For most of us, just one real letter in the mail is a red-letter day.
But a trio of Danforth Tech alumni (the school became Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute in the 1980s) get to read dozens of letters and postcards every Wednesday afternoon. Most are thank-you’s for things like socks, cigarettes or copies of the yearbook and newsletter.
“I don’t know how to put it really,” said Ron Passmore, a class of ‘64 grad who joined the project to better preserve and display the school’s wartime letters.
“There was definitely a strong connection between themselves, and with the school,” Passmore said. “They were always trying to look out for the other guy, giving out the addresses of classmates.”
In one letter, a former student tells how he introduced Danforth Technical School to a crew of Scottish fishermen.
The young pilot was flying a twin-engine plane over the Atlantic when one engine cut out, forcing his three-man crew to ditch and get into a dinghy.
“When he used to fly, he always wore his Danforth Tech football jacket,” Passmore said. “And the Scots on this fishing trawler were kind of scratching their heads, wondering, ‘What kind of uniform is that?’”
Among the thank-you’s and light-hearted stories about bumping into classmates in London, England, the letters contain many tragic encounters, too.
Bryan Bennett, who started the letters project two years ago, said students wrote back with news that a classmate had been injured or killed. Some were firsthand accounts.
All told, 2,235 graduates and students of Danforth volunteered for active service in the war, along with teachers and staff. It was, as a memorial brick at Juno Beach now says, the greatest number of volunteers from any school in the British Commonwealth.
Two hundred and forty one died in the war, including one woman, Maud Steane, who trained as a radio operator in Toronto despite laws that prohibited women from joining the Canadian or American merchant marine.
Steane travelled to New York City where she found work on a Norwegian-flagged ship, which had no such prohibition.
She was 28 when she died. Many others died younger, in their late teens or twenties, and enough were listed as 18 years old that they likely lied about their age when they volunteered.
Danforth’s contribution to the war is well remembered.
Roy Foley, a teacher and enlistment officer, led a war memorial committee that confirmed the military records of the surviving volunteers, and the grave sites – from Canada to Germany to Sri Lanka – of those who died.
In 1948, the school opened its War Memorial Library, with four hand-lettered rolls naming the volunteers, two bronze plaques listing the fallen, and a dozen bright stained-glass windows designed by Cyril Travers, a long-time art teacher at the school.
Since 1999, when alumni formed the Danforth Tech Society (and printed golf shirts with the same “D.T.S.” – initials the school had in their day), the society has funded several school projects, including a repair of the stained-glass windows, which had become warped by a heating outlet.
DTS president Gwen Vance said the alumni also supports current students in many ways. They fundraise for everything from volleyballs to football uniforms and kitchen equipment for the school’s well-known hospitality program. The DTS also supports some student awards.
“It’s my favourite thing of the whole year, just to hear the stories of these kids as they go across the stage,” Vance said.
In November, as part of the 90th anniversary, the DTS co-hosted a homecoming for the school’s football team, which restarted a few years ago after a long hiatus.
“I was very glad to see it come back,” said Robert Howes, who refereed high school football for 20 years and played on Danforth’s senior football team back in the late fifties, when it had bantam, junior and senior teams and won three senior city championships.
Asked what position he played, Howes laughed and said, “We played two ways in those days. In some case, you didn’t come off the field – you went right from offence to defence.”
Howes’ 1950s team jacket, which still fits, he said, is now on display in a showcase in the school. The shooting target Howes kept from the school’s basement rifle range, which is now closed, is still at home.
Bennett said the society still has a ways to go before the wartime letters go on display. So far, all but a few have been identified and sorted, and, significantly, they are now stored in a fireproof safe.
Bennett and Passmore, who both graduated from Danforth’s printmaking program, are now making high-quality copies that will be bound into books so that families, friends and fellow veterans can have a look at the letters.
As they finish what might be their longest homework assignment at Danforth, the alumni have found many things worthy of safekeeping.
One is a binder full of news clippings about the war service of the Danforth volunteers, carefully compiled by Edyth Howison, the school secretary at Danforth from 1931 to 1963.
“She went home and clipped everything out of The Star, The Tely [the Toronto Telegram, which folded in 1971] and the Globe that she could find about ‘her boys,’ as she called them,” said Bennett, flipping through the pages. “She kept quite a record. I think it’s courtesy of her that a lot of this stuff is still around.”
Thanks to people like Howison and school librarian Barbara MacKay, letters sent to the school some 75 years ago can still surprise people today.
Passmore’s father and three of his uncles all went to Danforth during the war. Three were in the navy, one in the artillery, and all made it home.
While working on the project, Passmore came across two letters by his father. He wrote them in 1942, when he was 27 years old.
“It was a moment, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Anyone interested in helping the archive project or joining the Danforth Tech Society can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit danforthcti.com.