Memory Lane

W.O.I.T. - The Solid Foundation Of St. Clair College

It Led The Way From High School To Many Paying Jobs
By Hal Sullivan

It was, as the late Walter Cronkite used to say in his 1950s CBS television show You Are There: "a day like all days, filled with the events which alter and illuminate our times. And you were there."

No kidding.

Especially if "you were there" in a somewhat converted but ramshackle old grade school building at 815 Mercer St., constructed in the late 19th Century to serve the students of what was then considered to be the east side of the City of Windsor.

But a funny thing happened on those students' way to higher learning.

The ceiling fell in.

Literally.

Paul Allsop, now retired and one of the many graduates of the Western Ontario Institute of Technology (W.O.I.T...now St. Clair College), recalls with a chuckle, "We were just sitting there in our Economics class when the ceiling plaster gave way and we ended up covered with dust and debris."

What did the class do?
Walk out in protest and dishevelment?
Not them.
Not there.

The students strolled, clad in their traditional shirts and ties and red or blue blazers (a formal uniform was mandatory at W.O.I.T.) to the Windsor Utilities Commission yard at Erie St. E. and McDougall St., where Paul knew there were construction hardhats which were about to be discarded, and asked for them as what might be considered additional school attire.

So at least on the next occasion when the students were in the same classroom, they were suitably protected.

And thus it was in general, given the pioneering spirit which permeated the institution which preceded what we now know as St. Clair College.

"We did have a bit of a protest gathering about the safety of the old place," recalls Paul with a chuckle, "but our concerns were addressed, so we just carried on."

In general, this was the attitude of the young people who attended and then graduated from W.O.I.T.: they carried on...regardless.

Unquestionably, the surroundings were vastly different from those at the Windsor and now, Chatham and Wallaceburg Campuses of the St. Clair College of today...a college which, incidentally, just began its fall sessions with the largest enrolment in its history: nearly 8,400 students.

The original building which housed the Western Ontario Institute of Technology began life 120 years ago, in late 1890, as a two room public school in the 800 block of Mercer St.

Scarcely three years later, a clamour arose for more rooms. The school was already overcrowded!

After a series of wranglings about how much larger a building was needed and what it might cost, the School Board recovered from its initial sticker shock and paid just over $6,000 to revamp the institution into a two storey brick building which was used as a grade school for many generations, until newer and more strategically located schools were built and 815 Mercer became redundant.

It then experienced a variety of temporary uses...everything from a centre for the Goodfellows of Windsor to a Civil Defence headquarters, and there were even plans in the late 1940s to turn it into an emergency housing development.

However for much of the time, the structure sat, boarded up and unused to such a degree that the City of Windsor officially listed it as condemned for more than 10 years.

During this time there continued to be rumblings from the Government of Ontario about a new style of education for young people who had managed to finish Grade 12. There was a Grade 13 in those days...sometimes quaintly referred to as one's "entrance year"...presumably into university.

On the other hand, the Grade 12 grads didn't have much of a choice.

They could slug it through Grade 13 and hope to be admitted to a university after passing the dreaded and standardized province wide exams...or they could take up a trade or a labouring job.

Many of them couldn't afford university fees, even at 1940s prices, so there was a very wide crack in the system which the young people, however capable or dedicated they might be, could easily fall through.

Enter the institutions which we now call Community Colleges.

Ryerson Institute in Toronto dates back more than six decades to 1948, when it was created partly to deal with the large work force which had developed because of the needs of the Second World War.

And when the Western Ontario Institute of Technology, W.O.I.T., was founded in Windsor in 1958, it was designed to supplement Ryerson and deliver courses similar to those offered at the Toronto school which, incidentally, is now a full fledged and accredited university.

Still: the idea back then was to graduate students who had practical as well as academic knowledge; young people who could step directly into essential trade and other employment and work efficiently, starting with their first day on the job.

The initial plan for W.O.I.T. was to offer three courses...electrical, mechanical and chemical technology...and move on from there.

If the school turned out not to be a success, well, not a whole lot would have been lost except the cost of renovating the old grade school building at 815 Mercer St., along with the discovery that the concept wasn't so practical after all.

But "practical" became the operative word for W.O.I.T.

Despite the physical frailties of the premises, the institution opened with 100 students but was soon bursting at the seams, sometimes almost literally, and portable classrooms had to be set up.

Like all promising institutions, from 1958 onward, W.O.I.T. had something else very important going for it: pride; pride in accomplishment; pride in its future promise; pride, even, in the way the students presented themselves.

W.O.I.T. became known as far more than just a place where young people "from the wrong side of the tracks" could stay warm in the winter.

Recalls Paul Allsop, "I made money working as a driver for the Post Office, so I could pay my tuition. Part of my expenses covered the shirts and ties we all had to wear, along with our red or blue blazers, which were also required. I had a red one. Those were handy at noontime when we'd walk over to Ouellette Ave. and try to impress the young ladies who were on their lunch hours.

In its formative period, W.O.I.T. was an all male institution, vastly unlike the St. Clair College of today.

