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REMEMBER THIS: Longtime Newmarket High teacher shaped many students

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod remembers English teacher William Elliott, 'father of theatre,' for his memorable impact not only in the classroom but on the stage

One of the longest-serving teachers at Newmarket High School was William Stoddart Elliott.

Elliott was born in Copper Cliff, raised in Parry Sound and eventually made his home on Elmer Avenue in the Beaches area of Toronto.

One would generally call him “sir” when speaking to him but “Wild Bill” when speaking among one’s classmates.

Elliott was married to Doris Jean “Flicka” Elliott, and I first met both of them through my uncle, George Luesby, in connection with my love of our local history. Mrs. Elliott was the keeper of an archive of information, ‘the book’ that had been passed down from generation to generation by a pioneer women’s group and had previously been in the possession of Ila Haines before she assumed stewardship.

I encountered Mr. Elliott a few times after my graduation from Newmarket High School, and I must confess I found him far less imposing during those occasions.

I attended his celebration of his life on April 29, 2017 at the Royal Canadian Legion in Aurora after his Jan. 20, 2017, passing — amazingly, just a month short of his 99th birthday. As is often the case with people one encounters along my path in life, Elliott presented himself as a man who, at first glance, was easy to figure out, but in truth proved to be a multi-dimensional character in real life.

If one was to ask me to describe Wild Bill, I would begin with his position as the "father of theatre" at Newmarket High and his passion for literature, particularly for the works of Shakespeare.

I learned he was so much more than that in what we tend to call real life. I recall him demonstrating his athletic prowess, particularly in soccer on a few occasions, and one would often see him walking to school in what one could only call a determined manner.

Before his calling to education, while still a young man, he worked for the Trane Company. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force and underwent his basic training in Clinton. He was sent abroad as a labourer and driver, helping to construct an airfield in the Azores, and later served in Scotland, where he met Flicka.

After the war, he went on to study at the University of Toronto, where he received his bachelor of English, and then he began his career as a renowned teacher. Those who either had him as a teacher or knew him around the school would acknowledge he was known best for his formidable knowledge of English literature.

Years later, when I was pursuing my own path with plans to become an English and history teacher, I more clearly recognized how he possessed a strong technical understanding of the English language. His gift, of course, was his ability to take ordinary students and mould them magically into seemingly accomplished actors capable of eliciting laughter and tears from the audience.

A personal story of one of my memorable interactions with Elliott, which I believe will present a clear picture of his gift as a teacher and a mentor: In grades 10 and 11, I was involved behind the scenes in the promotion of the play and in my capacity as treasurer, the financial side of the operation. I was dreaming of the day when, in my senior year, I would proudly stand on the stage and bask in the spotlight.

Planning for the Grade 13 play, The Merchant of Venice, began early in the year, as I recall, and Elliott announced the roster for that year’s play and, unfortunately, there was no spot for me. I am not sure what possessed me to approach him, but I did. As I spoke, he looked me up and down and then explained to me there was a walk-on position as a police officer, which he felt was commensurate with my acting talents. He then explained being part of a team was a most worthy goal and it was vital that I understood we were not all meant to be stars, but perhaps we brought other talents that would most certainly prove essential.

He further explained this walk-on part would leave me with plenty of time to help with set creation, organization and promotion. He was right. I got the opportunity to be part of the team, a lesson that has served me well over the years, and I found my role.

My friend, Alan Peppiatt, was chosen to play Shylock, a demanding role, to say the least. Elliott charged me with the job of supporting Alan, providing a supportive presence and bolstering his confidence. Alan was superb in the role, and I learned how to be supportive of others, putting my own needs aside. I have provided a list of some of the productions he produced over the years with their dates below. Perhaps you may find your senior play listed.

Another thing I remember is how stubborn Elliott was. Every year, we would engage in a battle of wits, with him determined to have me recite a poem in front of the class, and me just as determined to skip this sole appearance. He always outwaited me, telling me that before I left the school, I would perform the poem. You need someone in your life who pushes you out of your comfort zone, even if you hate it at the time.

One of the more bizarre things I learned about Elliott was he was known for his collection of hands, seemingly constructed from every conceivable material. At his wake, people spoke of his dry wit and his ability to make his point through its use.

The performing arts always played a major role in our school’s activities right from the very beginning of Newmarket High. The presentation of school plays was generally performed in conjunction with the annual commencement. Then Elliott arrived, and the annual play took on a whole new meaning for the school.

From his arrival in 1951 until 1958, the Drama Society competed in the Simpson Collegiate Drama Festival and, each year, we were top contenders along with Runnymede, Pickering (town), Brampton, Ryerson, Earl Haig, Aurora and Agincourt.

His production of Our Town performed at Hart House and directed by Elliott in 1955 won first place in the Simpson Drama Festival as the best play produced in all the schools in Ontario.

Elliott went on to direct all the school plays from 1953 until his retirement, with undeniable success. The amazing development of the talents of the students under his direction has been well recognized and appreciated by the student body and interested townspeople through the years.

As promised, I have included below a listing of the plays that stand as a monument to Elliott’s directorship.

School plays since 1951

1951 — Our Dream House

1952 — The Bishop’s Candlesticks

1953 — Thank You, Doctor

1954 — The Dear Departed

1955 — Our Town

1956 — The Skin of Our Teeth/Everyman

1957 — The Little Foxes

1958 — The Long Christmas Dinner/The Short Happy Journey

1959 — The Merchant of Venice

1960 — Our Town

1961 — The Taming of the Shrew

1962 — The Matchmaker

1963 — Trial by Jury

1964 — The Gondoliers

1965 — Our Town

1966 — The Streets of New York

1967 — The Boy Friend

1968 — Ages Ago

1969 — Our Town

1970 — You Can’t Take it with You

1971 — The Taming of the Shrew

1972 — The Matchmaker

1973 — The Skin of Our Teeth

1974 — The Merchant of Venice

1975 — Pullman Car Hiawatha/The Long Christmas Dinner/Trial by Jury

1976 — The Mikado

1977 — Our Town

1978 — Patience

1979 — The Boy Friend

1980 — The Skin of Our Teeth

What are the characteristics of a memorable teacher? In my mind, their very name conjures memories to which they are invariably tied. The term ‘make a difference’ is attributed to many, but I believe it sits gently on Elliott’s shoulders. He would have undoubtedly had an influence on every student he encountered over his career. His effect on that student was often very individual in nature. By golly, he had an effect.

For this student, he made the profession of teacher both admirable and attainable, worthy of one’s ambitions. He taught me lessons in determination and teamwork and being accountable.

The mark of a great teacher is to elicit your displeasure at the time but to be the source of increasing admiration as the years passed. Was there ever a man who was better suited for his calling in life? Likely not.

Sources: High school yearbooks ‘Phoenix’; The History of Newmarket High in Five Parts by Mr. George Luesby; oral history interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod; Newmarket Era entertainment section; obituary appearing in the Newmarket Era and the Toronto Star.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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