Reminiscence of Neuchâtel: 1957-58

David Gurd

I am confident that if asked, most alumnae would say that their year at NJC was a life changing experience for them. The following rambling and quite personal reminiscences are intended to suggest why I would say the same. 


In the spring of 1957, with Grade 11 graduation approaching and Elvis at the peak of his career, I asked a classmate what she planned to do the following year. Instead of responding that she would go to McGill as I expected, she replied: “I’m going to Switzerland.” So I asked for details.  She gave me an address and I shot off an application letter. I didn’t bother mentioning it to my parents because, well, they knew I would be going to McGill and it was way past the application deadline anyway, so nothing would come of it. Imagine my surprise and their shock when I appeared with an acceptance letter from some far-away school they had never heard of.  (It was only the second year of NJC and they must have been desperate for students.) 

In 1957, the Swiss Franc was worth 25 cents Canadian. A quarter!!  Today I see it is Can $1.38!!  From the exchange rate alone then, the cost of attending NJC has increased by a factor of five and a half!  Still, I imagine that my grandfather must have stepped in behind the scenes to help make this crazy idea possible.  I also imagine that this change in cost has had a significant impact on student demographics and the ratio of public to private school attendees.  (Mine was a public school.) 

First Meeting and Travel

So I would be going to Neuchâtel, wherever that was. There was no Zoom in those days to meet with future classmates. Indeed, there would not be an internet of any sort for another 35 years. We gathered instead for the first time at the Ritz Carleton Hotel on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal, shortly before sailing.  (Yes, sailing!)  The rosy-cheeked (dare I say cherubic) Mr. Wilde wandered about introducing himself to parents and students alike, while carrying a Pink Lady cocktail.  At least until he suddenly vanished to search for all our passports, which we later learned he had somehow misplaced.  Classic Mr. Wilde. It was his ever-present German sidekick, Helmut Reith, who found the passports, saving the day as he was to do so many times in the months to follow. That was our introduction to the unique, quirky, eccentric and quite wonderful, Mr. Leonard Wilde.

A few days later we gathered again aboard the Canadian Pacific Steamship Empress of England for the trans-Atlantic crossing, destination Liverpool. The departure of an ocean liner is a memorable event, especially standing on the deck and waving back at my parents and brother and high-school girlfriend for as long as they could still be distinguished on the dock. This voyage, rather than the current bus trip around Switzerland, was our “orientation” trip – a chance to meet each other and establish new friendships while the staff got to know us and perhaps make some decisions about pension assignments. I can’t seem to remember many details of the bus trip from Liverpool through France to Neuchâtel, a whirlwind of new experiences and tastes.

Pension Life

Along with three other NJC students, Tony, Ian and another Dave, I was assigned to an all-boys pension at Chemin de Trois Portes 8 where there were also several other students attending different Neuchâtel schools. In addition to us Canadians, there was Pierre from Marseilles, Jorges from Portugal, Hoff from Hong Kong, Peter from Norway, and, briefly, an American and a Swiss.  Most NJC students were in pensions within walking distance of the school (Google tells me ours was a 30-minute walk; probably less for our group of quick-stepping teenagers. Now, with my cane, I’m not sure I could make it at all.  Neuchâtel is a hilly place!)  Ours was not the only pension with a large group. Just a few minutes away was another pension housing at least a dozen girls from all over, four of them Canadians also attending NJC.  French was the common language (although no one spoke it well except for Pierre).  Madame presided over our meals and enforced the use of French at the table.  That would later serve me well.  Early on, Monsieur et Madame took us all for our first ever raclette in Bern. Now it is something we do at home from time to time. 

An overseas phone call was very expensive, requiring a visit to the post office, and of course there was no such thing as Facetime, so much time was spent writing letters -- our only contact with home.  Write a couple of pages longhand on “onion skin” paper (lighter and cheaper to mail by air) and then wait 10-14 days for a reply.  I wrote a couple of longish letters a week, one to my parents and one to my girlfriend.  I don’t recall any of us having had a parental visit, so we were quite isolated from our families for a full 12 months.  But it was a compatible group in the pension, and when not letter-writing or doing homework, we were playing either ping-pong or practical jokes. 

A few years ago, visiting a granddaughter who was attending the college, I chatted with the school administrator of the time. She had the responsibility of finding pensions for students.  She told me it was increasingly difficult to find pensions at all, much less within walking distance, and that there were no longer the big group pensions that we knew in 1957.

Our little group of four Canadians at Trois Portes 8 remained friends as we later spread out across the world, eventually settling in England, New Brunswick, Toronto and Vancouver. We kept in touch with regular Christmas cards and letters, and the occasional visit.  Then, in recent years, we were unexpectedly able to gather again virtually, often with our wives, over Zoom.   Such fun and one of the few positives from the COVID pandemic. Sadly, one of our number died just a few months ago.


