Lillian was very contented with her life in Radville and was not anxious to move to Weyburn in 1957. She was more than a little upset when that opportunity was first made known. She hated the thought of leaving the beautiful campus in Radville with its lovely winding river, its trees and its memories. On the other hand, she knew that the buildings at the Weyburn airport would be the answer to so many of their urgent problems. In Radburn's Memoirs she says, "With my heart heavy at the thought of leaving our beautiful campus on the banks of Long Creek, I cast my vote in favour of moving because I knew that our beloved school would have more room for expansion at Weyburn."
Although her first apartment at North Weyburn was unfinished and separated from Cecil and Lavine Bailey's apartment by only a shoulder high partition, it was a vast improvement over her little house in Radville that was always damp and never warm! The electricity, the running water and the telephone were immediate pleasures. Especially the water!
When she moved to Weyburn she had taught school for nearly thirty years and had resided in eight different locations during that time. Never before, in her time as a teacher, had she lived where there was a bathroom with a bathtub and easy access to hot and cold water. Even though that tub was stained and rusted and was so high that, as one of her mother's friends said, you almost needed a ladder to get into it, it was like living on luxury lane for her. She had, of course, become accustomed to indoor plumbing when she was at normal school in Regina and again when she was in university in Winnipeg, but both had just served to whet her appetite.
She lived in that apartment only a short time before moving to the upstairs apartment on the southwest end of the building that housed the girls' dormitory (later named Torkelson Hall) and the staff apartments. She lived there for seventeen years. Although she moved to the Red Barn after her mother came to live with her, that upstairs apartment was always identified as Miss T.'s apartment, no matter who lived in it.
The move to Weyburn made changes in Lillian's life. Some of those were at school. There were more students and more teachers which meant that she had fewer classes to teach and more time to spend with each class. Some classes she was willing to let go of, but history, her first love, was never one of them! With added time to spend in both preparation and delivery, her classes became more interesting. For countless numbers of students, over many years, Canadian and European history came to life.
THE CAR !
She also had more time personally. She had sold her little house in Radville for nine hundred dollars and with that money she decided to buy a car, which gave her an independence she'd never had before. As she said, "It set me free!" She still cherishes the freedom and independence that driving gives her.
She hadn't driven in thirty years (since her teenage escapades!) and she was afraid she wouldn't be able to pass a driving test so she looked for someone to give her some lessons. Jim O'Neal gave her one day's instruction and that was enough for her to get her learner's permit. Because she had to have a licensed driver in the car with her as she practiced for her driving test, she asked some students who had licenses to ride around with her while she drove. Bill Muirhead, David Williams and Oliver Pruden were delighted to do that, and in addition to being her passengers they gave her some good driving hints.
This was the beginning of June, so she knew she had the help of her boys for only a few more weeks. She was determined, but by the date of her test, she had completed one successful parallel park. As she prepared to take her test that day, she told the examiner about her boys and said, "Tomorrow is the last day of school and everyone will be gone. If I don't pass I won't be able to drive." She suspects he took pity on her because he not only passed her; he never even asked her to parallel park. She called it one of the great joys and surprises of her life. In fact, she was more surprised to get her driver's license than she was to get her B.A.!
She has chronicled the history of Radville and Western Christian College in her book, Radburn's Memoirs, but that story is about the school, not herself. Her own life, while inextricably tied to the school, had its own joys and sorrows. As she and I reflected on her memories, she could think of four very difficult times for her during her Weyburn years, but a score of wonderful, delightful memories.
Cecil Bailey's Resignation
The first painful time was in 1960, when Cecil Bailey resigned as principal of the school. He and Lavine were very old, very dear friends who had shared her dream for the school from the very beginning. Cecil had only a Grade Eight education when the dream was born; he had worked unceasingly to get his high school diploma and college degree and there had been great rejoicing on Lillian's part when he joined the staff as principal in 1956.
