Alma girls lament demise of school

By Marg Berry, Times-Journal Staff
Monday, June 4, 2001

A single red carnation, left behind Saturday on the old concrete steps by touring alumnae, added a poignant spot of colour to the drab scene that is Alma College today.

The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the Alma College International Alumnae Association, which brought former students from as far away as Australia to St. Thomas. The damp and empty Alma, stripped of its former glory, was a shock to many former students, who remembered the majestic school in better days.

Lisa Johnson, a past president of the association, was part of the group which removed the contents of the college. "That’s where we got the archives for the alumnae," she said. It was an unpleasant removal. "The heat was shut off and I caught a cold," she recalled, standing in the dark and watery halls of the college Saturday.

The archives are a main focus of the alumnae, which own the precious material from the past. Temporary storage is at the Elgin county administration building, until a permanent site is found.

There were 91 association members at the 100th anniversary luncheon at Central United Church. Pat Watson travelled from England to the reunion. She attended the college from 1942 to 1944, after she was evacuated during Second World War bombing in England. Inside the dark halls on Saturday she remarked, "It is sad to see. It was such a beautiful place. I was used to going to private school in England, so it was wonderful. I loved it."

Helen Cookingham of Flint, Mich., attended Alma from 1939 to 1946. Standing on the great stairs in the main lobby brought back memories for her.
"We used to put shoe polish on the rails." When the teachers came down, their black hands would send the students into fits of laughter.

Tania McLeod-Yu, from Sidney, Australia, found out about the 100th anniversary from the association’s new Web page. She attended the college in 1978, and in 1982-83. "My room was just above the vice-principal’s office." She found out on the weekend, after speaking with former vice-principal Lara (Masur) Leitch, that the gerbil and rabbit hidden in her room were no secret to the staff. She also recalled the 6 a.m. showers and the banging of the old water pipes.

Alumnae learned renovation plans by current Alma College owner Alma Heritage Estates will turn the building into 45 senior residential care units for assisted living. Development of the entire property will provide residential units for seniors from independent living to full care. Plans include a new nine-storey building with apartments for independent living and a new seven-storey senior residential care facility. The Sifton Building is to be torn down to make way for a 60-unit seniors residential care building.

Jill Zubick, of Alma Heritage Estates, was a guest at the alumnae association luncheon. "This has been an amazing group," she said, during a break in taking photos for association members lined up on the college steps. "The talent and bubbliness of each person here is just amazing. They come from far and wide. I’m just awed by it."

Asked when work will start on the Alma development, Zubick said, "We say we’re close."