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Barb Vant Erve and Ev & Rob Nicholson Remember Al Nicholson

April 24, 2023

Al and Ev Nicholson in the late 1990s

Al Nicholson was a teacher who loved music, loved mathematics and really loved to teach. Throughout his twenty-nine-year career at Fenelon Falls Secondary School, the joy that these subjects brought him shone through as he taught his students. While for many teachers, coursework was a responsibility and a job, for Al it was how he would want to spend his free time. He spent countless hours thinking of new ways to present material, and students never quite knew what he was going to come up with next. Being in one of Al’s classes was anything but routine.

Al had unique childhood experiences that made him into someone who wanted to spend his life helping youth learn and grow. His father, Alexander (Sandy) Nicholson, was a United Church Minister at Hudson Bay Junction, in rural Saskatchewan. At the time, there were many Ukrainian immigrants in the area, living in a sod house was the norm, and most of his congregation was just trying to find a way to get by. As the world descended into the Great Depression, he saw that the community was facing real hardship and was eager to do what he could to help. Sandy talked to the church and asked “if they could not pay him such a high wage, but do more to help the addressed the challenges he saw,” Ev explains. “They said we’ll pay you and then you can help them.”

Sandy devoted a lot of his income to trying to support his neighbours—but he lacked the resources to help everyone he saw. “So he bought a cow,” Ev says, “and he would take it to one farm for a week, then the next week it would go to a different farm.” That way he could do something to help many more people. Years later, Sandy would receive a letter from one lady, thanking him, “If you hadn’t bought that cow I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Sandy bought into the first co-operative farm in Saskatchewan, at Sturgis. His interest in co-operative solutions to overcoming the challenges of the Great Depression, led him to become one of the founders of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. In 1940, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Mackenzie District, just as the Second World War was breaking out, and would serve four of five terms until he was defeated in 1958. Federally, he served as party treasurer, then went on to be Provincial Minister of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation from 1960 to 1964. He was in caucus when Tommy Douglas introduced medicare. Health care, was a practical issue at the time. When not everyone could access a doctor or hospital, some people would die of treatable conditions. Tommy and Sandy were natural friends, they shared many aspirations, and both had been ministers—Tommy was Baptist, Sandy was Presbyterian/United. Sandy spent much of his working life trying to make real improvements in people’s lives.

Al was born the year after his father was elected to Parliament, and spent much of his childhood at the farm in Sturgis, but had his horizons broadened by his father’s political career. His mother, Marian Leila Massey, was a wonderful pianist, who would sit down and play sonatas by Brahms or Beethoven. As Sandy was busy playing a key role in developing a social safety network, Al spent many hours with his mother, learning to share her love of music, as he played the trombone.  By the time he was a teenager, he was arranging big band music for a group he played with in town. But he always had broad interests in the world around him. In one memorable childhood episode, he tried to devise a way to fly. When he finished high school, Al enrolled to become a mechanical engineer and earned a master’s degree in physics at the University of Saskatchewan. Then he went on to complete a master’s degree in math at Cal Tech. But as he was learning math and science, he really enjoyed playing his trombone.

While he was at university, he realized that teaching was his true calling and took a job teaching music at a school at Abbotsford, near Vancouver. While he was there, he was looking at other job prospects and applied for a job at Fenelon Falls High School in 1968. Though Ruth Sims had previously led a music program at the school, she had moved on to LCVI, and the school was not equipped to offer a band program. Principal Ross Sturgess hired Al, and gave him a budget to set up a new and ambitious music program. The first thing he had to do was purchase all the instruments the school would need, and prepare brand new courses to be taught. At the same time, Al would also instruct in senior mathematics.

When Al started teaching in Fenelon Falls, Barb Isaac (Vant Erve) was one of his grade nine students. “He was full of energy, and though there were a few kids who had played in the Salvation Army band, most of us could not play any instruments. But Al had an incredibly wide base of knowledge, was versatile and quick witted. It was a really exciting time, and by the end of the year we hosted a music night where many students performed and the school also had a pep band.”