While she has had a multitude of friends, the relationship with Lavine and Cecil has always been different, the kind of relationship in which each allowed the others their own way of thinking and accepted them as they were. It was both rare and precious.
When he resigned in protest against certain Board policies, Lillian did not also resign as Cecil had thought she would. While she shared many of his views, she was fiercely committed to her students, and couldn't figure out how the school could continue to operate without either of them. "It never once dawned on me, in my dull brain, that Cecil expected me to resign too, and that if I had, it would have forced the Board to do something."
It was a very emotional time for everyone, and Lillian, like everyone involved, experienced a great deal of unhappiness. Cecil and Lavine left hurt and angry. Lillian lost precious friendships and was shunned by some of her oldest and dearest friends who saw her as a betrayer because she had not also resigned. Perhaps the deepest pain of all was the stress this put on her relationship with Signe, her lifelong bosom friend. While she learned some valuable lessons from all of this, she grieved that "some lessons come too late to be of help".
She buried herself in work to try and deal with the pain. She began to see Cecil's perspective and so didn't blame people for the way they were treating her. Cecil and Lavine forgave her much more quickly than other people did, but she is grateful that eventually most of her old friends have accepted her back.
She considers the whole affair to be a tragedy because she knows in retrospect that she could have been more help if she hadn't had such an obsessive loyalty to the school. She doesn't regret her commitment to the school and especially to the students, but she does recognize that it blinded her to some other equally important matters.
Another difficult time for her was in 1979, when Albert Kleppe, minister of the church in Weyburn and former teacher at Western resigned because of immorality. It had never dawned on her that anyone who had such a wide knowledge of God's word and was such an excellent Bible teacher could have such a weakness in his character. It was a dreadful shock to her, as it was also to the students who had relied on his integrity and respected him so much. It took her a very long time to recover from the trauma of that situation.
Her mother's death in 1977 was a traumatic event for Lillian. In addition to the pain of losing her mother, she felt responsible for the accident that caused her death. She reflects on this in the last chapter.
The Move To Dauphin
Probably the most difficult period of time for her though, was 1989, Western Christian College's last year in Weyburn. Western was, in a very real sense, her child, even though by that time she had completely retired from teaching. It was still such a very large part of her life, and the thought of it moving away was, as she put it, "very, very difficult to adjust to".
She felt very strongly that the school should not move away from Weyburn, not because of her own feelings, but because of the students. Her reasoning was that the majority of those students were from Saskatchewan, and, most significant, there was an established post-secondary situation for them, with students and classes being accepted by the University of Regina. There were a number of other reasons as well. As much as her whole life revolved around Western though, when the school finally made the move to Dauphin, she had no desire to also make the move. She knew she would have felt like an extra wheel on a vehicle.
The time leading up to the final decision and the actual move was certainly one of the saddest times of her life. And that heavy- heartedness remained for a long time. She had always done a lot of walking, and while the school was in Weyburn her usual route was around and among the school buildings. She especially loved doing this after she retired; it kept her in touch with what was going on. She often stopped in at the school building for coffee and a visit with the staff.
But for the first year after the school left, she couldn't walk among those empty buildings and instead, did her walking away from the campus. She said it was like going among the ghosts of lost friends. But she knew that time is a great healer, and after that first painful year, she was gradually able to start travelling some of her old routes again, without the onslaught of aching memories.
She is sure that there were other problems over the years, but most of them seemed to fade away in the glow of the happier times. She was always sad to see beloved staff members leave, and of course there were always lots of physical inadequacies and frustrations over the years, but they were really of very little significance.
Lillian has always loved surprises and one of the earliest she received at Weyburn was at a regular Friday night all-school devotional in the cafeteria. All of the staff and students were there and they presented her with a brand new stove and refrigerator. Louise Andreas had taken the initiative to collect the money for the gift from alumni and other friends ; a gift most welcome because, in spite of the fact that she had lived in her little house in Radville for seven years, she had never had either. She had cooked on a two-burner hot plate and kept her food cool in the earth basement. Louise thought it was time she had something better!
