Touring 200 Oak Street, formerly Gowans Home
with Jim Whitehead, 2009
With photographs from Eugene Thamer
Jim Whitehead at former Gowans Home, today’s Ski Academy, 200 Oak Street, Collingwood, ON
In 2009 I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Whitehead, son of former managers of Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children, Stanton and Rachel (Stan and Rae) Whitehead. Jim spent many hours telling me of his experiences and sharing his recollections.
The Ski Academy, present owners of the house, were kind enough to give us access to public and unoccupied rooms. Jim walked me down memory lane with stories arising as we went, giving way to more recollections.
Recently, through this newsletter, I was happy to be in touch again with members of the Thamer family. Gene Thamer, a former Gowans Home resident, was kind enough to send along photographs taken during a visit with his family, including his sister, Carolyn Repko, also a former resident.
The text that follows is given to you in Jim’s own words. You’ll have no trouble telling the difference between my photos and the much better photos Gene took, but I captioned Gene’s photos for clarity. As noted, Gene’s photos were taken around 1980 when the home was occupied by a private family.
Chosen for service
My dad [Stanton Whitehead] was in the air force and the war was coming to an end and he got an early discharge because he had been accepted into the Sudan Interior Mission. Most of the missionaries had academic qualifications, but my parents didn’t have that. My dad left high school when he was about 14 or 15 years old and he got a lot of his education while he was in the Air Force. He always wanted higher education, but he didn’t go on because of the Depression and things like that. So, the mission accepted my parents for the field, and it was a bit unusual, but they were accepted because they were a lot smarter than their education indicated.
And my brother and I were taken to Collingwood to be left at the Gowans Home. I was five and my brother, Harold, was 13, so he knew what was going on, but I didn’t. I didn’t know we were going to be left behind. So, when I hear the analogy between Abraham and Isaac that was always used at SIM, I say it’s a little different. In the analogy, a goat comes along and Isaac isn’t sacrificed. But I’m like Isaac, it’s exactly the same—a goat came along and my brother and I didn’t get left, but the other kids—no goat came along, and they were sacrificed. They were left.
From having to lead the prayer, we all learned a sort of improvisational method of how to pray in public. It was considered an accomplishment to get through a prayer like a professional, which I don’t know if I ever mastered but some did. I probably could stand in front of the assembly or something and talk, whereas a lot of kids didn’t want to talk; they had difficulty at school standing up front. We didn’t have that problem.
And there were certainly a lot better speakers at the Gowans Home than I was. It was incidental to what we were doing. The fact you were going to be called to the mission field was not an exception to the Christian life; to not be called was the exception. In our belief system everybody was called. When you got the call, you just recognized it, but it was there yesterday too. We all anticipated mission service. At one point, the mission fervour was related to fundamentalism, but it was also related to colonialism. It was part of the idea that we were going to Christianize the world. There was tremendous excitement about being part of a bigger scheme in the world.
200 Oak Street. Looking southwest from front gate, 1980s. Photo: Gene Thamer
I know my parents, absolutely, felt they had been cheated, but they never would have admitted that, because God doesn’t cheat you…but I can remember them looking wistfully out there at those boxes…those grey wooden boxes [used by SIM missionaries], and they were packed so tight you couldn’t put another toothpick in them, and it was all stuff for Nigeria. I think Kano might have been their Nigerian town, where they were supposed to be posted.
It may be my own prejudice, but I think my parents were uniquely suited for their position at the home, but it was an impossible position. You can’t be a parent—the mission would say you’re getting the love of a family, and there are kids who say they never got the love of a family. But some kids will say, “I got the love there that I never got in my family.”
I had ambivalent feelings myself, dealing with the way people expressed their feelings about what happened to them at the home. There’s one man who says my dad gave him the love he never experienced anywhere else. And I said to him, “That’s something I never felt.” I really liked my dad and after he had a stroke and left the home, I began to get to know him and then he died. For me, he was more of my gentle Uncle Stan at the Gowans Home. Everyone called him Uncle Stan and so did I. Occasionally he might remind me, hey I’m not your uncle. But my overwhelming feeling looking back, is what a lot of fun we had. That’s the main thing, and don’t ever lose sight of that because the only really important thing was believing the kids count. It’s a long stretch of babysitting.
