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Class of '54: First Grade 11 class to graduate from one-room school in P.E.I. reunites

Bonnie Johnstone motions to a black and white picture of her as a young girl attending the school in O’Leary with former classmates.
Bonnie Johnstone motions to a black and white picture of her as a young girl attending the school in O’Leary with former classmates. - Desiree Anstey
O'LEARY, P.E.I. —

Scrapbooks, artifacts, and sepia-coloured pictures are pinned against the walls of Knutsford Community Centre to revive childhood memories.

The former one-room wooden schoolhouse is similar to what many of the Grade 11 graduates of O’Leary experienced 65 years ago, as they flocked Saturday evening, from around the province and farther afield, to reunite.

“We graduated in June 1954, and that’s the first time in this area that there was education above Grade 10. Before, students had to leave the area to continue education,” said Vernon Cornish, one of the former classmates now living in Bridgewater, N.S.

“There were 18 students and one professor, called Charles Reid,” said Cornish. 

“We had to behave very well and that was always difficult for me. Our teacher, Mr. Reid, addressed us as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr.’ followed by our surnames. He had a very sharp, hoarse voice because he farmed.” 

Out of those classmates, 10 were in attendance as they reacquainted with laughter, hugs, and fond memories of either walking, riding to school in a horse and wagon or travelling by train (now part of the Confederation Trail) during bad weather in the winter.

“Usually a lot of the male students would leave at the end of Grade 8 and follow their parents' footsteps in farming or fishing. But some of us went on to college or left the Island," said Cornish.

Bonnie Johnstone pictured second on the left.
Bonnie Johnstone pictured second on the left.

Bonnie Johnstone was among the students that left P.E.I.

“I wanted to become a nurse and there wasn’t a Grade 12 on P.E.I. at the time, so my parents decided I should further my education in Nova Scotia. After studying Grade 12 in Moncton, I went to Acadia for two years and from there I started work with Maritime Central Airways (MCA). I never did become a nurse,” said Johnstone, who travelled on the weekend from Dartmouth, N.S.

Johnstone married a pilot and together they travelled around Canada. She said coming back to her hometown is “amazing" to rekindle fond childhood memories with old familiar faces.

“To think there are that many of us still kicking around, only one former classmate died,” she said.

Fairley Yeo, the organizer of the event, said those school days were the best period in her life.

“I couldn’t afford to continue with university or college at that time because my mother was a widow, so I loved attending school in O’Leary. We walked to school because there were no buses in those days. Everyone came within a 10-mile radius, and we were a close-knit group,” said Yeo.

After graduation, the students went on to become a success; whether in travelling across the country, having a family, career or eventually graduating later on at UPEI. 

Johnstone, Cornish, and Yeo agreed that they would not change a thing to alter their life’s journey.

The special reunion included a dinner and live music, performed by Cornish on his guitar.

After 65 years, the first Grade 11 class to graduate in O’Leary reunite.
After 65 years, the first Grade 11 class to graduate in O’Leary reunites.

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