The happy times were far more numerous and are more indelibly etched in her memory. Reflecting on the seven Grade Twelve picnics she sponsored at Pasqua Lake always bring a smile to her lips, particularly the first one in 1959.
Most of those who went on that overnight trip were, like Lillian herself, prairie folk, not used to staying overnight at a lake. It was June, so surely one blanket each was enough, wasn't it?? (There were no such things as sleeping bags then!) The first night, Friday, the girls slept inside the cabin, the boys outside in a tent. And they all froze!
They started their Saturday activities at 5:00 A.M. They boated and swam, played outdoor games and hiked up the hills. They were involved in some kind of strenuous activity all day long. The students did the cooking and in the evening they had a wiener roast and sing song. Lillian said it was the quietest wiener roast she had ever attended, and by 9:30, everyone was so tired they agreed it was a good time to go to bed!
Because it had been so cold the night before, they decided that the boys could sleep inside, in the kitchen, but Lillian was a little concerned, wondering, "How am I going to get everyone quiet in such crowded quarters?" She expected she'd have to get pretty stern before they'd all settle down, but by 10:00 o'clock, without a word from anyone, they were all in bed and totally quiet! Bill Muirhead, one of the students, told Lillian it was the most interesting weekend he'd had in his whole life. The next year they took lots of bedding!
Improvements to the campus always brought excitement. Lillian observed that there were more occasions for happy celebrations when everything didn't happen at once. So new sidewalks were a joyful development, as were the first flower beds, the opening of the student centre, clothes closets in the dorm rooms, the first painting of the buildings and many, many other things over the years. Every change brought a wonderful time of rejoicing.
The four major events of the year, Lectureship, Homecoming, Youth Rally and Graduation were always times of great joy and satisfaction for her. Each one brought crowds from all over; the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. The lessons at Lectureship always inspired Lillian and it gave her a great lift when the attendance had grown so large that it had to be moved from the gym to the rink. These were the biggest crowds of the brotherhood in Western Canada, well over a thousand for several years, and up to fifteen hundred one year.
The special joy of Homecoming was seeing former students being reunited, visiting with them herself and listening to them reminisce. While Youth Rally was primarily for the young people, she loved going to the annual musicals that were a part of that weekend. It always amazed her that the students could do such a first-rate job. She remembers well the year the students performed Fiddler On The Roof. A teacher friend in Weyburn had seen it performed at Rainbow Stage in Winnipeg and she compared the students' production very favourably with that one. Graduation grew from two graduates in 1947 to the point where those ceremonies, too, had to be moved to the rink, another great thrill for her.
A very special tradition was The Farewell Banquet. It didn't draw any crowds, in fact, no visitors were allowed! This was the day, just before the end of the year, when staff members let down their hair and entertained the students. There was no predicting what they might do! Sometimes they did parodies of major (or not-so-major!) events that had happened during the year. Sometimes they mimicked student behaviour, sometimes they made up songs or skits, but alway s it was a tossup over who had more fun, the students or the staff! It has continued to be one of the school's major events, every year since 1948.
~Another satisfying and memorable moment at Weyburn was the move into the new school building in 1968. It was the finest school building Lillian had ever taught in. It was the warmest, the most attractive, and the best equipped, including having one of the best high school libraries in the province at that time. The introduction of the college program that same year was another milestone in the development of Western. She gives vivid details of both events in Radburn's Memoirs.
As already noted, Lillian loves surprises. A unique one was at the College Graduation on May 11, 1974. Her college art history class presented her with an art treasure. This masterpiece was standing on a tall easel, covered with a cloth. When prizes and awards were given out, Michelle Duncan addressed the gathering (as well as Lillian), thanking her profusely for what they had learned in her class, and then with a flourish threw back the cloth covering the treasure and presented it to her. Not only Lillian, but the whole gathering was surprised, to say the least, to behold a modern expressionist style canvas, painted in bold colours, staring at them.