Wednesday afternoons was my parents’ afternoon off—they got one afternoon off a week and sometimes they would take supper in their own room and I would be “invited” to join them, and it would be sort of like doing a nuclear family thing.
There used to be a tree right where the corner of the gym is and it had a hook in it and a big sandbox for little kids. I was standing on the corner of the sandbox one Thanksgiving and I tried to use the hook and I slipped and it went in to my knee here and out the side of my leg. So, I was standing like this, hooked to the tree and yelling for somebody to come and help me. Doctor McKay lived across the street and he was really good; he’d come over three times a day and give me whatever drug was available then, sulfa probably, and change the dressings. My leg kept getting worse and finally my mother said, “Okay, you’ve had your shot at it, I’m gonna take over.” And she went the 19th century way and she opened up the wound and put salt on it and three days later I was better.
My mother was management. She had a sharp tongue and she was a force–a good disciplinarian; she could cut you down and make you wish you were beaten with a stick instead. My mother would sit there with you and you’d be wondering what you should confess to because she wouldn’t read the charges until after you were finished confessing. The best vice-principals can do this, bring the kid in and let him sit there until he’s ready to confess to anything.
Held to a higher code
This was a tough end of town especially out the back door. Cedar Street was tough, that’s where I learned to fight. There was the Cedar Street gang. You had fight them or you got beat up. So, I learned at some point in elementary school that I’d rather be the beater than the beatee, but I was pretty timid for a long time.
We were definitely held to a higher code of behaviour. Years later we used to joke we weren’t allowed to have sex in the missionary position in case it led to dancing. We couldn’t dance, we couldn’t go to shows, no makeup, couldn’t play sports on Sundays. I knew every professional athlete who didn’t’ play on Sundays because those were our heroes. By the time I was in Bantam hockey and I couldn’t play on Sunday, that ended my hockey career.
When I was a Cub Scout there was a meeting way over on the other side of town, maybe at the Anglican hall and the army game—I knew how to play the army game before I knew what an army was. The science teacher from the high school was the scout master and we did something about making a fire with woodchips and stuff. Then he said, “Clean up the stuff that’s in front of you.” I just sort of stepped over it and it was behind me then. And he just screamed, “Whitehead!” That was the first time I knew he knew my name.
The kids were so smart. I can remember getting say ninety-something in science in high school and being the dummy. One of the three guys I was in Grade 9 science with, he became my doctor, the other an engineer in Silicon Valley and then there was me. I had a lot of jobs. Since Grade 6, I had a job every summer and I never had a job where I was anything but the bottom two in skill or ability. So I grew up with a healthy attitude.
Modesty, or false modesty, was the rule here. You never boasted. If you boasted people would really look down at you. The value system in Collingwood was anti-intellectual; not only working class but shipyard and sailor working class, which means the guys weren’t home all summer. The kids were brought up by their mothers only, and very seasonal work.
Southeast corner of former Gowans Home, seen from Oak Street. Photo: Gene Thamer
Everybody in Collingwood knew who we were that’s the other thing, there was no anonymity. My parents would get called if I was walking down the street with a girl, this is why I say I don’t’ know what my parents knew. She hated tattlers but she accepted what they said, kept it in her mind.
We had a sort-of 2-hole golf course on the property. You couldn’t really play, but you could hit the ball around a few feet at a time. One time I got finished, got the ball out of the hole and I had the club in my hand, holding it like a king and I went like this, right through the living room window and my mother was sitting with a room full of women from St. Catharines, a mission circle from some church. So, I went in and said, “Did anybody notice a golf ball?” And it’s right in the middle of the floor. I think my mother was pleased it gave her an excuse to break up the meeting. Nobody ever said anything to me about the window. They were very tolerant of mistakes that were made in good, clean fun.
