved his classes to an unused school on the corner of Machleary and Campbell Streets in downtown Nanaimo.

He hired two staff members: Danieln Egdell, a local architect, to teach building construction, and Ned Bilton, a retired coal miner, as the tool coordinator. In February 1938 the three men welcomed 47 students to the newly named Dominion-Provincial Youth Training Centre (DPYTC). Baker was one those eager students. He learned about auto mechanics, electrical systems and welding.

“In those days, cars were simple,” Baker recalls. “We learned the basics. I found the training easy and enjoyable.”

Near the end of the program, a local businessman visited the school to recruit new employees. Baker was offered a job as a mechanic at a local Dodge dealership. He worked two years before enlisting in the Air Force in 1941. “All my friends were signing up, so I did too.”

During World War II Baker served as a flight engineer on a Canso amphibious aircraft and was part of a team responsible for the security of Canada’s Pacific Coast. “My mechanical training really paid off. I had never been in an aircraft but suddenly I was helping to fly one.”

Just before the war ended, Baker married Winona McLeod. The couple moved to Nanaimo in 1945 and raised four children. Baker tried his hand at a number of businesses before becoming a mechanic and later a service manager at Nanaimo’s General Motors dealership.

In 1955, Baker was one of the first employers in Nanaimo to break through racial barriers when he hired a Chinese student, Albert Wong, to work at the dealership. “He also graduated from the automotive program and was a great worker,” says Baker.

Baker retired after 11 years in car sales, nine of those as top salesman. Now enjoying his free time, Baker plays golf almost every day with a lifelong friend, Clifford (Tip) Bertram.

“The fellow I play with was born in Nanaimo in 1920 just like me,” says Baker. “We have a good time on the course but it’s very tense. You’d think we’re playing for the US Open.”

Baker and Winona have one daughter and three sons, four grandchildren and two great-children. Two of his children, Helen and Steven, attended the old Malaspina College on Kennedy Street in the 1970s before transferring to larger universities.

“My brother and I took creative writing and journalism classes, and both ended up in jobs related to marketing and writing,” says Helen. Their writing talents were sparked by their mother, a well-respected writer and author of seven books. She also completed several English and creative writing courses at Malaspina while raising her family.

“I’m really proud of my parents,” says daughter Helen, now a business analyst with the Insurance Corporation of BC in Vancouver. “They remain so active and truly amaze me. I hope I’m as active as they are when I’m 90.”

Baker’s secret to longevity? “I drink half a glass of cod liver oil every morning,” he says. “I don’t eat red meat, don’t smoke or drink coffee. I don’t touch a drop of alcohol but I eat fish four times a week and lots of vegetables. Diet and exercise are key.”

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