It was a group effort by the class, with each student contributing to the work with his or her own identifying colour. Paul Brazle used orange, Michelle Duncan - blue, Bob Duncan - red, Cynthia Hawkins - yellow, Kirk Roberts - green and Nancy Orr painted in black. Incidentally, they informed her that they had each used a straw as their chosen instrument of expression.
A very special memory for her was the auctioning of the thirtieth anniversary quilt in 1975. It was truly a work of art, made to celebrate thirty years of Western Christian College. She and Lois Olson had agreed to combine their funds so that they could make a respectable bid and hopefully buy it. She really wanted it badly because each of the blocks represented important and meaningful events of the thirty years of not only the existence of Western, but of her own life as well. They had decided they would bid up to five hundred dollars, but to her great dismay it was over that amount in about two minutes! It eventually sold to Don Rude of Coeur D'Alene for a thousand dollars. She was keenly disappointed, but, she thought philosophically, "Well, at least I'm glad a former student got it."
That was Saturday night, and on Sunday, following the afternoon lecture she experienced an unforgettable moment when she was asked to come to the front, where Don presented her with the quilt! He informed her that he was only the spokesman for a group of ten or more who had decided to pool their resources to buy the quilt for her. What a wonderful surprise!
That quilt was not the end of pleasant surprises. In 1970, during Homecoming festivities, former students and friends gave her money to tour Europe and the Holy Land. Even the way they did that was unique! The first time they called her up on stage, they gave her a replica of the Glen Curren schoolhouse where she had taught in 1929/30, her first year of teaching. She was delighted! And while she was admiring that, they gave her a big bouquet of flowers. She hardly got sat down when they made another presentation, a big book of letters from former students - a wonderful gift!
She was sitting in the audience with good friend, Mary Curtiss Schreder sitting beside her, looking at the book, when she was called back to the stage a third time! Walter Straker, president of the Alumni Association, presented her with a cheque for two thousand dollars. She didn't say a word because she was sure he must be joking. Then she looked at the cheque and was really speechless! She was so stunned she could hardly say thank you. It was truly the fulfillment of a dream when she took that six week trip, accompanied by Gertrude Weeks! She made the most of every minute of every day, and you can read some of the details in her diary update to Radburn's Memoirs.
There was a sad note to that presentation though; her parents weren't there to share it with her. Somehow, in all the secrecy and planning they didn't know anything about it until the actual day of the celebration, and then they had no way of getting there. Her Dad was too ill to have come anyway, but her mother was well, and was hurt that she wasn't able to be there to see her daughter so honoured.
Recognition and honour weren't over yet! At Homecoming four years later (1974) there was another surprise in store for her. She was named Alumnus Of The Year. Her mother was living with her then, so she did get to enjoy this celebration, and she was very much a proud parent that night!
Again her former students had gone to a great deal of trouble to surprise her. Since she was the Executive-Secretary of the Alumni Association, she was the one who would receive all nominations and votes for the honour of Alumnus of the Year. But those responsible for the nomination informed all those eligible to vote that Marilyn Muller's name would be on the ballot, and that a vote for Marilyn was, in reality, a vote for Lillian.
When the votes came in to Lillian and Marilyn was the winner, Lillian followed her usual pattern - she informed Marilyn that she had been chosen Alumnus of the Year; asked her for some biographical details; wrote out the citation and gave it to the president of the Alumni Association. When J.C. Murray got up to announce the winner, she was first bewildered that he wasn't reading the citation she had given him, and then thunderstruck as she began to realize he was talking about her! Following is a portion of the text of the citation that was read.
If the true measure of greatness has anything to do with perseverance, dedication, loyalty and devotion, then we honour today a truly great person.
Miss Lillian M. Torkelson has demonstrated a singleness of purpose and commitment to an ideal which raises her above the ordinary and places her on a level with the truly great persons of history. Although her activity has been, for the most part, confined to the southeastern corner of Saskatchewan, there are people around the world who rise up to call her blessed.
