The proudest moment in the careers of many teachers is the graduation of their students. Fifty years ago, in 1970, Jim Brownell got to experience that joyous moment for the first time.
Brownell first became a teacher in 1969 at Viscount Alexander in Cornwall.
“Graduations. I’d love to see students move on in in in their education. And there was nothing that I took greater satisfaction in,” he said. “And it was usually held on the hottest night of the year. But to see those kids walk across the stage and a big smile on their face to get their diploma. And while I had so many of them, it was so amazing to watch them and that’s something that’s memorable.”
His life as a teacher began while at teacher’s college and he first stepped into a classroom as a student teacher at Martintown Public School. Quickly though, he found himself a graduate, and teaching full-time at Viscount Alexander.
“I don’t have to say that, but I do say that that first class was memorable,” Brownell said. “We had such characters in that class. Take a look at Rick Shaver, for one. And who would ever imagine that Rick and Brenda Cullen would become husband and wife?”
“Jim Brownell was a great teacher but maybe he was so good because we were in his first class and his first year,” said former student Brenda Shaver (Cullen). “Every day it seemed we had a new activity and we sure had fun. He was a cutie!”
Brownell explained that he always had a passion for learning, but that growing up in a family with 12 siblings, going to university right away was not an affordable option. Instead, Brownell entered teacher’s college, which at that time was a one-year program.
Brownell pointed to fond memories he had as a student with teachers such as Mrs. Lynch.
“I got her in Grade Three. The interesting thing, in Grade One, I had my dad’s elementary school teacher, Mrs. Mullen. I would say she gave you a good, good grounding in phonics art. And she was a very good teacher. And she was she was a neighbor of ours,” he said.
Brownell went to Milles Roches Elementary School up until his 10th birthday. The day after his birthday he and the whole school moved into Longue Sault Public School, as Milles Roches Elementary had to be abandoned during the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Perhaps no other teacher had as great an influence on Brownell as one of his favourite teachers and friend, Fran Laflamme.
Brownell remembers Laflamme’s outdoor lessons, bringing items into the classroom for hands on learning, as well as encouraging students to take advantage of educational experiences outside of the classroom, such as visiting a travelling Royal Ontario Museum exhibit when it travelled through the area.
“Wow. What a what a teacher,” Brownell recalled. “And she became one of my dearest friends. In fact, I was a pallbearer at her funeral in 2000. Our friendship was that close. And I can tell you that as an adult, I cried like a baby that day. I was so sad that that she was gone and she died far too young.”
All of these teaching techniques, Brownell adopted himself as a teacher, with students vividly remembering him bringing in chickens to the classroom, and hatching their eggs.
It was from Laflamme that Brownell also developed his passion for social history.
“She told us the day that they were burning her family home in Wales,” Brownell recalled. “She said she had to stop the car. And she choked up and she told us about that. And you know that that for a young guy, for a young gal sitting in a great four classroom, by God, that would have an impact. And it did.”
It was the sharing stories and social history that Brownell often would introduce into his own classroom.
“I know I’m not a historian, but I can tell you I love social history and I love talking to young people about social history,” he said. “And I can tell you, any young people, any young person that went through my classroom would say what they remember from me is would be the history classes that really weren’t formal history classes. They were just stories. I could be teaching a math class and the kids would have me turned just like that into a history story just like that.”
For Brownell’s students, this approach to teaching worked and got them to engage in learning.
“His style of teaching got you involved in the topic,” former student Rick Shaver remembered. “We had a chicken in the classroom one week, then we planted a garden another week, a road trip or class excursion. We were always up to something but Mr. B always knew what we were up to (probably because we realized later that he came from a big family). Over the years he continued to serve the students in Cornwall and Long Sault in top notch education and that showed later in life when he left teaching for politics, where he had support of many former students working and believing in him.”
Perhaps it was Brownell’s love of stories that lead him to find another avenue in teaching that he really enjoyed, school trips. Brownell recalled taking students on trips to Niagara Falls, and Quebec City on a regular basis.
“Those trips were always memorable because you always saw a different side of kids. They weren’t in the classroom,” he said. “You had got to the point that I had so many parents that wanted to come along because they had heard all about these trips and it was difficult to find the space, but there was never a want for parents to come along on those school trips.”
Brownell says that he has stayed in touch with many students over the years, and that when he hears of the influence and impact he made on their lives, it fills him with pride.
“I’ll never, ever, ever forget Ronnie,” Brownell said of one of his Shop Class students. “(He) has told me many times, ‘Jim, if it wasn’t for you, certainly my dad gave me a lot of encouragement, but if it wasn’t for you and not shop class, I wouldn’t be the carpenter I am today.’”
“In 2004, the of Labor came to the riding when I was MPP and we had gone back to Gilchrist Homes in Morewood and we had gone for a tour of the plan,” he explained. “I had no idea that Ronnie was working there all of a sudden I saw this guy up on the roof. He unbuckled himself and he came down the ladder and came over to me. He grabbed my hand and he said “J.B. I’m so glad you won that election.”
The Minister was impressed with the strong impression that Brownell had made on Ronnie.
“He said, “Oh my God, have you made an impact on that young man? And, you know, it was just wonderful for me to hear from the owner of the company that Ronnie was the best taper, putting the tape for dry wall,” Brownell explained.
Looking back on his career, Brownell remembers his students fondly, but remembers his fellow teaching colleagues fondly as well.
“I so miss staff members who have gone on,” he said. “I look back to Viscount Alexander in particular and the number of teachers that have passed on. It’s just unbelievable how so few of us are left. And I guess that’s that that’s part of life. But it certainly gives you time to pause and think of the contributions that they made and how much fun it was to be with them.”
Brownell particularly remembers his first Principal at Viscount Alexandre, David Hickey, who Brownell remarked is still living in Cornwall.
“He was an amazing principal, a strong disciplinarian,” said Brownell. “And I know that in my teaching, I was firm but fair. They kids would tell you he didn’t put up with any nonsense. But I would say that I hopefully was on the most part firm but fair and Dave Hickey was as well.”
One student remembers Brownell’s firm, but fair attitude in the classroom.
“Students should remember when the boys would be acting up he would point his finger and in an elevated voice say GROW UP,” remembered Jackie Rupert.
Throughout his career, Brownell was always expanding his horizons. He continued his post-secondary studies after becoming a teacher including taking the principal qualifications exam at Queen’s University, but instead of becoming an administrator, Brownell chose to stay in the classroom until his retirement in December of 2000.
Brownell also had pursuits outside of the field of education. As mentioned Brownell was elected as an MPP in the region, serving as MPP first for the riding of Stormont, Dundas, Charlottenburg from 2003-2007, and then for the new riding of Stormont, Dundas, South Glengarry from 2007-2011.
Prior to that, Brownell also had a long involvement with regional municipal politics. Brownell served as an Alderman in Cornwall Township before becoming the last Reeve of Cornwall. Brownell then pursued municipal posts in his home township of South Stormont, where he became the last Reeve of that Township as well in 1998, after which, both posts would be re-titled as Mayors.
After all of these many years in teaching, and in politics, Brownell still remembers the pride and satisfaction of putting a child on a pedestal and encouraging them to reach new heights.
“I’d love to see kids learn to even those students who had difficulties,” he said. “As I matured as a teacher, it even became stronger in that when I saw the slightest little opportunity to hold them on a pedestal, it was such a boost, but was such a boost to their education and their desire to try and learn a little bit more.”