Different set of rules
They didn’t need corporal punishment, it was enough to know that you had done it, and therefore you required God’s forgiveness. That’s how it’s internalized. A lot of the religious rules are about sex. They don’t have an answer to hormones, so a lot of it was, Are you seen with a girl and you’re not supposed to be with a girl? I wouldn’t have a concept of sin if it wasn’t for sex, because it would never occur to me to steal something and most of the evangelical types that get in trouble on television, it’s always sex. I make a joke that I was digging a tunnel under Third Street to get over to the girls’ house on the other side of the street.
Sex…that would be a chapter in itself, because we probably had more interest in it than most of the kids in town and did less of it. You wouldn’t expect it to be that different. I mean, it was considered something that couldn’t happen, because the consequences would be so severe. But it wasn’t something they didn’t know you wanted to have. There were a lot of girls around and a lot of boys…but there was 8 or 9 seconds that would go by where you didn’t think about it. It was a fact of life that the one fact of life my parents were afraid was the “facts of life.” Because of the evolution of the mission’s way of taking care of kids, it became more and more a high school place, but we never had an era of sexual permissiveness.
There was no sense of incest, believe me. We were brothers and sisters in strictly a figurative sense; there was no barrier except that you weren’t allowed to date until you were in Grade 12. So, what you learned early is that sexual relationships in this environment are supposed to be surreptitious and if they weren’t you got sent away. Usually our girlfriends were at the Gowans Home, although there were girls in town that I went with, but it was hard because our rules were different than theirs. We were living in proximity with so many girls and the sexual tension was fun, but it was something you knew was dangerous. It was sort of fun trying not to get caught but there was also a sense that everybody knew what was going on.
We were looked at by the teachers as good kids. There was an element of screw-up and we weren’t that. My parents would support the school, as a policy, you knew if you got in trouble in school, you were in trouble at home, that kind of thing. Half the student council was always from the Gowans Home, half the football team was always from Gowans Home, half the basketball team…we were part of the school, a good part of it. Like the music, we had assemblies and the musicians who got the most applause would be our gospel quartet.
When the Oak Street house became too crowded, the girls were moved to a house on Cedar Street. It was later renovated and operated as a bed & breakfast. Photo: Gene Thamer, 1980s
Last days of Gowans Home
In the late 40s, they didn’t need Gowans Home anymore. It was possible to survive in Africa, so the kids weren’t left behind so much. Once they got it so you could stay alive, kids would stay with their parents and they would get Grade One or Two by correspondence, so the kids, after awhile, started to be seven when they came here instead of five or under. And after a while, also, there were elementary schools in Africa that were okay, so it was only high school that you had to live here for, or it got so you only needed Grade 10 and 11, and you’d stay with an uncle or your parents would stay home for those two years.
Then they got schools in Africa and it seems to me that the kids had an experience similar to if they went to St. Andrew’s College or boarding school; not similar because the mission ran them very evangelical/Protestant/Fundamentalist, but the experience for the kids was similar. The parents would drop them off and come and get them for holidays.
My dad had a stroke and that ended my parents’ involvement, and at the same time it was becoming less of an institution, less needed. The next people they put in charge were not as good at it. It’s really hard to take care of other people’s teenagers. Not that my parents were perfect at it, but they could at least get through it. Once my parents got a three-month vacation, one time in 25 years or so, and I stayed at the home and the missionaries who came to replace them were good people. I knew them from before and they were fun, I loved them. But they were so glad to see my parents come home at the end of that. I mean they just hung in there. You could sense they recognized what a difficult job it was.
My mother, finally, got to Nigeria in the 60s, after my dad died. KLM, the airline, gave the mission four free passes on their inaugural direct service to Nigeria, and my mother got two of them. She took a friend, a lady who’d worked at the Gowans Home, and she got to go to and see the Mission Station. It was interesting that the missionaries my mother liked the most when they were in Canada were the same ones that were thought of so highly when she got to Africa. There were terrific people who were missionaries; there’s something great about that kind of sacrifice, but some of them you just waited for them to leave.
