Who Was Dr. E.W. Coffin?
Our school is named after Dr. E.W. Coffin who came to Calgary from Prince Edward Island in 1909. He had an important influence on teachers, and education trends in the province of Alberta in his role as the principal of Alberta's first teacher training college, the Calgary Normal School, a position that he held for 29 years.
Ernest William Coffin was a descendent of United Empire Loyalist stock, the family having moved from Boston to Prince Edward Island at the time of the American Revolutionary War. He was born at Mount Stewart, Prince Edward Island on February 9, 1875.
In 1894 be obtained a First Class Certificate from Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. After teaching for a time in Prince Edward Island he entered Dalhousie University in Halifax and received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1902. Armed with these impressive credentials for that era he went to Trinidad, West Indies, as Headmaster of Naporina College and Training School. On his return north he registered at Clark University for graduate study. In 1908 he was granted a AHD. Degree. After graduation he spent a year in teacher-training in Indiana and in 1909 moved to Calgary to begin his long period of service in the Calgary Normal School. In January 1911, Dr. Coffin was appointed Principal of the Calgary Normal School, a position he occupied with distinction until his retirement in 1940. During that period of thirty years over nine thousand teachers came to know him and respect him, they became better people because of this contact.
The City of Calgary was undergoing great changes as Dr. Coffin took on his job as principal of the Calgary Normal School in 1911. There was a great speculative land boom, much expansion and construction. As the knowledgeable Calgary historian Frederick Hunter says, "the Sandstone City was rapidly passing from cowtown to cosmopolitan centre, and the Municipal Railway (the streetcar system) had completed two successful years. Some of Calgary’s most impressive and historic buildings date from that era as well." Those hope-filled days were soon to be followed by a massive downturn in the economy, and then the onslaught of the First World War.
Dr. Coffin's 29-year tenure as principal of the Calgary Normal School was graced with many highs and lows, and as he finished his work there he witnessed the depression years and the beginning of WWII. Through it all it is reported that he maintained a fine sense of humour, encouraged student involvement in drama, music and sports, and demonstrated a genuine care for his students and their future career as teachers.
(excerpt Mrs. Edith Berger, first principal of Dr. E.W. Coffin Elementary School - 25th Anniversary Memory Book)
Before there was even a hole in the ground there was a Dr. E.W. Coffin School. By the spring of 1966 Simon Fraser was having serious difficulty in trying to house the increasing number of students in grades one to nine. Work on the new elementary school was beginning that summer.
School started in Simon Fraser in September with two principals, two groups of teachers, and two timetables, according to the needs of the two groups of students. Parents looking for the Elementary Principal's office were conducted to a windowless broom closet on the second floor. The enrollment continued to grow and new elementary classrooms had to be interspersed with those housing the junior high students. By November, making room for any more students in the Simon Fraser building was becoming almost impossible.
In the meantime, the Dr. Coffin building was beginning to take shape. It was exciting to watch the many innovative ideas for that time become a reality. The classrooms were being built around a central courtyard easily accessed from the corridors and the well-planned library. At least two of the rooms had a folding wall between them to accommodate teachers wishing to work together as a team.
It must have been some time in November when I requested that we move into the unfinished building as soon as the classrooms were ready, despite the work on the auditorium and other ancillary areas having to continue around us. The request was granted and the decision was made to move right after the Christmas break. In that era schools were never closed, even for blizzards or other legitimate reasons, and so a further request was denied for a day or two in which to make the move.
Therefore, we transferred from the one school to the other on our own time. First we went to the new building after work one day and allotted and numbered the classrooms. Then the children did what they could to help their teachers pack and number their boxes of books and supplies so that they matched the numbers on the classroom doors, On the Thursday the movers came during the Christmas holidays, all of the teachers spent the day at the new school unpacking supplies and getting ready for the January reopening. I still look back with admiration and respect to this group of hard-working dedicated teachers, at least one of who had foregone special plans for that Christmas break.
I wonder how many former students remember their first day in the new school. It must have been a traumatic day for some, but I don’t recall many complaints. We had been given two additional teachers, thus making it necessary to redistribute the eleven over-crowded classes among thirteen classrooms. Not having the auditorium available, the children lined up outside the building. Each teacher read out the names of his or her pupils from a list of carefully prepared beforehand and then led his charges to the new classroom. By 9:30 only the workmen were left in the halls to greet Mr. Geiger, the kindly elementary superintendent, who arrived to help with the anticipated chaos.
The school continued to grow, numbering over 400 students at its peak. it was officially opened in the spring of 1967 with the unveiling of a picture of Dr. E.W. Coffin for whom it had been named. It was at that time that the architects donated the school mascot, the imaginative metal sculpture of a big bird, which spent it first years over-looking the work of students on hot days in the courtyard.
Perhaps thus was begun a tradition which continued at least during the six years I was with the school. Each year they chose from a collection of paintings submitted by local artists. Another year it was a sculpture that appealed to the majority of them. When I left the school for a year of study at the University of London my contribution was mountain oil painting done by Margaret Marshall, educator and artist in her own right.
All of this was lost in the devastating fire during Christmas break, 1974. Like many others living I the area I stood at my window looking with sorrow and horror at the following smoke that marked the end of the Dr. E.W. Coffin School.