When Dennis Woodard showed up for his first teaching job in Slave Lake, it was a hamlet of 500 people. It was five years before the oil boom took hold, but even then there wasn’t enough room in the village’s only school.
“I came in November, 1959,” says Woodard. “My classroom was on the west side of town – a one-room shack.”
It was actually well beyond the western edge of town. Immediately west of E.G. Wahlstrom School were mink farms belonging to Kreutzers, Perssons and Zuberbiers. And past them was this Grade 6 classroom. Woodard thinks it might have been a former Swanson Lumber cookshack. The new (north) wing of Wahlstrom School was under construction, and the Grade 6 group got the temporary quarters until the new space was finished.
It was quite the wild west situation out there, as Woodard recalls.
“I was the sixth one to take over that class,” he says. “They were used to having things their own way.”
Getting them back into suitable shape for learning took some effort. Woodard admits to using “some unusual methods you wouldn’t use now. It took some work, but once they realized I wasn’t leaving, we had a really good year.”
Asked for names, Woodard comes up with Leonard Sinclair, Wayne Ghostkeeper, Johnny Giroux and Sandra Engebretson. The rest, he says, aren’t around town anymore as far as he knows.
“He was awesome,” says Ghostkeeper. “Strict but fair. He was athletic so we had a lot of sports. He was a great teacher – no teacher’s pets.”
The next year (1960), Woodard had a brand-new classroom in the new wing; not only that, EGW had an actual gym (now the library) and he became the school’s first PhysEd teacher.
“I coached the first boys’ basketball team,” he says.
Team members included Butch L’Hirondelle, Marvin Wahlstrom, Billy Jackson, Clyde Sinclair, Harry Bottle and the son of the school principal, Brian Warwick.
Speaking of the principal, who called himself ‘Dr. Warwick,’ “he was a fraud,” Woodard says. “He had no credentials.”
Dennis taught at EGW for four years and then took a job in Devon. It turned out to be a mistake.
“I realized being close to the city did nothing for me,” he says. “I missed the lake.”
In the summer of 1964 he was doing a summer school course in Saskatoon; so was Laurette Painchaud. She had also been teaching for four years, in Saskatchewan. One thing led to another and they got married and both took teaching jobs in Slave Lake.
“It was a mudhole!” says Laurette, referring to her first impressions of the place. From the small Saskatchewan farming town of Albertville, she had not seen anything like what Slave Lake was at the beginning of the oil boom. “Not a very good impression in that first year,” she says.
Wahlstrom School was so crowded, her first class was on the stage in the gym, separated from her husband’s noisy PE classes by just a curtain. It only lasted two or three months; by then the school division had set up a couple of trailers and she got one of those for her Grade 2 class.
“The next year I stopped teaching because we started with a family,” she says.
Along came sons Shaun, Craig and Dale, who are now living in Leduc, Leduc and Lethbridge, respectively.
When Laurette resumed teaching it was French as a second language, at CJ Schurter School, which she did for 13 years retiring at the same time as Dennis, in 1992.
The Woodards’ first home was an apartment above a downtown hardware store. The next year they bought a little house on Main St, about where the RE/MAX realty office is now.
Asked what she liked best about Slave Lake, Laurette says, “The lake, the friends we made, the church community and the friendliness of the people. It just felt good – like home.”
Except for two years, all of Dennis’ 35-year teaching career were spent at E.G. Wahlstrom school – the last 20 of those as principal. Perhaps his fondest memories are from his years of supervising school sports. It involved a lot of extra time and effort, coaching and traveling and even driving the bus. He tried out a term on town council once, but found it wasn’t his cup of tea at all.
“I hated it!” he says.
Otherwise, outside of school, Dennis was a keen participant in baseball and hockey. He recalls joining a local senior ball squad in his first summer in town. It was a big part of the local culture and a lot of fun.
“Everything was so competitive,” he says. “I really enjoyed that part of it, playing with those characters, and they were characters!” The Jacksons and Sam Sinclair stand out in his memory from those days with the Slave Lake Jets. Later, he was part of a senior squad that went to tournaments all over, including provincials in Medicine Hat several times.
In the winter, it was oldtimers hockey for many years that kept him busy – lots of traveling to tournaments as well.
Spending time at the lakeshore when the kids were growing up was a big part of Woodard family life, Dennis recalls. Camping too. “We were out just about every weekend.”
The Woodards had not planned on leaving Slave Lake, Dennis says, but ‘getting up there’ and living 300 kilometres from the nearest of their kids, it made sense. So as of a few weeks ago, they are now residents of Leduc.