Wider Horizons

The opening of Lethbridge College’s new Trades, Technologies and Innovation Facility to students this past fall represented more than just the largest expansion in the institution’s history. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of one man’s vision of Lethbridge College as a leading centre for vocational and technical education, a vision more than 50 years in the making.

In December 1961, Dr. James (Jim) Twa was appointed the first-ever director of Vocational Education for what was then called Lethbridge Junior College. But long before that, Twa, who passed away in 2013, was a young man looking for a way out of the hardscrabble life on a small prairie farm.

“He was definitely someone who was a product of the Great Depression,” recalls his daughter Denise Wall (Agriculture Technology 1983). “He grew up near Talbot (just under 200 km east of Red Deer) where my grandpa had a small farm. He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose his tractor and that’s where [Jim] learned to fix things.”

Even in those early days, education asserted a strong hold on Twa, as it would throughout his life and career. “He came from a poor family and he and his older sister were the only ones who finished their Grade 12,” says Wall. “They would ride a horse bareback for four miles spring, fall, winter just to get to school.”

After finishing high school in 1946, Twa moved to the tiny hamlet of Craigmyle where he started his career. He was just 17 years old. “He used to talk about meeting the superintendent of the school, who wanted to know where the teacher was and my dad had to try very hard to convince the superintendent he WAS the teacher,” laughs Wall.

Over the next few years, Twa continued his teaching career as well as his own education, receiving a bachelor of education from the University of Alberta in 1957.

story-building-a-legacy1.jpgIn 1961, while working as a shop teacher for Lethbridge public schools, he applied, and was hired, for the position of director of Vocational Services with the fledgling Lethbridge Junior College. His role would be to develop and administer the programs to fill the new vocational area of the four-year-old college. Twa toured other junior colleges in Canada and the United States for ideas and inspiration and put together advisory committees to build partnerships between the school and the industries who would depend on college grads to fill their ranks.

According to the history of the college written in 1992, when Twa was hired, “he was expected to do everything that was going to be done in technical and vocational education in the college, but no one really knew what that was going to be. …Twa was later to say that if he had known what the task was, he would have said it was impossible. …There was no Canadian model to follow, no legislation to cover what they were doing, but the board and Twa were willing to gamble, inventing and innovating as they went along.”

In September 1963, classes for the new vocational-technical school began with 10 faculty and 145 students enrolled in areas including automotive repair, radio/television technician, welding, sheet metal, commercial cooking, electrical and secretarial. Within five years, he worked to more than double the number of faculty and students in the vocational section, which, as stated in the faculty tribute when he was nominated to the Lethbridge College Hall of Fame, “placed the Technical-Vocational Section in a strong position when the University of Lethbridge was established in 1967. Without this position, the absorption and eventual demise of Lethbridge Junior College would have been a very real possibility. We are indebted more than we realize to Jim Twa for the present, vibrant college we all know today.”

For Twa, an education in the trades was an effective alternative to an academic university education for some students. “Education was a pathway for him,” says Wall. “For him, I think he saw education as a way off the farm and out of poverty and he really believed in it for his students and [his own children]. He’s the guy who would come home every day to give us a word of the day to increase our vocabulary.”

Twa built the new program during those early years at the college, eventually served as acting president of the college in 1967 and vice-president in 1967-68. He left the institution in 1968 to pursue his PhD at the University of Oregon, and returned with his family to Lethbridge in 1970 where he continued his career as a professor in the Faculty of Education at the newly-created University of Lethbridge. “He was the kind of guy who was the salt of the earth,” says Wall. “If you met him, you wouldn’t have known he was a professor, he never had that air. He didn’t like people calling him Dr. Twa. He preferred to be referred to as Jim as it didn’t separate him from his students.”

In 1986, after more than 40 years away from a farm, Twa returned to his roots, retiring to a small hobby farm near Raymond. “He would always be tinkering with things on the farm,” recalls Wall. “A tractor would die but instead of buying a part he’d improvise his own. He had such a mechanical mind, he should have been an engineer.”

“If you met him, you wouldn’t have known he was a professor, he never had that air. He didn’t like people calling him Dr. Twa, he thought that was way above him.”

{ Denise Wall }

Twa was inducted into the Lethbridge College Hall of Fame in 1989. While he lived out his retirement, his family followed in his footsteps in higher education. Wall graduated in 1983 from what was then called Lethbridge Community College in the Agricultural Technology program and later went on to get her education degree at the U of L. In turn, all three of Wall’s own children have gone on to post-secondary education, with daughter Jesse graduating from Lethbridge College with a diploma in Business Administration – Accounting in 2011.