There was no concept of a gap year in 1957.  Students were all completing their high school diplomas.  Those from Quebec and BC followed the Grade 12 curriculum of those provinces; all the others followed an Ontario Grade 13 program.  Canadian educational systems have changed since 1958, and I imagine so have the options available to NJC students.  Not everyone will recall that the actual “Directeur” of the College in 1957 was not Leonard Wilde, but rather Jean Grize of the Ecole de Commerce, who had co-founded the college with Mr. Wilde.  We seldom saw him.  He was, you might say, the éminence grise behind NJC.  It was Mr. Wilde, however, with the title of “Vice-Principal,” who was the presence. 

In 1957 the College did not yet have a building of its own; classes were held at the University, close to the lake. We moved to the foyer, still used by today’s NJC students, after the Christmas break.  In Montreal I had been the editor of the High School yearbook. This being only the second year of the college, there was not yet a tradition of making a yearbook.  I suggested to Mr. Wilde that we do that at NJC. He said “Go ahead.” And suddenly I was editor of the first NJC Yearbook.  Unfortunately, my only copy of that precious souvenir was later destroyed in a forest fire in New Mexico. I was thrilled to find the school still had a copy when I visited just a few years ago, and the administrator was kind enough to copy it for me.

On October 4 of 1957, Russia launched the first earth-orbiting satellite.  “Sputnik” was only a little larger than a basketball, its only function was to say “beep” every few seconds, and it only remained in orbit for a few weeks. But it was the start of the “space race,” one aspect of the cold war that dominated world politics for several decades.  My Physics teacher, Doris Jelly, a young woman only 9 years my senior (I looked it up), had taken a leave from the Canadian Research Council to try her hand at teaching.  Coincidentally, her expertise was space research. Sputnik and Miss Jelly together changed my life on that day. The planned lesson was put aside for a spontaneous and enthusiastic explanation of orbital dynamics. Miss Jelly could not hide her excitement, and the idea of a career in Physics entered my head for the first time.  A year later I was studying Physics at McGill University.

Digression – Doris Jelly

After her one year of teaching at NJC, Doris Jelly returned to Ottawa and the Canadian Space program.  She played an important role in the development and launching of Alouette 1, making Canada the third nation in space and the first with a satellite in polar orbit.  In the summer of 1962 I was working in Ottawa, and Miss Jelly invited me to her apartment with other friends to watch the very first satellite-based transatlantic television broadcast from Europe. (It lasted only a few minutes while the satellite was in the right position.)  She was as excited and enthusiastic as she had been 5 years earlier, filled with information to share.  

In 2014 I tracked her down and wrote to thank her for the influence she had had on my life and career, and in May of that year we arranged a coffee meeting at Vancouver Airport between her flights. She was in her eighties then, well retired, and we had a long and meandering chat. Because she was so close to the age of her students, she had been a confidante of the girls. She had endless stories of the adventures, misadventures and love lives of the NJC girls. It goes without saying that I had been aware of none of it!  She never went back to teaching – she told me she didn’t like it and didn’t feel she was good at it. (I begged to differ.)  She had authored a book: “Canada – 25 years in Space,” and she ended her career as curator of the Canadian Space Museum in Ottawa – a true Canadian space pioneer.  Doris Jelly died in Ottawa a year ago.  She was 90 years old. 

After School

To encourage mixing, the school organized a couple of school dances with students from other Neuchâtel schools.  Other than that, we were largely on our own. I went to a few movies, often American movies that had been “dubbed” into French. Do they still do that??  I also went a few times to cheer on the Neuchâtel “Young Sprinters” hockey team, standing in the outdoor arena and shouting “Hup Sprint” to keep warm!  They are now defunct. Mr. Wilde liked to take various students on weekend car trips to parts of southern Germany, and I went with him on one of those – visiting several gothic cathedrals in the region. Weirdly, as a teenager I was already a fan of classical music. I went regularly to the free organ recitals at the Collégiale, which was just down the street. The famous Orchèstre de la Suisse Romande under Ernst Ansermat visited Neuchâtel regularly, and I was often in attendance. Once I dragged friends to the opera in Lausanne where I believe Madame Butterfly was sung by the soon to be famous Gabriella Tucci. Her famous song “One Fine Day” literally stopped the show, and to quiet the audience and get on with it all she had to repeat the whole thing. Thrilling.

Not surprisingly, the biggest after school party of the year was the Fête des Vendanges, soon after we arrived.  I have a picture that I treasure of me vacuuming up confetti in my room after the Fête. Sixty-five years later, my grandson, now in Neuchâtel himself, sent me a photo of him doing the same!  Plus ça change…  Strangely, the Fête des Vendanges also turned out, like so much else that year, to be life changing. I asked a cute Swiss German girl if she would ride the bump cars with me.  After asking the advice of a friend, she consented.  French being the common language, that is how we communicated.  Six years later we were married.  


In those early days, there was no concept of “independent travel,” so important to today’s NJC experience. All trips were school organized. I remember school bus trips to Aosta, just across the border in Italy and to Dijon in France.  The two main expeditions were at Christmas and Easter. Very few, if any of us, went home at Christmas. Instead, half of us went to Spain and Morocco by bus while the others had a ski vacation. Highlights in Spain included the Alhambra Palace and the Prado Museum. We spent Christmas Day in Tangier, where the students organized a small Christmas service in our hotel lobby. It’s hard being away from home at Christmas! We also visited Rabat and Marrakech.  The medinas were fascinating, and we all learned to bargain for our souvenirs.  At one time I apparently annoyed a vendor in the market in Marrakech and he chased me away through the maze.  This was a re-creation of the frightening opening scene of Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  Unforgettable.

