For nearly a quarter century, the steely gaze of a 16-foot metal Viking has greeted students arriving at Burnaby North Secondary each morning but that monument’s days may soon be numbered now that the school is being replaced.
Education Minister Rob Fleming was in town recently to announce $79 million to replace the 62-year-old school by 2021.
And one of the first questions out of most people’s mouths, according to principal Dave Rawnsley, is about the Viking.
“Once we get past the logistics of where the building will go and what it might look like and what is a modern learning environment, then it always goes to ‘Where’s the Viking going?,’” he told the NOW.
Anecdotally, Rawnsley said opinion about whether to keep it appears to be split about 50-50.
There’s been talk, he said, of replacing it with a more modern, stylized figure, of coming up with something less male, of reconsidering the idea of Vikings as a school symbol at all.
As with everything else about the new building, Rawnsley said the final decision will only come after a thorough consultation process involving staff, students, parents and district officials – but he doesn’t expect it’ll be easy.
“That may be the most difficult decision we’re going to come up with here,” he said.
Opinion about the Viking has been mixed from the start.
On June 13, 1994, the day it was first unveiled, the NOW got an angry phone call from a man who identified himself only as Louie.
“I opened the door this morning, and there it was, this big, black thing that reminded me of the devil,” he said.
Louie said he was “appalled” by the “ugly” monument and concerned about his property value.
That sparked an equally passionate letter to the editor from the Wong family, who called the Viking a “magnificent artwork” and chastised Louie for his selfishness.
“Does he not recognize and understand the degree of hard work, commitment and pride that these students poured into the statue?” they asked.
The Viking was a project eight years in the making.
It was started in 1987 by now-retired shop teacher John Clarke as a way to inspire and challenge his welding students – and intimidate opponents of the school’s football team.
At first it was only to be a giant helmet.
Clarke envisioned carrying it out before football games in lieu of a mascot.
“I thought we could put the helmet out on the field and say, ‘Hey, just wait till the player shows up that fits this helmet.’”
As his welding students gained the necessary level of skill, Clarke allowed them to shape and weld a steel panel onto the Viking’s rebar frame.
In total, he estimates there are about 120 panels on the figure, welded on by up to 80 students over the years.
From just the helmet, the project grew to include a head.
If Clarke had stayed at North instead of transferring to Cariboo Hill, the school might also have ended up with a giant fist wielding a sword and thrusting out of the ground right beside the Viking to give the effect of the figure bursting forth from the earth.
As it was, the project slowed after Clarke left and was completed only after he brought the helmet and partially finished head to his own shop, Canatrac International Inc., operated by Clarke and Dennis Marander, a North grad.
There it was finished with help from past and current students during twice-weekly “Viking head nights.”
Among other finishing touches, that’s when the Viking got his signature messy hair and beard, made of 10 gauge steel wire and welded to his face one by one.
That’s also when he was painted a somewhat ominous black.
The paint was designed to heat up the head and create a convection current through the figure to keep it dry to prevent corrosion.
The statue had been looking a little worse for wear for a few years, however, until it got a spiffy new paint job this summer, including a coat of gold paint on the helmet.
The Viking’s unveiling in 1994 – so horrifying to Louie – was met with enthusiasm in the school community and attended by representatives from the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian consulates.
“The sculpture is really a reminder that Burnaby North Secondary is an outstanding school with a proud heritage,” said then-principal John Mercer. “The Viking represents the spirit of exploration and fearlessness, the willingness to take risks to make the world a better place.”
Along with such lofty symbolism, the Viking has also given the school a focal point for celebrating various holidays and other special events.
As such, the last 25 years have seen him sport a Santa beard, Easter Bunny ears and a giant Vancouver 2010 Olympics toque, to name just a few of his past accoutrement.
“Everybody agrees that definitely the symbolism of the Viking and the significance of it in terms of the history of North, everybody agrees that that part’s important,” Rawnsley said.
So far, no neighbours have pounced on the school replacement announcement as a long-awaited opportunity to get rid of the Viking, according to Rawnsley, but that doesn't mean there won’t be people both inside and outside of the school community calling for it to go.
What side will Rawnsley be on?
“No comment,” he said with a laugh.
Clarke would definitely like to see it stay put.
“I think it’s become a fixture of the school,” he said, “and I believe it would carry the spirit forward from the old school to the new school to have some of the trappings left.”