In May, John Terence Barnett travelled from Yorkshire in the north of England to visit Barnett House in Edmonton, to see first-hand the impact of his grand-uncle John Walker Barnett, the ATA’s first general secretary-treasurer.
What is immediately striking is the resemblance between John Barnett and John Barnett.
John Terence Barnett is a retired shipping manager from Yorkshire, England. He is standing in the foyer of Barnett House next to a portrait of his grand-uncle, John Walker Barnett, the teacher who moved from England to Alberta in 1911 and went on to become the first general secretary–treasurer of the fledgling Alberta Teachers’ Alliance (later renamed Association). In that role, John Walker is credited with almost single-handedly establishing and building the teaching profession in Alberta.
“It’s a lot to take in,” said John Terence of visiting the building named after his grand-uncle (John Terence’s grandfather Sydney and John Walker Barnett were brothers).
This visit, which occurred May 10, had been months in the making, orchestrated as a special surprise for John’s 70th birthday by his wife Barbara, who initiated the trip last fall with an email inquiry to the Association.
That message wound up in the inbox of Executive Secretary Gordon Thomas, who hosted the Barnetts along with the Association’s archivist Maggie Shane. The contingent spent the day touring Barnett House and venturing past the house on Edmonton’s south side that had been home to John Walker and his family.
“It’s just mind blowing … it’s unbelievable,” Barbara said of seeing first-hand the impact of John Walker’s accomplishments.
“We knew what he’d done ... but I don’t think we quite understood the magnitude of what he’d done and how well regarded [he is] and how proud people are of him.”
For their visit, the Barnetts brought and left behind a binder containing family trees, descriptions and copies of official documents like census forms and marriage certificates — information that Barbara compiled through exhaustive genealogy research, a hobby she picked up after retiring from her job as a shop assistant in a supermarket. They also left a book on the history of Grantham, the town in northwestern England where John Walker Barnett was born and raised.
These documents, along with verbal accounts from the couple, helped provide some insight into John Walker’s life before he came to Alberta at the age of 31, Shane said.
For example, it has long been believed that John Walker came from a teaching family. However, the Barnetts revealed that just two of his 13 siblings (a half-brother and a half-sister) had also been teachers. Two brothers worked in the boot and shoe industry while another brother and most of his sisters worked in their father’s confectionery and bakery business.
The material the Barnetts provided has already been added to the Association’s archives, and Shane incorporated some of the tidbits into a historical slideshow she displayed at last month’s Annual Representative Assembly.
“We filled in so much on our knowledge of Barnett’s family, and I think we helped Mr. and Mrs. Barnett understand something of the character and the drive and the vision of his great-uncle,” Shane said.
For Thomas, the Barnetts’ visit provoked a reflection on John Walker’s accomplishments.
“You think a little bit more about the achievements of that time,” Thomas said. “We had a great day. I enjoyed it a lot. I learned a lot more about the family and it was very worthwhile.”
Barbara Barnett, a geneology enthusiast and wife of John Terence Barnett, discusses the exhaustive research she undertook to unearth the connection between her husband and John Walker Barnett.
Although John Terence never met John Walker (he was born on a different continent the year his grand-uncle died) and isn’t a direct descendant, he said their lives have had some uncanny similarities. For example, like his grand-uncle, John Terence has been a swimmer his entire life, and while he wasn’t a teacher per se, he spent many years as a coach and instructor, displaying a knack for connecting with children.
And then there’s the physical resemblance and the fact that his handwriting is “identical” to John Walker’s.
“[We’ve] lived lives that have had these themes going through them without actually knowing each other. It’s like a gene has gone through,” he said. “It’s quite spooky.”
The Barnetts agreed that their visit brought into focus the magnitude of John Walker’s accomplishments and his stature within the teaching profession in Alberta.
“It’s changed our lives from the fact that he’s someone our family can be really proud of, and we are proud,” John said.
“I’d have given anything to have actually known him and to have had a conversation with him. But it wasn’t to be. We were born in different eras.” ❚