May 11 marked the 49th time retired teacher Walter Long spent a day cheering kids on at the Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School’s (OLA) annual track and field meet.
As heat after heat of young sprinters raced over the track on a sunny Friday morning, Long was there again, waiting with his stopwatch at the finish line.
Counting a 1967 meet in Drayton Valley, Friday marked the 50th time Long has attended a school track meet as a teacher or volunteer.
Long started teaching at OLA in 1969, back when the grades 5-8 school was home to students in kindergarten to grade 9. For the first few years Long taught at the school, the teachers had no track to use, just an open football field and a bag of lime for marking lines for the 100 and 200 metre dashes.
The makeshift track would work out fine until the clouds rolled in and the rain washed the line markings away, forcing the teachers to go back and start over.
“We were quite relieved when in 1974, that summer I believe it was, they actually built a track,” Long said.
Long worked at OLA for 32 years, teaching junior high science, coaching volleyball and basketball, and organizing house leagues and cross country races along with track and field.
Retired educator Ronald Hlady, who was principal of the school from 1970 - 1994 and taught with Long for about 24 years, remembers how students blossomed in Long’s classroom.
“As a science teacher he was just extraordinary. His classroom was a place that students just loved to visit,” Hlady said. “A lot of students went into science just because of his influence.”
Hlady said that students also enjoyed visiting Benji the boa constrictor, the snake that lived in Long’s science room for many years.
Since retiring from OLA 17 years ago, Long has been a regular volunteer at the school, coming in once a week or so to help out in the office, library or to put up decorations for the different seasons. For decades he has also been collecting information for the school’s archives, compiling class lists dating back to 1963, the year the school first opened, and gathering names and photographs of nearly every teacher who has ever worked at the school.
Long said he is not sure what will become of the information in the coming years as Fort Saskatchewan’s Catholic schools undergo some changes, including the construction of a new school to replace OLA.
“The archives is quite extensive, but the sad part about it is that Our Lady of the Angels will probably be closing its doors sometime in the next number of years here,” Long said. "And once that happens, then the archives may become sort of obsolete because they won't continue on once the school closes, Our Lady of the Angels archives. I suppose it's still meaningful, but not in the same way.”
The opening of St. Andre Bessette High School next year will see some other changes take place as OLA becomes a K - 4 school and the middle school students make the move to St. John Paul II school a few streets away.
Long, who turns 72 in July and also volunteers with Meals on Wheels and at a nursing home, said that for now being around the kids keeps him young. Even a September hip replacement couldn’t keep him away from the track.
“As long as my health is still good,” he said, “I’ll probably still continue to keep volunteering.”