A woman who made her mark on the education system in New Westminster has passed away after a courageous battle with breast cancer.
June Harrison (formerly Gilgan) died at St. Michael’s Hospice in Burnaby on Feb. 18, after being diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in 2015.
Harrison started her 36-year career with the New Westminster school district as a teacher at Herbert Spencer Elementary School, where she taught from 1963 to 1969. After a stint as an SFU faculty associate teaching new teachers from 1969 to 1971, she returned to the New Westminster school district, where she taught at Lord Kelvin Elementary from 1971 to 1973 and was a teacher/vice-principal at John Robson Elementary from 1973 to 1977. Her roles included being a classroom teacher, teacher- librarian and resource teacher.
In 1977, Harrison was named principal (and quite likely the first woman to serve in that role in the school district) at F.W. Howay Elementary, where she remained until 1987. She went on to serve as principal at Richard McBride Elementary from 1987 to 1992 and Lord Tweedsmuir from 1992 to 1996, before taking on the role of district principal of curriculum/special education from 1996 to 1999.
New West resident Rocky Suffron attended F.W. Howay Elementary when Harrison was the school’s principal and visited her recently at the hospice. He left a note telling her the impact she’d made on his life and recalled how she’d given him a hug when he was crying as he left the Grade 7 end-of-year assembly.
“It’s fitting that I’m visiting you during my birthday month of February. You would run into my father at the store and tell him to wish me a Happy Birthday – even though you hadn’t been my principal in over 25 years,” he wrote. “Your spirit at F.W. Howay made it a very enjoyable school to attend. Yes, we had a few chats about my behaviour, and still that is understated…..Thank you for all that you did in my most important years.”
Busy in retirement
Harrison retired in 1999 but returned to work in 2001, when she was named as Urban Academy independent school’s first principal, a job she held until 2005.
Laura Drummond, a co-founding parent for Urban Academy, said Harrison came across an ad for Urban Academy when it was getting started in 2001 and contacted the school to lend her support.
“In true June fashion, she jumped in, becoming principal and a fundamental part of the creation of UA in the first four years,” Drummond said in a statement. “Many impactful hours were spent with June, passionately discussing curriculum, staff and how to provide the education our students deserved.”
In retirement, Harrison also established a private tutoring company, worked two days a week at Kenneth Gordon School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities, and was a tribunal member for the Employment Assistance Appeal Tribunal.
In recent years, Harrison also got to work on her passion project – writing a book about her family’s pioneer upbringing. She had been planning the project since 2010 but was spurred on after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and being told she had a limited life expectancy.
During the early days of the pandemic last spring, Harrison worked on her memoir, and Finding Home: The Values of a Pioneer Family in North Central British Columbia was published in late 2020.
When the book was published, Harrison told the Record she had three purposes to this particular project: to record her experiences of her pioneer lifestyle in north central B.C., where both sets of her grandparents were original European settlers at the early part of the last century; to explore the values of her family by profiling a number of aunts, uncles and cousins to enable her young grandsons to understand their heritage and shared values; and to reflect on how these values/experiences aided her successful administrative career in New Westminster.
Finding Home: The Values of a Pioneer Family in North Central British Columbia is $18 and is available at Renaissance Books, 712B 12th St.