For Saltus historian Stephen, Nicholas brought out his bugle
Stephen Johnson moved to Bermuda in 2017 and was unexpectedly put to work.
Having heard he was a history buff, Jon Beard, the deputy head at Saltus Grammar School, asked that he document its history.
Dr Johnson, a retired educator whose wife Deryn Lavell was then the new head of the private school, happily got started.
With the help of historian David O’Shea Meyer, he interviewed more than 30 former students.
“The purpose of the project was to record some social history for posterity,” the 74-year-old said. “The idea was to make it available to their families, to Bermuda, to the Saltus archives and also the archives of the National Museum of Bermuda in Dockyard. It was also for the students to use for future reference for studying.
“I got involved because history is important to me. I have done a lot of reading of local history. I got hooked on it and was really interested.”
The initial idea was to interview people who had been students from 1940 to 1950. Colin Young, 98, and Michael Darling, 91, were the oldest.
“Colin was in the class of 1940,” Dr Johnson said. “Both of them were really articulate and entertaining. As much as their bodies are 90-plus years old, their minds are sharp.”
The cane figured heavily in the tales of many of the older alumni. There was a collection of them kept in a cabinet at the school, only the head or his deputy could use them.
“It was probably common all over Bermuda,” Dr Johnson said. “It would be used for things we would consider very minor today. It would be used if you spoke out of turn in class, if you misbehaved on the playground or if you did not do your homework. The broader the cane, the more it hurt.”
The late Nicholas Bayard Dill Jr brought out a bugle from his time in the Bermuda Regiment.
“He honked and squeaked through it,” Dr Johnson said. “His wife told him not to play it. I love how whenever people talk about their school days they revert to being children again.”
He and Mr O’Shea Meyer, who has since left the island, also interviewed Saltus's first female students – admitted only in the 1990s – and Gil Tucker, one of the first Black students.
The former head boy, who graduated in 1971, told Dr Johnson he joined Saltus around the age of 12.
“My parents just woke me up and said, 'You got into Saltus.' They said, 'Just get on the bus and go.' So that’s what I did."
Dr Johnson's prime interest is Russian history, but he read a lot about Bermuda after he arrived.
“Quinton Bean was our taxi driver for the first few weeks in Bermuda, until we got our drivers’ licenses,” he said. “He was, and is, an engaging conversationalist and once he found out I was interested in Bermuda’s history he recommended about ten books. He also encouraged me to visit the museum at Dockyard, which I did.”
Dr Johnson was surprised to learn of the slavery, discrimination and segregation that took place here.
“This was in part because I knew so little about Bermuda other than its WWII connection with land lease and the US,” he said. “I was also surprised by the Portuguese history and legacy.”
The Saltus project paused when Covid-19 hit in March 2020. Some of the interviews have been printed in the school magazine, many are awaiting transcription.
“There is enormous potential there,” Dr Johnson said.
He was born in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up on a horse farm, the oldest of four. He was the first in his family to go to college, having decided he would rather do that than get sent off to the Vietnam War.
“I decided I was not going to college and then get drafted when I graduated,” he said. “At the time you got a four-year deferment for college, but you were eligible for the draft when the four years were up."
To avoid that, he applied for a graduate history programme at Canada's University of Manitoba, where he would be out of reach of the draft.
“I had never been to Canada before. A lot of people did not travel much in those days, so it was a big move.”
His family was not pleased as the assumption was that he was “either a coward, a traitor, a communist or all three.”
Although he was never drafted, he liked Canada and became a citizen after ten years in the country.
His plan had been to become a history professor but Dr Johnson completed his doctorate and could not find a post.
Instead, he joined a private school in Winnipeg that “was very much like Saltus” and found he liked working with younger students.
“I worked in that private school environment for 42 years, so the experiences of Saltus students – both alumni and current students – are very familiar to me,” he said. “Canadian private, or independent schools, are modelled on the British public school system. Harry Potter movies made us very popular.”
He met his wife at a school in British Columbia. When they return to Victoria to live this summer, he hopes to join Meals on Wheels, one of the charities he worked with here.
“Retirement does not mean that you sit on your front porch in a rocking chair any more,” he said.
Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or firstname.lastname@example.org with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them