Perhaps Western Christian College would have become a reality without Miss Torkelson but it was from her desire to get a Christian education and her determination that other young people should also, that the first Bible school began in 1931.
One of Lillian's favourite extracurricular activities was always drama, both when she was teaching in public schools and again at Western. For thirty two years during her teaching career she was involved in drama. She has solid convictions about the value of a drama program. She says, "Drama is a great vehicle for developing self confidence and poise. It improves speech. It improves behaviour. Anyone who realizes a sense of worthy achievement becomes a better school citizen and even does better scholastically."
She had many unforgettable drama students, but Marilyn Covell stands out in her memory because she won the right to an all-expense paid trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 1960. Lillian says, "I shall long remember her first part in a play at Western. She was in one of the plays prepared in October, 1958 for the official opening of Western at the Weyburn campus. When I went backstage before the play, I was confronted by a thoroughly scared girl who said, 'I can't go on stage.' I envisioned what would happen to the play if she didn't appear, but I said very quietly and very calmly, 'Oh yes, you can.'"
Well, she did go on and she did very well. That started Marilyn's interest in drama and each year she was at Western she performed, improving her craft and transporting her audiences. The Drama Festival adjudicator, who gave both public and private critiques, was very impressed with Marilyn. He said, "I never remember her name but I always remember her as an actress as soon as she walks on the stage." Marilyn was chosen as one of thirteen students from the province to attend the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, "a really great honour for our little high school".
Lillian felt equally strongly about oratory, for the same reasons, and she always made participation in the oratory contest compulsory. Many of the students were scared to death on their first attempt, but they did it because it was simply part of what was expected of them. A number of students did well in unit competitions, but to her great delight, as she sat at the Southern Provincial Bryant Oratorical Contest at Regina in 1963, she heard the name Derald Staveley announced as the winner. She had coached students in all of her high schools, but Derald was the first who had gone so far!
But not everyone was thrilled with public speaking and Lillian nearly met her match a few years later! Colleen Buchanan Nelson arrived at Western in the fall of 1965, a very reluctant student. For the first eleven years of her school career, she had not been in the habit of doing her homework. With Miss Torkelson's encouragement that changed rather quickly! By the third reporting period she was in third place in her Grade Twelve class.
Another thing she had never done was make a public speech:
Public speaking terrified me and I was more stubborn than any of my teachers; when it came to speech time, I refused to go in front of the class and had managed to avoid that death threatening task - until I dealt with Miss T. that is!
There was a duty and honour that went along with third place standing in the graduating class - reading the class Last Will and Testament at the graduation ceremonies. When she realized that she panicked:
I informed Miss T. that I couldn't - but she, with one finger pointed at me, informed me, "Yes, you can!" and instructed me to come to her office several times to read the paper to her - out loud! This was at least as scary as a graduation crowd. But you don't say no to Miss Torkelson!
The big night came and I stood on the stage, shaking and trying to make the words come out. I got one line out and knew I wasn't going to get through it all - when suddenly the tightener on the microphone let go, the mike slipped slowly down to my waist. I froze, but then followed the mike down in what appeared to be a stiff bow. The audience laughed; the ice was broken; I relaxed and finished the reading. I - WE - had done it! Thanks Miss T. You had the faith in me I needed. I'll always remember.
Governor General's Medal
In 1966, Melinda Brazle was the first of Lillian's student to be awarded a governor general's medal. This award has changed considerably over the years. Today, there is a medal available to every school. When Melinda won hers, there was a medal for each of the large city collegiates and only one for each of the sixteen rural districts into which the province was divided. Even this was more medals available than when Lillian won hers in 1928. At that time there was one medal available for each of the big city collegiates, and then one for all the rest of the province's smaller high schools combined.
Melinda's winning this award gave Lillian a great deal of pleasure for several reasons. It always gives her pleasure to see academic excellence honoured; it particularly delighted her for Melinda because she knew what a diligent student she was. She was also pleased because, although she had taught many fine students in many different schools over the years, this was the first of her students to be so honoured. It is still her delight to give medals each year at Western's high school graduation to the valedictorian and the salutatorian, first and second in the Grade Twelve class.
