Skip to main content

A kit, a few text books, and a handshake

At 96 years old, William Bartolotta not only remembers when Edmund Bradwin was principal of Frontier College, but had the pleasure of meeting him. In his late-20s, William was given “a kit, a few text books, and a handshake” and sent off to the rail gang in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario to work with and teach a group of men, all from the same town in Southern Italy.

Mr. Bartolotta arrived at the site and was given a tour. He heard the men speaking with each other in Italian, saying, “He’ll start teaching and then ask us for money.” He let this go on for a while, then turned and told them—in Italian—that he worked free of charge. The men on the gang didn’t know that Mr. Bartolotta’s parents were from Sicily. His dialect was different from theirs, but he understood them—even when English failed.

Although William was still a young man in 1951, he had already served three years in the Air Force and started university at McMaster in Hamilton, Ontario, which was where he and a handful of others went to a presentation given by a former Labourer-Teacher and took up the call to spend his summer with Frontier College. The photo below  shows him holding a shovel alongside a man who insisted the picture be taken so he could show his family that an educated man—a Professore—was working with the gang and not just sitting behind a desk. 


In fact, to ensure he knew that he was a worker, just like the other guys, the first task he was given was to build the latrine. He and a fellow named Angelo dug the hole and built the outhouse. They were so proud of their work, they picked up the structure and took it with them every time the rail gang changed location.

With separate classes for varying levels of literacy—two of the men spoke some English, while many of the others struggled with reading in their own language—only one man didn’t attend the weekday lessons or the Sundays spent writing letters home. William saw that the man was curious, but having not attended the first few classes, was too proud to ask to join. Seizing the opportunity, William announced that the next class was for anyone who wanted to come. That class was the first for a man that William remembered for his hard work and diligence.

Starting his Labourer-Teacher career with Dr. Bradwin, it was with Frontier College principal Eric Robinson that William worked closely, first on a rail gang in Quebec and later spending a summer in more of a supervisory position, travelling from Ontario to British Columbia, making all stops along the way to check in on the new L-Ts—and then some more on the way back home. The two remained in contact for many years to come, with a shared interest in education. After completing his time with Frontier College, William Bartolotta continued his university education and became a teacher at both the elementary and high school levels. When his own children were small, he took the family to Uganda for two years, where he taught in a one-room schoolhouse. After retirement, William continued to teach, volunteering as an ESL instructor for newcomers.

  In Vera, Saskatchewan on the way to visit a Labourer-Teacher.

Heavy labour by day and serious studies by evening still left time for fun. Two brothers who played guitar and trumpet would build a temporary stage on the flat rail cars, playing Italian music into the night. And sometimes there was even time for a night on the town—even though that didn’t always go smoothly. “They saw us coming and soon two police cars pulled up. They asked what we were doing and I told them we wanted a few beers. They were surprised that I spoke English and they asked what my business was with these guys. I told them and they softened, but told us that we shouldn’t come into time as a big group, only two-by-two!”


This level of camaraderie between the workers and the L-T was special, and in this case likely stemmed from an incident that happened early in Mr. Bartolotta’s career. “They needed to send money back to their families in Italy. I volunteered to take it, but I had to travel into town, stay there overnight, and travel back the next day. They had quite a bit of pay, which they gave to me in little packs. I put it all into a case and set off. I took it to the bank and sent the amount they told me to their families, which still left them with some money for themselves. What they all knew, but I didn’t know, was that at another gang down the line, a similar thing happened where all the guys gave their pay cheques to someone to take to the bank and he had them all cashed, then absconded with the money! The two days I was away were the quietest at the camp, then when I came back, they cheered. When the first letter arrived saying the money reached home, they trusted me.”
If you have a memory about Frontier College that you’d like to share, please send it to, use the online form (link) or call 1-800-555-6523 ext. 335.

Back to Top