Opawa School's class of 1949: Former classmates mark 80 years of friendship

Back: Murray Walker, 87, of Akaroa, Ross Wynn, 86, of Broomfield, Barry Tewnion, 85, of Yaldhurst...
Back: Murray Walker, 87, of Akaroa, Ross Wynn, 86, of Broomfield, Barry Tewnion, 85, of Yaldhurst, Barry Hayes, 84, of Casebrook, and Brian Brenner, 84, of Akaroa. Middle: Mary Johns (nee Parnell), 84, of Middlepark, Joyce Walker (nee Evans), 85, of Akaroa, David Close, 84, of South New Brighton, and Rosemary Harper (nee Lane), 84, of Papanui. Front: Jeannette Searle (nee Wise), 84, of Rangiora, Eleanor Gillespie (nee Bamford), 84, of St Albans and Valerie Percy (nee Shipp), 84, of Shirley.
More than seven decades have passed since the Opawa School class of 1949 said their final goodbyes to the place that brought them years of joy.

It might have been goodbye to school, but not so much to each other. Now in their 80s, a handful of former pupils still meet for an annual potluck lunch, but this year’s reunion was a special one.

Thirteen gathered at the McLeans Island Camping Ground pavilion to celebrate primer 1s 80th year of friendship since 1941.

Eleanor Gillespie usually organises the reunions and believed a former teacher, who taught their class for four years, was responsible for their long friendship.

“We put that down to a teacher we had from standard 1 to 4, he held that class together like a family. He wasn’t married and didn’t have a family of his own,” she said.

“He was a good teacher. He spent a lot of time with us, he used to take us to Lyttelton on the train, we did monthly walks over the Bridle Path and he used to take the boys out for weekends to a bach in Waikuku.

“They were like his sons.”

The class comprised of about 50 students who all walked or biked to school, even in the snow. The days were split in half, from 9am to noon, then 1pm to 3pm.

Every week the pupils took a tram to Sydenham School where the boys took woodwork classes and the girls learned how to cook.

“My favourite days were sports days, I loved basketball and I was a good swimmer,” said Eleanor.

Joyce Walker, 85, of Akaroa, Rosemary Harper, 84, of Papanui, and Eleanor Gillespie, 84, of St...
Joyce Walker, 85, of Akaroa, Rosemary Harper, 84, of Papanui, and Eleanor Gillespie, 84, of St Albans, sort out the photo display. Photo: Geoff Sloan
World War 2 was well involved by the time Eleanor started school, but as a child, life did not feel that way.

No one came to school without lunch, but having suitable clothing was another story.

Said Eleanor: “I think we all went through hardships, there were a lot of families that had hardships with clothes. I remember the blackouts at school, we had to have our curtains across the windows during the war.

“But when you’re in that situation you don’t realise they’re hardships.”

Eleanor later attended Avonside Girls’ High School along with two other classmates from Opawa.

The primer 1 class of Opawa School in 1942 . Front row – Rosemary Harper (nee Lane), sixth from...
The primer 1 class of Opawa School in 1942 . Front row – Rosemary Harper (nee Lane), sixth from left. Middle row – David Close (sixth from left), Eleanor Gillespie (nee Bamford), second from right.
Many of the boys went on to own their own businesses, became teachers and missionaries, and two were Rhodes scholars at Christchurch Boys’ High School.

Former pupil Barry Dineen notably became the New Zealand managing director for Shell until 1995 and former city councillor David Close edited a book chronicling stories of “The Class of 1941” and the lives that followed.

But young women at the time did not have much choice in the career department. Eleanor did not know of any girls who went to university. They were given two options - working in an office or life at home.

Eleanor decided to take shorthand typing lessons and eventually worked as a typist for advertising agencies.

“You didn’t get a choice like this day and age.”

Since leaving school the class stayed in touch, more so in the past two decades. Opawa School had its 100th anniversary in 1997, where it was decided that the class would do their own reunions from then on.

“Each time I think that I can’t do this anymore, I’ve suddenly got the energy [to organise it],” Eleanor said.

 

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