But the theme which recurs again and again in the stories told by the grads of W.O.I.T. is the solid grounding they received under what, for the time, were novel expectations and challenging conditions; along with the camaraderie of the institution itself and its involvement with the community in general.

As the school's success became more widely known, the opposite of job hunting began to occur.

Recruiters often came to the school instead of the students having to go, cap in hand, so to speak, looking for positions themselves.

Part of this was a result of the quality and nature of training at W.O.I.T; part of it was the role played by the instructors, not just as teachers but as mentors in so many different ways.

"That's another thing," says Paul Allsop, now retired from the Hiram Walker group of companies. "At W.O.I.T. I got the best English language instruction I'd ever had anywhere. You can identify a problem...in my case, in engineering...but if you can't explain it to whoever's in charge, it doesn't do much good."

Raymond Payne is a former Chief Executive Officer of Chatham-Kent Energy.

"Our instructors," he says now, "provided us with theory as well as practicality; and there was dignity to the schooling we received as well. Why...the teachers even came to our social functions and dances and so on.

"We had a saying: 'No tie; no exams.' And remember: a lot of us didn't have wealthy parents. I paid $15 a week to board at a house on Gladstone Ave. near Erie St. Walked to school every day, too. Never, ever, took a bus. I slept on a couch and I remember that on cold nights I'd stick my feet in a cardboard box just to get warmer.

"Yet these are some of the fondest memories I have."

Gerry Lesa, the former owner of the electronics specialty enterprise SWT in Tecumseh, also says his days at W.O.I.T. were "some of the best times of my life."

Gerry said his first experience was with a roommate who noticed his deep tan and speculated that he was a wealthy young man who spent his summers at resorts.

"No, I'm not," said Gerry. "I'm from Ridgetown. My folks have a mixed farm and I'm out in the sun a lot."

He adds with a chuckle: "Eventually we got to know everybody. There was also a sort of tradition...joking, of course...that knowing how to play euchre was a requirement to graduate.

"In all, the whole W.O.I.T. experience instilled self confidence in us. And after W.O.I.T., when you accepted a job you felt in fact you knew you could do it. Talk about 'hitting the ground running!"

With the Western Ontario Institute of Technology and other schools proving their worth again and again, it became more than obvious that a revolution was brewing in education in Ontario.

In Windsor, and now in Chatham and Wallaceburg as well, this took the form of morphing and expanding the former W.O.I.T. into St. Clair College, under the provincial legislation creating a network of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology.

And in late 1964, land was acquired in the former Sandwich West Township now South Windsor for a major campus to be established on Talbot Rd. W.

Charles M. Jackson was the principal of W.O.I.T. at the time and, now living in retirement in London, "Charlie", as insists on being addressed, still recalls his pleasure at the news.

"Back then," he says, "we had 455 students crammed into the Mercer St. School and we were even holding some business administration classes in the old RCAF Building in the 400 block of Erie St. E."

The success of the Community College initiative is a source of pride for Charlie Jackson.

He notes that in the year before the South Windsor land acquisition, W.O.I.T graduated 80 students but there were 120 jobs waiting for them!

"Our students were already able to talk on their bosses' level," he says. "We were proving that we offered a concentrated and job oriented education for people who wouldn't or couldn't go to university.

Our students were adults and we treated them as adults and it paid off.

"Ever since I graduated from Beal Tech in London in 1940 it had seemed to me that, apart from during the war effort, of course, there were too many Grade 12 grads who couldn't find jobs. Community Colleges helped address that problem."

So on Saturday, Nov. 21st, 1971, Principal Charlie Jackson officially handed over the keys of the old W.O.I.T. school at 815 Mercer St. to then Mayor Frank Wansbrough, and the City of Windsor took back possession of the many times remodeled 81 year old building, along with its adjoining property.

The South Windsor site had been St. Clair's Windsor home since Canada's Centennial Year of 1967, but even after that, the College was still using the old W.O.I.T. building as a School of Continuing Education.

Under the leadership of founding President Dr. Richard Quittenton, familiarly referred to as "Dr. Q." or even simply "Q"; then Bruce McAusland, Albert (Bert) Martin, Jack McGee and now Dr. John Strasser, St. Clair has attracted record numbers of students on three campuses and graduated some 80,000 people of all ages in increasingly varied disciplines.

The College, originating as W.O.I.T. and now developing learning and public facilities in downtown Windsor and elsewhere, has kept the faith with of philosophy which spawned it.

In the words of former Principal Charlie Jackson, "We proved there was a place for us" and it all started with an idea and a building constructed in the late Victorian era because mid town Windsor needed somewhere for students to be educated, and 815 Mercer St. seemed as likely a place as any.

On that last day in 1971, signs were displayed which read: "We Love You, Mercer" and "W.O.I.T: We Miss You".

A great many grads still do; and other St. Clair students and alumni honour the W.O.I.T. tradition and respect the advancements which exist because of it.

  • WOIT Sign
  • WOIT Electronics
  • WOIT Mechanical Lab
  • Burroughs Building
Top