Saying goodbye to a school full of fond memories
June 2, 2017
By the time Freemon Redmon arrived at Vaughan Road Academy (VRA) in the early 1940s, his older sister Audrey Carnegie – the wife for 63 years of hockey pioneer Herb Carnegie -- and Jack Riley had left as the school’s first Black graduates.
As he settled down in his new environment, Redmon realized he stood out as the only Black in a student population of nearly 1,500.
“I might have been different, but I wasn’t treated differently,” the 91-year-old said at the school’s farewell tribute reunion last Saturday. “I was treated well and I enjoyed my time here.”
The City of York first high school is set to close on June 30 after being operational for 91 years.
Six months ago, Toronto District School Board trustees voted to close VRA because of a decline in student enrolment. Last September, just over 200 students were enrolled in the school that can accommodate almost 1,000 pupils.
Redmon, who left VRA early in 1943 to help his father Nathaniel Redmon who established the first Black-owned haulage company in Toronto, said the reunion brought back fond memories.
“It’s sad to see they are closing this place,” he said. “I had to be here for this occasion.”
Carnegie died in 2003 at age 84 while Riley, who served in World War II and was the first Black student to graduate with an electrician’s certificate before starting his own company – JJ Riley Electrical in 1953 – passed away three years ago at age 92.
Siblings Maisie, Yvonne and Newton Vanriel couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit their alma mater one last time.
In her first year in 1976, Yvonne – who competed in the long jump event at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) track & field championships in the long jump event -- was the school’s Female Athlete of the Year.
“That was the highlight of my time here,” said the 1981 graduate who completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Toronto and is a chartered professional accountant.
Maisie Vanriel, who graduated three years earlier, said her fondest memory is music teacher Neil Perkins.
“For five years, I played the flute and piano because of Mr. Perkins,” said the U of T graduate who is a dietician.
Younger brother Newton Vanriel enjoyed his time playing football and participating in track and field.
“I grew up in this neighbourhood and this school was the cornerstone of the community,” said the 1984 graduate. “I still cannot fathom that it is closing.”
Gayann Browne-Hamilton still remembers the impact a few teachers had on her life.
“They inspired me to think outside the box and go above the stars,” said the York University graduate who left VRA in 1988. “I became an abstract thinker because of them.”
Andria Lewis-Alexander was thrilled to be invited to be part of the closing ceremony.
With back-up singers Masini McDermott, who is her daughter, and her niece Chanelle Perrier-Telemacque, the 1989 graduate performed ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’.
“I chose this song because I knew it was going to resonate with most of the alumni here today who graduated in the 60s, 70s and 80s,” said Lewis-Alexander who is a student life co-ordinator at George Brown College.
She said the stage was her favourite place in the school.
“That is where I got to be free and express myself,” said Lewis-Alexander who also played the violin and alto saxophone.
Since graduating two years ago, this was the second time that Micah Peters returned to VRA.
“It’s not a good feeling to know this will be the last visit,” he said. “I have great memories of being here, particularly the time I spent competing on the track & field team.”
The gold medallist in the triple jump at the OFSAA championship in his senior year, Peters earned a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University where he’s pursuing exercise science studies.
His mother – Marcelle Lambert-Peters – was the school’s parent council president for a year.
“When we moved from Vancouver in 2012, we were fortunate to have Micah enrolled at this school where he was able to thrive in athletics and academics,” she said. “Like most people here, I am sad to see the school close.”
Former Ontario Black History Society president Rosemary Sadlier was among the last inductees into the VRA Hall of Fame.
There were just 10 Black students at the school when she graduated in 1971.
“The school curriculum didn’t reflect those that looked like me, but knowing what I didn’t get here is what inspired me to do what I could to fill the gaps and correct misinformation to affirm our story,” Sadlier added.
Other notable VRA alumni are award-winning hip hop artist Drake and two-time Olympian Marita Payne-Wiggins who was the fastest female in the Western hemisphere in the 400-metre event with a time of 50.06 secs. and a silver medallist in the 4x100 and 4x400-metre events at the 1984 Olympics.
She and Jillian Richardson-Brisoce are the co-holders of the national 400-metre record (49.91 secs.).
Payne-Wiggins, the mother of National Basketball Association player Andrew Wiggins, set the mark at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Vaughan became an academy in 1988, with school uniforms and an emphasis on academics.
The school also offers an International Baccalaureate program for students with a special aptitude for athletics and the arts.