Throughout the years that she was the Grade Twelve home room teacher, an annual trip to the Legislature in Regina was a significant part of her program. T.C. Douglas, premier of the province and M.L.A. for Weyburn, was always the gracious host, taking the class to luncheon in the cafeteria of the Legislative buildings. One year in the early 60's, they were seated in a small private dining room. There was no water on the table, and just as Lillian was about to ask a student to get a tray of water glasses, Mr. Douglas jumped up and insisted that he would get the water for the guests. A small gesture, but indicative of the kind of man Tommy Douglas was. It made an indelible impression on Lillian and her students.
Some time later she related this incident to a relative from the United States. Her cousin was completely astonished that the premier of a province would involve himself in such ordinary housekeeping tasks and said, "I can't imagine the governor of our state doing anything like that!"
Her lifelong love affair with art came to its logical conclusion in 1971 when she began to teach art history to the college class. It was a delightful surprise to her to get that opportunity. She was especially excited to be able to share with them the works she had seen during her tour of art galleries in Europe the year before. She became completely absorbed in reading and doing research and especially in collecting books and slides.
She got Western's ACTS (missionary apprentice) students in Europe to search for uncommon slides for her. She remembers when a slide she particularly wanted and had been unable to locate, David's Death of Marat, arrived from Blair Roberts in Belgium. She was, she says, "a very excited lady"!
She took art classes whenever and wherever they were available, and humbly acknowledged that "By the time I retired, I knew quite a bit about art." Those who took her Art History came away from that class having caught her enthusiasm for and appreciation of art, and feeling truly fortunate to have sat at her feet.
The Campus Family
One of the most precious blessings of all for Lillian, during her North Weyburn years, was the close, almost cloistered, atmosphere among those who lived on campus. Part of that closeness developed because of the isolation, but it was more the result, I think, of a group of people working very closely together, all committed to the same vision. In addition to the students in the dormitories, almost all of the teachers and staff lived right on campus and were, in a very real sense, like one large extended family, caring for the students and for each other as well as for each other's children.
There was little time for socializing, even with next door neighbours, but bonds were created that transcended social connections. She likens it to Sir Thomas More's Utopia where everybody trusted one another; everyone knew that in times of trouble help was close at hand. At Western, the small children played in a very large back yard - the entire campus. Everyone, staff, students, and children knew that they were welcome in any home on campus, something she never fully experienced, either before or since.
One of her favourite memories is of two little boys, Conrad Olson and one of the Pennington boys trudging up to her door, covered with soot and grease, a pretty comical sight. They had gone exploring in places not meant for little boys and came to Miss T. for help. They knew they needed to get themselves cleaned up before going home to face their mothers, and they also knew that her place was a welcome refuge. She cleaned them up as best she could and they ran happily home. Their mothers were embarrassed by the incident, but Lillian was quite honoured that the boys had chosen her.
Each child was everybody's child, and each adult was a significant member of every child's extended family. Lillian was a familiar sight to everyone on campus, long after she retired, because of her daily constitutionals around campus. Several times, in the weeks following her mother's death, little Kristi Close would approach her seriously and inquire, "Where is your mother?" and each time she would tell her, as clearly as she could, that she had gone to heaven and was happy with the angels. And each time Kristi would be satisfied and run off to play - until the next time, when the little scenario would be repeated. It touched Lillian that even this small child cared for her.
She has heard criticism of the kind of lifestyle that was pursued on the North Weyburn campus, that it was some kind of a fool's paradise, not appropriate for Christians. She's very aware that as Christians we have a responsibility to interact with people in the world and to be the leaven of God's love in those relationships. She's also very aware, though, as are all of us who were privileged to be a part of it, that the wonderfully close ties that were formed there in North Weyburn were a part of the fabric of what Western, in its Weyburn years, was all about.
Published in The Old Paths Archive