“Education was extremely valued in our household by my family, and that definitely stemmed from my grandfather as he ingrained that into his children as well,” says Jesse Wall. “I was always under the impression that I needed to go to either college or university after high school and that’s what I did. Having both my Grandpa Jim and my mom going through Lethbridge College – they might have biased me a little bit to go to there.”

Wall’s son Murray went into the trades as a sheet metal worker. In a final twist, Murray worked on the construction of the new Trades, Technologies and Innovation Facility, the new home for the same programs his grandfather helped build.

Wall says the family remains proud of their connection to Lethbridge College and Jim Twa’s contribution to making the institution what it is today.

“I wish he could have seen [the new building] in his lifetime,” says Wall. “He would have been incredibly proud to see something that he was passionate about become reality in this way.”

Dr. James Twa

In his daughter’s words…

I started at Lethbridge College in October 1981. The Ag Tech program in those days at LCC was only six months long to allow students to help on the farm with seeding and harvesting. Many of the instructors stick in my mind as great mentors. Dr. Gene Keller bought some old cull cows in the fall and we got to do hands-on things like pregnancy testing and AI with them. Darrel Brown impressed upon me that only through financial management of the farm could a person be successful, as a great farmer in the field would fail if he didn’t manage his farm well. This is so true in today’s agriculture. Being hands-on in the classroom was so important for me.

I graduated from the University of Lethbridge, where I obtained my bachelor of education in Physical Sciences in 1989, and I worked as a substitute teacher for the next 23 years. After graduation, I married a farmer whom I farmed with for 15 years until his death in a farm accident.

I became the sole proprietor of the farm and have been successfully farming southeast of Lethbridge for the last 13 years on my own. I raised three children during this time, two of whom attended the college. In 2012, I retired from teaching and am farming full time. I keep in touch with several of my classmates from the college, and I have one in particular who has become a lifelong best friend whom I hike, ride horses and generally hang out with.

Both of my girls have bachelor’s degrees. Jesse, 25, earned hers in management in accounting, and Emily, 27, has a degree in biology from the University of Calgary. Murray, 23, is taking a time out from his apprenticeship in HVAC, traveling in southeast Asia for the next year.

My father, my late husband and I were great travellers, having visited most of the continents. Education is the process of gaining information about the surrounding world. I am a big proponent of education in that it is the way to a better life.

- Denise Wall, Agriculture Technology 1983

In his granddaughter’s words…

I attended Lethbridge College from 2009 to 2011, directly after high school. I played collegiate soccer there as well. An active lifestyle was something that was passed down from my grandfather. He valued team work along with working towards a common goal. I feel I enjoyed my college experience more by having an opportunity to play sports too. I loved how hands-on the instructors were at the college. The classes were smaller and I had all the resources and abilities to talk to the instructors for clarification whenever needed. I really enjoyed James Reimer (Business Administration 1990) – he taught most of my accounting classes and he genuinely made me love accounting (it is nearly impossible to make someone enjoy accounting).

My grandpa could take anything you gave him and make it into something great. Even though I never got the bug to fix things or work with my hands, my grandpa taught me that hard work pays off and he was a living example of it. He knew how to work with his hands and he knew how to “create.”

His style of learning I think also is something that Lethbridge College embraces as they give you the opportunity to start from the bottom and they provide a great foundation to whatever you pursue in life. My grandpa actually offered the basement of his house in Lethbridge for me to live while I went to the college, so I think that was his gesture to send me in that direction. He was definitely excited that I chose to go to Lethbridge College.

The 2+2 program the college offered was also huge in my decision. I decided to do my first two years at the college, which was the best decision I made. My classes at the college gave me the knowledge that is more prevalent to the work I am doing now. I am happy to have had my first two years there as it gave me an amazing start to my education and I hope that maybe one of my children will go there one day and carry on the tradition.

 - Jesse Fowlis, Business Administration 2011

Family photo
(From left): Emily Reid, Murray Wall, Denise Wall and Jesse Fowlis love sharing stories of their father and grandfather, Jim Twa, and the impact he had on trades
and technologies training at Lethbridge College.
Wider Horizons
Story by Jeremy Franchuk | Photos submitted
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