Barb had attended a one-room school, just across the lake from the village, and had little background in music. But she was invited to play the grand pipe organ for the Fenelon Falls United Church as a Grade 9er. Feeling intimidated at such responsibility when she had no formal training, “I asked him if I should because it was too hard. He replied, ‘who told you it was hard?’ It was something that would stick with me for the rest of my life—to learn not to be self-defeating before you even give it a try.” Al also occasionally played the organ at Immanuel Baptist Church.

Among the staff at Fenelon Falls High School, Al stood out for his joie de vivre. Few of his early students would ever forget the sight of him fitting a harpsichord into the back of his cute little Austin America car. He involved the community in the school’s music program, starting a community band and community choir. He went to great lengths to introduce his students to different kinds of music, taking them to concerts, including at the Palais Royale on Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto or to watch George Geary playing a recorder with his nose. His years of practice arranging music as a teenager in Sturgis came in handy. When students wanted to play something, two days later he would have all the hand-scrawled parts in hand. “Whether it was Big Band or the Beatles, he would try to accommodate pretty well anything his students asked for,” Barb recalled. Al took the time to make his music program something that was special to each one of his students, even if it meant finding a way to include Elvis in the class.

By the time they were in Grade 10, Al’s music class had progressed enough that he brought in recording equipment so they could make their own vinyl 33 1/3 record. “It was a big deal for us,” Barb recounts, “to go from being in a one room school to making a recording that we could take home.” That year, they also pulled off a musical, Swinging High. Each year, the school would follow up with another musical production.

From the beginning of his teaching career, Al’s classes had one rule, No Put Downs. No one was allowed to say anything derogatory about themselves or anyone else. For a music teacher, every new instrumentalist would play a lot of wrong notes or be totally off key as they developed their skills, and they needed a positive space where they could feel comfortable as they learned how to be part of a band. Barb explains that, back then “kids weren’t emboldened to misbehave and demand their rights, it wasn’t a case of there being a disciplinary problem… but that mindset stayed with me.”

Years later, I was in Al’s Grade 11 math class, near the end of his career at Fenelon Falls Secondary School. When I walked into the class, he had “No Put Downs” written in large letters across the blackboard. At first, many of the students were a bit taken aback—‘Is he serious?’ At the time, the way that students would interact with each other was often insulting, so it was quite an adjustment, and when the inevitable unfriendly remark occurred, he would stomp his feet and say “Hey, No Put Downs!” Before long, many of the students were ready to join in with “No Put Downs!” whenever the situation might call for it. It was the kindest, most positive atmosphere that I have ever seen in a class in my life.

In 1969, Ross Sturgess also hired a new English teacher, Evelyn Marshall, who was from Leamington, but her family had a cottage on Cameron Lake. On Easter Weekend, she was touring the high school with guidance councilor, M.A. Whittick: “As we were passing the bank of windows overlooking Lindsay Street, I heard a trombone going um-pah-um-pah. He took me and introduced me to Al Nicholson, the music teacher. A little later, we noticed a Lotus Europa car, and my brother said you have to get to know whoever was driving it—they said it was the same Al Nicholson. When I came to teach in the fall, he had traded it in for an Austin America—to get into the Lotus you practically had to slide in, but he loved that car. When he went to Toronto, he would often get pulled over a couple of times because the police officer wanted to look at the vehicle.”

“I sang with the Woodville Country Chords, and they had a dance and buffet at Christmas time. As I was driving to the rehearsal with Mr. Whittick’s wife, I said that I didn’t have anyone to go to the dance with. She said she would figure something out. Mr. Whittick went and asked Al if he would go to a dance with Ev Marshall. He said, well, I will talk to her. He came to my office and asked if I wanted to go for coffee, and I said I don’t drink coffee. But when we went we talked, and talked, and talked… and the rest is history…. He was an incredibly good dancer.” When she first met him, Al was clean shaven, but then one January he decided to have a beard growing contest at the high school. Mike Wilkinson won the contest, but Al kept the beard he grew.