Here is my favourite story from the Morocco trip.  Before crossing from Spain to Morocco, we stayed in a hotel on the Spanish side. (Who can forget Helmut’s rendition of “Grenada” on the lounge piano.?)  We were close enough that we could walk across a causeway to Gibraltar, and several of the students went shopping there a few times. On the way home, the ferry brought us to Gibraltar, but when we went to cross back into Spain it turned out that several of the student’s three-entry visas had been used up and we were not admitted into Spain!  We were stranded on the Rock.  First, Mr. Wilde found us all temporary accommodation in the British Army barracks, and then he set off back to Morocco to acquire black-market Spanish visas. No telling (and no asking) how he did it, but he was back the next day with the required documents. And an innocent smile. That was Mr. Wilde!

There is a coda to this story. Forty years later I attended a class reunion on the shores of Georgian Bay.  Everyone was (re) introducing themselves (“You haven’t changed a bit!”) and their spouses. One of my classmates introduced her husband. He had been a British Army officer stationed on Gibraltar in 1957.  Guess where and when they met??  Another life changed by Neuchâtel.

The Easter trip was a bus tour of Italy – Milan, Venice, Florence, Pompeii, Capri, Rome. Fifty years later I participated (as chaperone with a granddaughter) in another school trip to Italy. An almost identical itinerary. But hotel prices are now so much more expensive than in 1958. Then we stayed right in the city centers and could fully experience them.  In 2008 our hotels were outside of those cities and the students did not have access to the night life. Both trips were in Rome at Easter, but for our Neuchâtel trip, Mr. Wilde, a Catholic, must have pulled some strings to arrange an audience with the Pope!  Along with many others, the name of “Students from Neuchâtel Junior College” was read out as guests from the pulpit of St. Peters.  Also in Rome I brought three friends to the Rome Opera House, where we saw a Parsifal, an opera so long (five hours) and so boring that a chorus member fainted on stage and was quietly dragged off by fellow chorus members.  I loved every minute.

Summer of 1958
After final exams everyone went their own way.  I cannot seem to piece together a coherent narrative of my own travels – I remember only isolated incidents and impressions. 
Hitchhiking most of the way (no longer recommended!), four of us traveled to Scandinavia to meet Peter in Oslo. I remember the complicated border crossing from Sweden (where they still drove on the left) into Norway (where they drove on the right).  We had been invited to watch a regatta at the Royal Norwegian Yacht Club just south of Oslo. Lost and scruffy from travel, I was delegated to ask directions of a young lady we had spotted sitting on the porch of a large house. When I approached, someone (a maid?) came out with a shocked look and shooed me away, making it clear I could not be there. Later, at the closing ceremonies of the regatta, the Royal Family was presenting trophies. I recognised one of them. It seems the young woman on the porch had been a royal princess.  No wonder I wasn’t allowed very close!

I remember waiting a full day for a ride just outside of Hamburg, eventually giving up and taking the train. I did not have enough money for a ticket all the way to Amsterdam, so I was put off the train just inside the Dutch border.  I slept under a road-side tree and the next morning hitch-hiked into Amsterdam where I was somehow able to get some money from home. In Grade 9 I had done a school project on Rembrandt, so Amsterdam was somewhat of a pilgrimage for me. I spent much of a day at the Rijksmuseum, gawking at “The Night Watch” and so many other familiar paintings. I can’t even recall who was with me. 

Somehow, I made my way back to Hamburg, where I boarded the storied Polish ship Batory, much smaller than the Empress had been. (Among many other exploits, she had participated in the evacuation at Dunkirk, saving over 2500 soldiers.)  There were four of us from NJC aboard that ship bound for Montreal – three of us named “Dave!”  On board, we played ping pong with members of the Polish fencing team that was on its way to a competition.  Upon our arrival in Montreal, they made headlines when they asked for political asylum in Canada.  

I was home at last, with the great adventure at an end and a lifetime of memories and friendships to show. Next stop: McGill
A life-changing experience

It may seem commonplace to say that my year at Neuchâtel Junior College was life changing.  But consider that it was at NJC that my eventual career was inspired by a great teacher. It was there that I met a girl that I would later marry (in Neuchâtel!!) and with whom I would have three Swiss-Canadian daughters. It was in my pension and in and out of school that I learned to speak French, which would enable me later to live and work in France for three years.  And it was traveling in Europe and elsewhere that I learned to appreciate the art, architecture, history and culture (and food) of other countries, cultivating a life-long love of travel.  No question – a life-changing experience indeed.  
Neuchâtel Junior College offers the unique opportunity to study Canadian curriculum abroad. While living in Switzerland in a French community, students enjoy an international education through travel and experiential learning in Europe. Gap year and Grade 12  high school students gain international experience and develop independence and life skills that prepare them for university and the global workplace.

A Canadian high school in Switzerland | Grade 12 & Gap