(- taken from an article in the 1969-1970 St. John’s Report)
For St. John’s Schools the past two years have been a time of escalating publicity, some bad, most good, but plentiful enough to send a story a about the schools into scores of Canadian and American newspapers, one national TV program and, most recently, towards the international edition of the Reader’s Digest.
What began the boom was the publication by St. John’s two years ago of a 40 page teacher recruiting booklet called “Men Wanted” that was sent to a dozen Canadian newspapers. Two of them, the Victoria times and the Ottawa Journal, did stories on the place.
The story in the Journal was spotted by Weekend Magazine which then sent a reporter and photographer west for a few days on a visit.
To the photographer, Britisher Bruce Moss, St. John’s brought on nostalgia, taking him back to his own school days in England. Nearly all the pictures he took showed lively, happy youngsters, all smiles, all intensely occupied, all warmly recommending St. John’s.
To reporter James Quigg, St. John’s was Buchenwald of the Prairies, a sinister reassertion of medieval authoritarianism, hidden in the remote reaches of the West and ruled by a cold, Squeers-type despot named Wiens who kept “a large brown dog” in his office.** It was apparently a reference to Ivor, the school’s pet mongrel.
In Quigg’s concoction of innuendoes, half truths and no truths at all, presented to 2.25 million readers of Weekend Magazine and accompanied, bewilderingly, by Moss’s grinning photographs (as if all the inmates of Buchenwald were advertising Quest toothpaste), St. John’s concluded that it had met its doom. Not at all. The story set off such a demand for admissions as the school had never seen. More than 200 parents applied within 48 hours of the story’s appearance. When the professionally indignant masters of the nation’s hottest radio shows took hold of it and tried furthering the expose, the same backfiring occurred. For every person horrified by the place, ten tried to send sons to it. As the Quigg story moved through its circuit of American Sunday supplements, the same reaction spread southward. The Alberta finance campaign, recently launched, demonstrated an immediate lift in interest. Donations to the Selkirk school picked up.
Only once was the school at all threatened. A lady faculty member from the University of Toronto wrote to Archbishop H.H Clark demanding the place be closed. The “academic community” was disturbed, she said. The school offered to pay her way west to see the school for herself and thereby provide the academic community with information more unimpeachable than that of a rotogravure supplement. She said she was too busy. That ended that.
Meanwhile the Ugly Canadian himself was flown to New York by the CBS to appear on a show called, To Tell the Truth, and let a panel of experts decide whether it was he or one of two other men that was the real Frank Wiens. They picked the wrong man, choosing instead one of the alternates, a New York cab driver, and Mr. Wiens’s $500 went to the school’s capital fund.
Then too, the Quigg story had not gone unobserved by the CTV network and its Private Eye show. It was faced as usual, with the task of finding seven or eight scandals to expose as Sunday entertainment for Canadians. In an otherwise disturbingly barren week, St. John’s appeared as manna from the heavens. This, however, the school refused to buy. As a provender for the national appetite for righteous indignation St. John’s had done its share.
Meanwhile, at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the thought occurred that the Quigg expose might not only be exaggerated but might even have concealed a genuinely positive contribution to Canadian education. The producers of the show, This Land of Ours, made further inquiries, and sent a research man, Pat Patterson, who lived at St. John’s for a week, spent hours talking to the boys, and came to like the place. Several weeks later the entire This Land of Ours crew arrived and John Lackie and John Foster produced a half hour documentary on St. John’s. Their show, which depicted much more of St. John’s than had Weekend, has been on the network four times, and brought much support for the school.
All these developments had been watched carefully by Dave MacDonald, Canadian correspondent for the international edition of Reader’s Digest, who then spent a week a St. John’s last fall. His story is scheduled to appear quite soon.
Withal, Selkirk’s cold despot remains wary of newspapermen. “Whenever one of them shows up,” says Frank Wiens, “I tell Ivor to get out of my office and go sleep somewhere else.”
** Reminiscent of Roosevelt’s famous defense of Falla, Wiens later commented: “I didn’t care so much what he said about me, and the school, and the parents, and the boys. But when he started in on Ivor, who has few teeth left and has never so much as snared at anybody, that was going too far.” However, Ivor, it is true has an unfortunate smile in which he bares his teeth and wags his tail. He doesn’t mean any harm by this. He’s only trying to be hospitable. Quigg reacted badly to Ivor.