Before long, Ev and Al stood out as a very loving and happy couple. They were both interested in music, and Ev joined the community choir that Al had founded at the High School. “I had never sung Handel’s Messiah, but he loved it, and so did I when I learned the whole composition. We started off by learning the Hallelujah Chorus, and went on to sing it eight straight years.” For many years, Al was the director of the Kawartha Male Chorus and the choir at Immanuel Baptist Church. While Ev enjoyed singing in the church choir, Al often arranged the choral pieces they sang. They also performed some of his original compositions. In 1980 and 1981, Al was the ‘Tunesmith’ for a village arts festival, held on the island. Taking his harpsichord or keyboard, he would compose a short song for each visitor on the spot.

For Al, mathematics and music had much in common, both being about patterns and relationships.  He loved to learn, and took a sabbatical year to earn a second master’s degree in music at Saskatoon in 1978-79. He took another year off to go to Queen’s and learn about mathematical chaos theory in 1987-88. At the time, computers were just becoming mainstream technology, and Al spent a lot of time with his son Zander programming Mandelbrot sets. He immediately saw how revolutionary computers would be, and as a math teacher was quite impressed by early spreadsheets. While he was away, Jack Nevins took his position as music teacher, so Al would focus on teaching mathematics in later years. By the time he retired, Al had completed four masters degrees.

Though he was teaching Mathematics in the later years of his career, his love of music was in no way diminished. As Canada was preparing to host Expo 86 at Vancouver, a call went out for original compositions to be performed at the ceremonies. Al’s entry was selected, and he was invited to travel to British Columbia for the performance. Touch the World opened with a dramatic timpani fanfare, so Al called all around the Vancouver, asking high schools to lend enough timpanis for the orchestra. He also recruited school choirs to join in the performance. Al conducted Touch the World as Prince Charles and Diana were travelling by the Ontario Pavillion on a boat.

As a math teacher, Al was just as enthusiastic as with music. He loved to make his own metal knot puzzles, and will long be remembered for his Rubik’s Cubes. At an auction sale he bought a huge box filled with all kinds of Rubik’s cubes—some were circular, others had four squares on each edge. He kept the Rubik’s cubes in his classroom and would sell them to any interested student for the bargain price of $1. A lot of kids had a lot of fun seeing how fast they could solve it.

In the late 1990s, Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution looked to bring in younger, less expensive teachers to replace those who had been around for many years. Al had hoped to teach one more year, to make it until his youngest son would have completed high school. However, when it became clear that there would no longer be a job teaching math at the high school, “One day, I walked in the door and he asked, ‘how would you like to go to the arctic?’” Ev recalls. They still had two boys to put through university, and Al was always up for an adventure where he would learn something new. Al would teach at Inuvik for 3 years. While he was teaching in the arctic, he loved to learn about what his students did outside of school, and often asked if they would like to share what they did on the weekend. He also put on a musical, bringing Barb up to accompany a production of Anne of Green Gables. The world of Lucy Maud Montgomery was very foreign to the class, they were not familiar with life on a farm. For one of his math classes on measuring, the class grew cherry tomatoes as a class project, another experience that Ontarians would take for granted, but that was novel in Inuvik.

One February “he asked if we wanted to go somewhere warm,” Ev recounts. A school in Mexico was interested, where the Nicholsons would go for one year. They would later return to the arctic to teach at Paulatuk for another six months. He had long wanted to go to China, and his final teaching assignment was at the University of Harbin, where he was teaching Western Religion—in large measure to teach English. While they were there, Al passed away suddenly in 2006, age 65. 

Al was a very kind and positive man, who really loved his career. “It was really exciting to him to see one of his students, get a new concept.” His sincere enjoyment of mathematics, music and teaching shone through for all of his students to see. Over the years he inspired a lot of local youth to pursue their interests, and become their best. His enthusiasm and his unique approach meant that few of his students would forget Al Nicholson.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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