Fire can’t extinguish Burriss School memories

Joey Payeur

Before last week, if someone walked the hallways of Burriss School and listened very closely, they may have heard the echoes of an old, familiar tune:
Burriss School is a fabulous place
All the little children have a happy face
Feeling great, so good to be free
I’m the original happy me
I’m the original happy me
And I’m so happy, happy
I’m the original happy me
The school’s official song and the fond recollections of those who passed through its doors during its 73-year existence are all that remain of the former educational institution located on Highway 613 in Devlin after the now-vacant building was destroyed by a massive fire last Wednesday morning (July 28).
A passerby spotted the blaze at approximately 5 a.m. that day and reported it immediately. It only took the La Vallee Fire Department 20 minutes to arrive on scene, but by then, the structure was already engulfed in flames to the point where firefighters couldn’t enter the building due to the enormous amount of heat the fire produced.
Devlin resident Danny Rea, the owner of the property and a former student at the school, could not be reached for comment prior to press time. Rea had done extensive electrical work and other upgrades to the building over the last year, with an eye towards possibly turning the interior into a series of apartment rental suites, although he has had the property up for sale since last year.
Fire Chief Gerry Armstrong of the Fort Frances Fire and Rescue Service said in an e-mail yesterday an investigation into the cause of the blaze is ongoing.
Tears of regret
“When I heard the school had burned down, I cried like a baby,” said a still-emotional Liz Donaldson, who taught a combined 22 years at Burriss School, the last 20 consecutively from 1975 to 1995. “It meant a lot to a lot of people.”
“I have so many fond memories,” added Freeda Carmody, a former teacher and principal at the school beginning in the late 1960s until her retirement in 1992.
“It felt like a part of me was gone….I didn’t like looking at it the way it was recently with the yard looking the way it did, but I certainly hated more to see that happen,” she noted.
Burriss School was built in 1923 under the guidance of contractor John Herrem, who along with his construction team, took great pains to create an architectural work which would stand the test of time.
“When the school was being renovated in the 1970s, I talked to one of the workmen and he told me it was as strong a structure as the day it was built,” recalled Donaldson.
The proof of that is evident even in the aftermath of the fire. While the interior of the school has been reduced to a heap of burnt rubble and the archways of the two front entrances are a shaky array of charcoal splinters, the red brick facade and the concrete foundation still stand defiantly in the wake of the catastrophe.
Come together
The recurring themes of family and community peppered the comments of those spoken with about the impact the school had in the area.
“It was run like a family school,” said Len LaRocque, who had the honour of being the school’s final principal from 1988 until its closure in 1996. “When we held our Christmas concerts, the people were packed in like sardines. The members of our community looked at it as the centre of the community.”
“We had an exceptional staff which made the school become like a family,” added Carmody. “The teachers knew all the kids and I remember well how much the teachers gave of themselves. We had the students split into team houses for noon-hour sports that ran all year long, and at the end of the year we would always have an annual fun day that all the kids would take part in. “
Donaldson noted the school was originally built with the dual purpose of being a school and a community centre, with the downstairs auditorium hosting numerous wedding receptions throughout the years. The family concept of the school resonated even more clearly for her.
“All our children and our grandchildren went to Burriss School, as did my husband Gale,” said Donaldson. “One of my granddaughters would always make sure to call me Mrs. Donaldson. The others called me Grandma, but that was fine by me.”
The school housed an average of 125 students in its heyday, with almost all of them contributing in a positive way to the staff’s experiences while there—sometimes in a humourous way.
“I had one little boy who wasn’t too fond of me who asked me once in my later teaching years, ‘When are you going to die?,’” recalled Donaldson with a chuckle. “I answered, ‘I’m not too sure, but whomever replaces me will make sure you do your work, too.’”
LaRocque recalled the time one of the three portables being used to house students during an extensive renovation project in the 1970s collapsed one day.
“We had to evacuate the students from that portable into the main school before it completely caved in,” said LaRocque. “Thankfully, no one was injured, but one student said, ‘That’s the most exciting day I’ve ever had at school!’”
LaRocque, who was principal at Burriss and the newer Cornerbrook School in Devlin at the same time, was of two minds when he received word Burriss School was shutting down for good.
“It was sad to see it go, but by that time, people realized it had to happen due to the age of the school,” he said.
“There comes a point where a school is considered (financially) prohibitive to repair and and inspector had made that determination. It wasn’t handicap accessible, with stairs all over the place, and so on. It was sad, but I understood why,” added LaRocque.
A sudden goodbye
Donaldson said the design of the school made for a “warm, welcoming place,” and likened the steady deterioration of the property to “watching an old person die.”
“I’m sorry to see it go, although I don’t know if anything was going to come of the building, anyway,” she said.