Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Mary Campbell, 1910-2009
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 25, 2009
Mary Campbell learned to play basketball in a church basement where posts held up a low ceiling. She jived and shimmied around the obstacles, developing quick-stepping skills she would later credit for helping her lead a team of young Canadian women to a world championship.
The basement of St. Giles United Church in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant offered a rare venue for girls to play sports in the years following the Great War. In those days, when basketball was in its infancy, the game was a low-scoring affair dominated by ball possession.
At age 18, Miss Campbell earned a spot on the varsity roster of the University of British Columbia. Standing just 5-foot-6 and weighing a slight 120 pounds, she relied on guile more than force to score from her position as a forward.
A new gymnasium opened on campus for the 1929-30 season. The basketbelles, as they were sometimes described in newspaper reports, played against amateurs in a city-wide league. They posted a record of eight wins and two losses to earn a shot at the Western Canadian championship against the mighty Edmonton Grads.
Under the guidance of coach Percy Page, the Grads were acknowledged as the greatest women’s basketball team of the age, demolishing all opponents in Canada and around the world. In 1930, the Grads defeated the university squad in Vancouver in a two-game series to determine the Western Canadian championship.
The Grads went on to claim the Dominion title. In the first summer following the stock market crash of October 1929, the Grads were unable to travel to Europe. Mr. Page proposed the university team take their place.
Parents of the players kicked in $300 and the student council donated $1,000. Backed by editorial support from the Daily Province newspaper, a committee of businessmen launched a fundraising campaign that included bakes sales and door-to-door canvassing. Percy Williams, the schoolboy sprinter who won two gold medals at the 1928 Olympics, lent his support. These efforts raised another $4,200.
The journey by train and ocean liner from Vancouver to Hamburg, Germany, and on to Czechoslovakia lasted 17 days. Coach Jack Barberie instituted a strict regimen of exercise for his student athletes aboard S.S. Montclare, according to a 1981 article in the university’s Alumni Chronicle magazine. The team ran a mile on the promenade deck before breakfast and walked 40 minutes after every meal. Candy and pastry were forbidden treats. After the workouts, they retreated below deck to a room they dubbed “Barberie’s torture chamber” for massages.
During practice on the liner’s outdoor tennis court, an errant pass sent the group’s lone basketball over the rail, where it was last seen bobbing on the Atlantic Ocean.
The Canadians arrived in Prague for the International Women’s Games, a quadrennial gathering organized in response to the refusal to allow full participation of women in the Olympics.
Miss Campbell’s squad expected to take part in a tournament, but learned the world championship would be settled in a single game showdown against France, the European title holders.
The women got an even greater shock when they saw the court. Instead of polished gymnasium parquet, it was an outdoor court of cinder.
As well, the rules forbade substitutions except in case of injury, and no rest was taken between quarters.
“The ball was smaller than ours, and the basket a bit higher,” Miss Campbell told me four years ago on the 75th anniversary of the game.
The larger French players tried to intimidate the visitors by using roughhouse tactics.
“They were great big bruisers,” she said. “It wasn’t a basketball game as we knew it. It was just a rugby football game.”
Relying on speed and savvy, the Canadians built a 14-8 lead by the end of the first half. The play got tougher in the second half, as the referee seemed reluctant to call fouls. Gusting winds did not make the playmaking any easier. With 10,000 European fans surrounding the court, the overseas tourists survived the French assault to record an 18-14 win. The victors were presented with ribbons and gold medals, as well as an etched crystal vase proclaiming their triumph as world champions.
A light-hearted return trip included an extended shopping expedition in Paris, where the young women spent so much of their money that they could only afford beans and crackers on the transcontinental train ride from Montreal to Vancouver.
Back home, the newspapers trumpeted the title. The Daily Province published a front-page photograph of the players wearing school blazers under the headline: THEY’RE CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD.”
Bouquet-bearing wellwishers greeted them at the train station in Vancouver late in the evening of Sept. 26, 1930. Four days later, the city council played host to a banquet at the Hotel Vancouver, followed by a dance.
Miss Campbell said the cost alone provided motivation for the athletes, many of whose parents had dipped into nest eggs to finance the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“We didn’t dare come home without winning the championship,” she said.
After graduation, Miss Campbell embarked on a teaching career that would last four decades. She taught physical education at John Oliver High School in Vancouver, creating a local powerhouse in track and basketball. Among those she lured to the P.E. staff was Ruth Wilson (obituary, Nov. 30, 2001), regarded as the province’s finest woman athlete of the 1940s and a brilliant coach in her own right.
In 1961, Miss Campbell joined the teaching staff of the new Windermere High, where she headed the English department, parsing sentences instead of opposing defences.
She trained uncounted young athletes over the decades, few of whom ever knew she had played for a world championship team. The UBC squad was all but forgotten for many years, although university sports historian Fred Hume and others revived interest in the team in the early 1990s. Feminist scholars also found much to admire in young women who travelled halfway around the globe to contest a world sport championship. After all, basketball was not introduced into the Olympics until six years after their victory over the French, while women were not permitted to compete until the 1976 Olympics at Montreal.
Miss Campbell and her teammates on the 1929-30 squad were inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, the university’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, the Basketball B.C. Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame three years ago.
In recent years, Miss Campbell was celebrated for her regular appearances at basketball games at her alma mater. She also created an endowment from which athletic awards are presented to women student athletes.
Miss Campbell was also active in the historical society at her old high school, where a gym is to be named in her honour next month.
Her death leaves a childhood friend, Lois (nee Tourtelotte) Fisher, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, as the last surviving member of the storied 1930 team.
After interest in the team was revived, a hunt was initiated to find the etched championship vase. It was located in an office, where it had served for many years as a flower holder. It is now on display in a glass case on campus.
Mary Elizabeth Campbell was born on Oct. 11, 1910, at Vancouver. She died in that city on March 4. She was 98. She leaves a niece and two nephews.