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New Denver teacher never stopped learning

Twenty-fourth in a series of pioneer profiles

At 70, New Denver’s Agnes Emary fulfilled a lifelong dream: to play the saxophone.

“I always wanted to learn,” she says. “So I finally got one. It was kind of fun.”

She took lessons from a local music teacher and got good enough to perform that year at her great-grandson’s wedding. Now 86, Emary still has the horn but doesn’t take it out very often.

Despite limited training, she was also frequently called upon as an organist for church and Sunday school. When The War Between Us, a movie about the internment of Japanese Canadians, was filmed in New Denver, she was asked to play organ for a church scene.

“I said well, I play, but with all kinds of mistakes. They said ‘That’s what we want!’”

(She pre-recorded her part, and also appears in the scene, sitting in a pew, wearing a big hat.)

Her participation in the movie was appropriate, given that she taught Japanese Canadian kids — she shared some of those memories last month in Slocan following the dedication of signs at two former internment camps.

Emary came to BC in 1952 after four years teaching in her native Saskatchewan, and landed a job while attending summer school in Victoria. She told someone where she was headed, and he replied: “Oh, you’re going where the sun never shines in winter.”

That would be Sandon, and her friend exaggerated only slightly. As a Prairie girl, Emary was used to harsh winters — but not sheer mountains.

The bus dropped her off at the Newmarket Hotel in New Denver, and then Mr. Kiyono, a jeweler who also ran a taxi, took her to Sandon.

“When I got partway up I could see a mountain that still had snow on it. Here it was September. He said there’s going to be more snow before that disappears.”

The school was on the upper floors of the old city hall (now the Prospector’s Pick). Emary — then known as Miss Parsons — had about 25 students in Grades 1-4, while fellow teacher Louella Prpich taught Grades 5-7.

Nearly all the students were sons and daughters of miners. In those days, the Violamac was going strong, along with another mine in nearby Cody.

The two young teachers roomed and took meals in the Reco Hotel, owned by Sandon founder Johnny Harris and his wife Alma, who also had the post office and only store in town.

The accommodation was fine, but meals were sparse — “I sometimes thought the cats got more to eat than we did” — and the rent was about half their salary, so a room in the school was fixed up as their apartment.

The year was mostly uneventful, although Emary enjoyed her first — and last — ride on a Norwegian sleigh: “They go like the wind. That’s what I learned.”

Pete Leontowicz was on the back while she sat in front, and they flew down the Cody hill. “I was scared to death, coming from flatland Saskatchewan.”

The following year, she transferred to New Denver, where she taught full-time until 1970, and then substituted for many years afterward, in both the elementary and high schools.

Emary also co-founded the local hospice society, was longtime chair of the reading centre, and is a life member of the Royal Canadian Legion. She’s still involved with Remembrance Day ceremonies each year.

After she left Sandon, the school lasted only one more year before dwindling enrollment forced its closure. Another year later, a washout took out the flume that covered the main street and all but finished the town.

Previous installments in this series

Joan Reichardt

Tom Lymbery

Pat Kellogg

Ken Morrow

Rudy Boates

Jean Stahl

Hank Coleman

John Hopwood

Lillian Hickey

Doug Smith

Evelyn Murray

Fritz Koehle

Bernie Czelenski

Agnes Baker

Aya Higashi

Gordon Fleming

Jake Conkin

Walt Laurie

Eric and Peggy Denny

Ray Kosiancic

Lois Arnesen

Cameron Mah

Fran Horan

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