A pioneer spirit is what Alex Wallach was born into, so it’s no surprise that he made a major impact as a member of the first Selkirk College class in 1966.
Wallach’s family has a long history in the West Kootenay, his grandfather Alexander Carrie was an architect who designed many commercial buildings and homes in Nelson in the first half of the 20th Century. His mother Elizabeth was a high school teacher, but also a Nelson city councillor in the 1950s—a rarity for women at the time—and one of the key individuals who helped make the dream of post-secondary education in rural British Columbia a reality.
Alex Wallach is one of the many people profiled in the new commemorative coffee table book Journeys Taken: Selkirk College - The First 50 Years which is available for purchase at the Castlegar Campus Bookstore, Trail Campus and Otter Books in downtown Nelson.
“I can remember her going to board meetings and coming back quite often a little frustrated with the government and how the politics went around and around,” Wallach says of his mother’s involvement in movement to create Selkirk College. “Mom was a pretty straight speaking woman, so she got a little frustrated with the political process and the fact it took so long to get things done.”
Starting in the early 1960s, Elizabeth Wallach and other educational pioneers began the work of establishing the first rural community college in British Columbia. On February 25, 1965 the residents of six communities in the West Kootenay and Boundary—Trail, Nelson, Castlegar, Slocan, Grand Forks and Arrow Lakes—voted through referendum to pay for half of the cost of building and equipping a college. It passed with 72 per cent in favour.
Finding a Post-Secondary Passion Close to Home
Alex Wallach graduated from Nelson’s L.V. Rogers Secondary as a member of the Class of 1962. While his mother started work on making Selkirk College a reality, Wallach headed west to the University of British Columbia (UBC).
“It was an incredible experience,” he says. “There were classes where there were more kids in the class than in my in entire high school. Being on your own and not having to answer to anybody, it was a mind-blowing experience.”
Alex Wallach has albums filled with memories about his time spent at Selkirk College in the late-1960s.
After two years at UBC where he worked towards becoming a fisheries biologist, Wallach had not found a major academic spark and returned to the West Kootenay. He started work at Nelson’s Kootenay Forest Products where he pulled lumber off the greenchain. Then he spent time on a Ministry of Highways crew that built the new highway from Castlegar to Thrums.
Now in his early 20s and a desire to return to the classroom, Wallach decided to take a look at what the new community college in his own backyard was offered.
“I knew I needed more education, so I picked Forestry Program because I was an outdoors person and it seemed like a logical step,” Wallach says. “I probably wouldn’t have gone back to school if Selkirk College had not opened, but the program was two years which seemed like the way to go.”
Setting the Tone for Future Generations
Wallach joined the 457 other charter students in that first year of learning at Selkirk College. With the main campus in Castlegar not complete in time for the September 1966 start, the students in four founding programs—Arts & Sciences, Forestry, Electronical Technology and Business & Commerce—began their journey at the temporary Celgar Campus on the mill located just up the Columbia River.
“I think our starting in the bunkhouses of Celgar really set the tone,” Wallach says. “It was a make-do situation where we had to figure out where we were going. The high school kids were enthusiastic as hell and it was a very vibrant time.
“Some might have been disappointed that it wasn’t a brand new building, but the make-do made it fun and made it an adventure. It felt a little more pioneering. And when we did get into the new facility it made it much more meaningful.”
Alex Wallach was one of the original 458 students who attended Selkirk College in its first year of learning during the 1966-1967 academic year.
Inside the classroom, Wallach enjoyed the more intimate learning environment than he experienced at UBC. But it was outside the classroom where he really hit his stride. A member of the Selkirk College Saints’ first hockey team, he also dove into student life with zeal. As community college pioneers, there was an opportunity for charter students to set a course for the future. That responsibility really took hold once students moved to the completed Castlegar Campus in January, 1967.
“Everything was brand new, basically there was nothing there other than a facility,” says Wallach. “What had to develop were the social clubs, the various activities, student government… it was a learning experience for a lot of people. The enthusiasm was terrific, we stumbled along and had a good time doing it.”
By the end of his first year of studies and student involvement, Wallach decided to take the next step and ran for Student Council president. In April, 1967 he was elected and spent his second year in an important leadership position.
“My vision as president was mainly towards the students,” Wallach says. “That you are becoming an independent person and you have to spread your wings a little bit. It was important to get involved and enjoy yourself. Most of the students were recent high school graduates where life was very regimented. In college it’s not like that as much.”
The Right Start at Home
Wallach graduated in the Selkirk College Class of 1968 and a future in British Columbia’s growing forest industry awaited.
“Selkirk College was the hands-on, practical side of education which is more stimulating for a student,” Wallach says. “To know that what you are learning could be applied was important. UBC was theoretical and up in the air, you didn’t really get hands-on and you had to punch your way through the routine and end up with a degree at the end of it. I found it was a paternal, non-thinking, repeat-after-me process that didn’t really stimulate me at all.”
Wallach began his career with the Ministry of Forests shortly after graduating when he took a post in New Denver where he was an assistant ranger. With his superiors viewing his education with high regard, Wallach was involved in making sure the logging and timber cutting contracts were adhered to, inspected the cutting permit applications, involved in tree planting, firefighting, building roads and maintaining trails. He also helped build the Idaho Peak lookout where he assisted in the operation to helicopter supplies to what has now become a popular recreation area in the region.
Alex Wallach was one of the charter students invited back for the 50th Anniversary Homecoming Weekend celebrations this past September where a re-enactment of The Great Trek took place. Wallach can be seen at the front with the blue coat.
His next stop was Cranbrook where he spent five years and then moved his young family to Williams Lake where he was a deputy ranger. Wallach would spend the next 25 years in the Cariboo where he helped the forest industry become an integral part of the provincial economy.
In total, Wallach spent an impressive 35 years with the Ministry of Forests and retired when he was 57. He credits his experience at Selkirk College with his ability to accomplish all he did over that time.
“Selkirk College gave me the knowledge of how the industry works in regards to building roads, cutting permits and that sort of thing,” he says. “Due to my out-of-class activities, it gave me the ability to deal with people and convince them the err of their ways. It all certainly helped. The college did a very good job of preparing me.”
Wallach has never slowed on the community involvement he was born into and fostered while taking on leadership positions at Selkirk College. The list of his community service accomplishments is long and continues to this day.
“Selkirk College taught me that I can get involved and that I can make difference,” he says. “It was excellent in that capacity.”
Wallach and his wife Rosemary raised two daughters with the same philosophy of giving back to the community. While balancing their own family/work lives, one daughter is on the school board in Kamloops and the other is involved in the Merritt Chamber of Commerce.
Looking back, Wallach says he is proud of his mother’s role in helping establish Selkirk College and his own contribution
“Selkirk College has become a very prominent post-secondary presence throughout our entire region. It has spread like an octopus,” he says. “Selkirk College has certainly become ingrained in the community and offer all kinds of opportunities for the various communities to expand their education.”