There were kids at the Gowans Home that would have told you, “Boy I’m lucky my parents left me here!” Because the parents, people with that kind of religious commitment are not always the easiest people to live with. There’s an element of zealotry, by definition, leaving your kids and going to Africa. It’s a lot more powerful in some, than in others. In any human endeavour there are going to be captains you admire and captains you think are tyrants.
All of the missionaries I met were white. There was one from South America, a Brit who had married whatever colour you can be in South America, a little bit of colour, a beautiful woman. That’s the only person you could say was of colour that I ever saw. They were interested in establishing what they called an indigenous church. There were lots of black pastors in Africa—they might have come over here to do deputation work. Deputation Work was called the work you did in North America—actually, it was fundraising mainly, keeping the home churches supporting you.
Missionaries were responsible for getting their own financial support. A missionary would go around during his year of furlough and before he went to Africa in the first place, mainly to his own church but to other churches as well as raise his support. There were about 2000 missionaries at that time I think and they would get it, mostly, from their own churches. A lot of them would be Southern Baptist or Baptist—there might be 1% Presbyterian, and 99% Baptist. Once you raised your money, you could keep on raising money and it all went in to a general fund—you didn’t get the money you raised. The mission got it all. And if they got enough, you got what was called Full Support. Usually, you got about 90% of what was considered full support. But everybody got the same. If you raised $1000 and I raised $12, we both got our $90 a month. So, that’s the way they funded.
The second house for the girls was across the street, on the northwest corner of Third Street and Oak Street. It was built a few years prior to 200 Oak Street by the younger of the two Telfer brothers, and at the turn of the last century, was the site of high society occasions, including a visit by British royalty. Photos: Gene Thamer
Gowans Home is mentioned, in about 40 years of the SIM newsletter, in about three lines. The Mission was about saving African souls. It wasn’t about us. It had to be nice for the kids but we were very much an inconvenience to the missionaries and the mission.
The kids’ home didn’t figure in the funding formula, it was a sort of negative, but my mother could do miracles with a little bit of money and merchants around were very good to the home too. For example, there was one guy up near Flesherton who gave us 400 lbs. of honey every year. At Holland Marsh you’d get the potatoes that were sized wrong and we’d get tonnes at a time free; we’d just go down and get them and somebody would always loan you a truck.
Some of the kids at the girls’ house had a sign over their door, “Do Not Feed the Animals” I mean kids are kids, we ran that high school. We knew that people gave. When I started to try and write [my book], I started with the words to the hymn, “Dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping, hear the pennies fall; everything for Jesus, he will get them all.” That’s the first religious song I can remember hearing and it’s from the church my parents came from Sunday School class. So right from the first you had the sense that every penny had to be accounted for and had to do good.
We didn’t have a television and I remember it was a question among evangelicals, whether you could have one, because it was of the world. It was close to Hollywood, and you cannot serve God and man and all these things. I’m far more socialist than anything else, and I just don’t see how you can be a right-wing capitalist and be a Christian at the same time. My parents couldn’t have seen that, but the new generation of Fundamentalists seems to be all about getting rich and keeping everybody else from getting rich.
I had that strong sense that I should do something worthwhile with my life, but to be a missionary, you’ve got to believe. I was still teaching Sunday school when I realized I was using words that the people hearing them weren’t getting the same meaning, and I decided that’s was hypocrisy and so I quit. My crisis in faith was ongoing, and I just eventually stopped believing, maybe around Grade 11 or 12. I don’t know if I stopped the whole thing at once or just a little bit at a time. I stopped believing the kernel of it.
But, the only time I’ve ever really needed courage in my life was to face my mother with the fact I was an atheist. It was like coming out of the closet. I kind of flaunted it in Grade 12, my non-believing, but everyone assumed I was just acting. They thought I was playing a role. I can’t hide what I am, so my defence is to fool around with it. So, it’s a paradox. I don’t know if that has anything to do with Gowans Home except…living in the Gowans Home demanded conformity. You were never sure whether you weren’t dancing because Jesus didn’t want you to, or there was a rule that you had to obey.