A Mission school teacher who died more than 30 years ago is being honoured by his students later this month.
Walter Pickersgill was an English teacher in Mission. He was born on Jan. 24, 1909 and passed away June 27, 1981. His body was cremated in Mission, but his remains were never claimed.
Sandy Maguire was saddened to see his name listed in an ad for “Disposition of Unclaimed Cremated Remains” last November in this newspaper. She knew of only one Walter Pickersgill and did not hesitate to make arrangements to honour her high school English teacher.
“My heart went out to him,” said Sandy, who was only in his class for a year.
Sandy, who graduated from Mission senior secondary in 1964, described him as a very quiet man who made an impression on many of his students. She remembers him walking up and down between the rows of desks in his classroom rattling the change in his pocket as he waited from someone to answer a question he had asked.
He once caught Sandy drawing a caricature of him one day.
“He stopped at my desk,” she recalled. “I didn’t know he was there, but it got very quiet. I looked over my left shoulder and he was standing there.”
He didn’t comment on the picture, but politely asked her to pay attention.
“He was one of my best teachers,” said Sandy. “He was extremely knowledgeable. His teaching was clear and precise and he stayed with you until you understood.”
Sandy contacted Woodlawn Funeral Home and made arrangements to pick up the cremated remains, often called cremains, later that day. A couple of days later, she found out a former school mate of hers also called the funeral home after she had done the same thing.
A few other students have been notified since and they have been trying to find the Pickersgill family.
“He deserves a proper burial after all this time,” said Sandy, who discovered that her former teacher retired from teaching in 1972 was also a war veteran.
With the help of the funeral home, she connected with a representative of the Last Post Fund (LPF) to make the arrangements.
According to its website, the LPF is financially supported by Veterans Affairs Canada and private donors, and its mission is to ensure veterans receive a dignified funeral, burial and military gravestone.
“Mr. Pickersgill couldn’t be buried in the local legion plot (at Hatzic cemetery) because he wasn’t a member of any legion,” explained Sandy. “(The LPF) purchased a plot beside the legion (section), has paid for the urn and marker for the grave and will care for gravesite hereafter.”
Sandy and her friends don’t know why Pickersgill was out of touch with his family, but they have discovered he has connections in Newfoundland and are reaching out to relatives there.
“Through searching, we’ve found so many cousins,” said Sandy, who noted her teacher was originally from Manitoba. “It would be so wonderful to have a family member at the graveside.”
Sandy said she usually isn’t interested in history, but this experience has opened her eyes.
She will be putting together a booklet with information about Walter Pickersgill and his life.
“We will share as much information as we can,” said Sandy, who also hopes former students and colleagues will show up with stories of their own.
Angelo Rea, general manager of Dignity Memorial Funeral Homes in the Fraser Valley, told The Record it is rare these days to have unclaimed cremated remains in a funeral home.
In the past, the funeral arrangements were done in phases, but now funeral home directors work with families to make all the arrangements in the beginning. It is costly and a liability for any funeral home to keep cremains for a long period of time, he explained.
“It is healthier for families too because the finality is dealt with.”
The policy now is to house the cremains for up to 30 days. If the ashes are still not picked up, the funeral home will try to contact family members or executor before putting an advertisement in the local newspaper. Remains that are not claimed are interred in a common grave.
Sandy said, “It’s an honour to be able to do this for Mr. Pickersgill, but it’s sad that he wasn’t provided this service 33 years ago.”
The service for Walter Pickersgill will take place on Feb. 20 at 11 a.m. at Hatzic cemetery, followed by a gathering at the Mission Springs Restaurant.