OBITUARY: Owen Kerley
Nature inspired teacher
BY SAGE BIRCHWATER
Tribune Staff Writer
When Owen Alexander Kerley graduated from Normal School in Victoria in 1936, he was 18 years old.
A year later he got his first job as a teacher after visiting the Inspector of Indian Schools in Victoria, who sent him to St. George’s Residential School in Lytton. His $65 a month salary was considered good wages in those days.
That’s how Owen Kerley began his 37-year career as an educator and school administrator that continued until his retirement as vice-principal of Williams Lake Junior Secondary School in 1974.
When he retired, he was a relatively young man, not yet 57 years old. For the remaining years of his retirement he had hoped to enjoy an active life of gardening, golf, curling, hunting, fishing, and bird-watching, but, as fate would have it, these long awaited days of leisure were cut short. The polio he had as a young boy, came back as Post Polio Syndrome. His ability to walk and enjoy the outdoors diminished.
However, as nature sometimes compensates, when the body is no longer able, the mind sometimes grows even stronger. Owen’s memory was never failing. He would recollect many humorous, many sad, but mostly factual events. Numerous “old-timers” as well as “new timers” would love to visit just to take a walk down memory lane with him.
On Tuesday, February 1, Owen passed away peacefully at Retirement Concepts Seniors’ Village at the age of 87.
Owen was born in Victoria in December 1917 and grew up in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. He did his last two grades of high school in one year and would have preferred to continue his education at university, but couldn’t afford to, due to the tight financial constraints of those depression years.
Instead, he took one year Normal School in Victoria, and then started his teaching career in Lytton. Shortly after, he headed north to the Peace River country where he landed a job teaching 38 children in an elementary school in Sunset Prairie. He continued teaching elementary school and then high school in the Peace River area until 1947.
Owen loved the Peace River Country and its people. He was there when the U.S. Army was building the Alaska Highway, and he experienced the Dawson Creek explosion, which flattened buildings for blocks. He rode to school on his horse ‘Bud.’ He even wanted to call his firstborn – Bud. But Cathie put her foot down and insisted on Glenn. He was medically exempt from joining the forces in the Second World War, because his polio feet and legs would never have allowed him to walk any distances. So, he stoked the woodstoves of churches and schools, and kept the district warm during the 40 to 50 below winters.
It was while in the Peace River country that Kerley (as he was called) met fellow teacher, Catherine Hood, who was teaching in Dawson Creek. They married in 1943, and the first two of their four children, Glenn and Donna, were born in the north country. Later Linda and Steven were born in Williams Lake. Steven was later to die in 1965.
In 1947, the Kerleys moved to Williams Lake, where Owen was hired to teach high school. Cathie said he would never get ahead without a degree. So, for five summers at UBC and five winters in Williams Lake, he took courses – getting firsts in every one. Eventually in 1953 he received his Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and geography. The following year he was appointed vice-principal.
Both Cathie and Owen taught in Williams Lake. If, as a student, you missed Mrs. Kerley in Grade 1, you would surely meet up with Mr. Kerley in high school for math, geography, or any other subject that needed a teacher at the time.
A very close friend of the family said of Owen: “He never aspired to greatness – he was far too busy living.”
His life was dominated by: “I do the things I want to do.”
Asked what keeps him in Williams Lake, he said: “The things I like to do are all available here.” He loved to curl, golf, and fish, help with haying and hunting.
Like many people who call Williams Lake home, the Kerleys were originally only planning to stay for a year, but they came to love the people, the town, the country and the Cariboo lifestyle. Once his degree was in hand and his summers were free, he spent this time working with Lawson Sugden for Fish and Wildlife, banding ducks and aging rainbow trout.
He took part in transplanting California bighorn sheep into Oregon, where the population had been wiped out by over hunting. Owen is a member of the Eight Ender club. This happened when his curling team got eight points in one end. Unfortunately he was not there, when his team won the honour, but he received recognition anyway.
In his later years, Owen was finally confined to a wheelchair with the after effects of polio, the disease he had in his childhood. One of his true pleasures during this time was his fascination with birds. His son Glenn put bird feeders on posts just outside his sitting room window in town so he could still have that link with the outdoors. He participated in the annual bird count, from his window seat, every year.
When Owen needed more care than his wife Cathie could provide, he moved to Deni House, then on to Williams Lake Seniors’ Village last June. Cathie has also moved into Seniors’ Village and together the Kerleys celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last December. His family and friends will remember his encyclopedic mind, his dry wit, his love of Dixieland Jazz, his extensive eclectic library, his appreciation of a choice single malt scotch and his passion for history, especially that of the Cariboo-Chilcotin and The Peace.
People will not likely forget his unique colourful expressions, such as: “There are more horse’s asses than there are horses,” “You may be a run of the mill teacher, but you’re still running the mill;” “You know you are a good teacher, if your name is on the bathroom wall,” or “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”
The list goes on, as teachers, acquaintances and family can attest to.
Owen is survived by his wife Catherine, brother Rick (Florence); children Glenn (Adeline), Donna (Ernst), and Linda; grandchildren Jason (Carrie), Lisa (Steve), Christina (David), Alexander, Patricia, Alana and Emma; and great-grandchildren Jordyn-Leigh, Brette and Taylor.
Funeral services were held February 5 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church. Donations in Owen Kerley’s memory can be made to the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.