Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ode to a hockey mom extraordinaire

Smithers was a finalist in the 2007 Hockeyville competition. The town's video featured Mary Watson, who had two of her six sons play in the National Hockey League. BELOW RIGHT: Joe Watson. BELOW LEFT: Jimmy Watson.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 31, 2010


The multitudes gathered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Smithers to bid farewell to a hockey mom.

Prayers were offered and hosannas sung. More than 200 came to the church for a memorial service on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Counted among the mourners were all six of Mary Watson’s sons.

Two of them — Joe, the oldest, and Jimmy, from the middle of the litter — told stories.

There was the time when 14-year-old Joe was checked hard into the boards at the Smithers arena. They didn’t wear helmets in those days and the boards at the rink didn’t have glass. His mom shocked the rival player by reaching over and grabbing the kid by the hair. “No one touches my boy,” she told him.

Then there was the time, many years later, when Jimmy was running the bases in a ball game only to fall down in a dusty heap. Convinced he’d been tripped by the second baseman, Mary Watson marched onto the field to confront the alleged culprit, all the while waving her oversized orange purse. That Jimmy was a grown man not unfamiliar with settling his own disputes — with fisticuffs, if necessary — mattered to her not a whit.

It was entirely appropriate that one of the readings from the morning mass the day of the service had been Psalm 18 — “I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till I destroyed them.”

Where there could have been weeping, there was instead laughter.

“It was sad,” said Jerry Watson, at 43 the youngest son, “but it was a nice, comfortable memorial.”

Mary Watson was a fierce advocate for her sons. She saw her eldest go from playing pond hockey with frozen horse droppings all the way to the National Hockey League. He became a stalwart on the blue-line for the Philadelphia Flyers, where he would be joined a few seasons later by Jimmy.

The brothers won a pair of Stanley Cups together as members of a team immortalized as the Broad Street Bullies, a nickname stemming from the street on which the arena was located and for the scofflaw behaviour of the tenants.

Smithers is a long way from Prince George, never mind the bright lights of a metropolis like Philadelphia.

The Watson brothers brought with them to the NHL a small-town innocence. They were tough, honest lads from the Canadian hinterland not much given to sophistication. Joe Watson, a high school dropout, was skating for the Boston Bruins when drafted by the expansion club in Philadelphia, a city he could not find on the map.

Back in 1974, Joe was preparing for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals when the telephone rang. The father whose name he carried was on the line.

“I’m here,” Joe Watson Sr. said.

“What do you mean, ‘I’m here’?” replied Joe Watson Jr.

“I’m in Philadelphia. At the airport.The thing is, I don’t have any money.”

His father, a logger in summer and butcher in winter, had traveled by bus for 33 hours from Smithers to Vancouver to Denver, where he caught a flight to Philly, landing just two hours before the puck was to drop. He didn’t have a ticket to the sold-out game.

“He was still wearing his overalls, all covered in cowshit,” the son recalled yesterday (Tuesday). “It was crazy.”

The son called the team’s owner, who arranged for the father to be his guest in the luxury seats, where he hobnobbed with Mayor Frank Rizzo and the singer Kate Smith, who belted out “God Bless America” before the start of the game.

The Watson brothers celebrated their first championship with their father that night.
After the defencemen won their second Cup a year later, a reporter spotted the half-dressed pair in a small room at the rear of the Flyers’ tumultuous dressing room.

Joe placed a long-distance call to the modest wood-frame house a continent away in which he had grown up.

“The best team won, mom, the best team won,” he told her.

“Here’s Jimmy, okay, ma?”

He handed the phone to his little brother.

“Hi, mammy,” Jimmy said. “What a game. Did you watch it all?”

The daughter of Croatian immigrants, who left the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a new life as farmers in the new world, Mary Yelich rode her horse seven miles to school in spring and fall. In the dead of winter, she and her brother boarded with a family closer to the school.

After marriage, she raised her boys in a four-room house on Broadway Avenue behind the Royal Bank on Main Street. Their first winter there was grim, as the home lacked insulation and the family huddled around a pot-bellied stove.

Her boys grew strong on borscht and cabbage rolls, sometimes filled with moose meat. To bring in extra money, she worked for decades as a waitress at the Northern Star Cafe, just around the corner from the family home.

In 1954, a community group bought a wartime aircraft hanger at Terrace Airport. It was hauled to Smithers and turned into a rink. Mary Watson was one of the volunteers who pounded nails on the project. The rink didn’t even get artificial ice until 1963.

Even after the last of her boys had packed off to play junior hockey in Alberta, Mary returned to the rink. She watched children of all ages play, from novices to bantam. The kids called her Grandma Watson.

Three years ago, she was interviewed as part of the Hockeyville television series. She was credited with sending her two boys and seven other “Smithereens,” as they were called, into the NHL. They held a special day for her at the rink, during which she was shown a portrait to hang in the arena alongside those Joe and Jimmy.

Her padded seat in the last row of the rink had a patch on it. “Reserved for Mary Watson,” it read, her name in script. When she became too ill to attend games, the patch was removed. Her daughter-in-law Noralie sewed it onto a pillow, which was presented to her on her 87th birthday. She died a week later.

Catching up with Smithers' first family of hockey

Mary Watson died on March 19. She is survived by her six sons, aged from 66 to 43, and by her ex-husband. Joe Sr., 93, from whom she was divorced, has dementia and lives in a care facility.

Today, Joe Jr. is a senior account executive in the Philadelphia Flyers’ advertising sales department; Fred operates the old Yelich farmstead outside Smithers; Stephan is a waiter at the Northern Star Cafe; Jimmy is co-owner of the IceWorks skating complex at Aston, Penn.; Glen is coach and general manager of the Quesnel Millionaires junior team; and, Jerry is an equipment operator at the West Fraser sawmill.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Trawling the Internet for B.C.'s best 100 books

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 29, 2010


A writer and a photographer join a publisher for lunch. In short order, the conversation turns to books.

As they enjoy dishes at the Cafe Ceylon, whose purple sheers obscure the traffic of busy Cook Street, the merits of various authors are discussed. Hosannas are sung, the odd raspberry offered.

She’s incredible. He’s unremarkable. That book is overrated. That slim volume is an unknown gem. Of course, we can’t be talking British Columbia letters without including Him. Or Her.

An idea hatches.

Before anyone has a chance to order jaggery pudding for dessert, they settle on an idea.

What about a book about British Columbia’s best books?

“I know that’s not how books are done,” said Linda L. Richards, an author who has five mysteries and four non-fiction titles to her credit. “We didn’t go into a meeting with notes. We were just talking about great books.”

Ms. Richards (the writer at the lunch) and her romantic and business partner, David Middleton (the photographer), agreed to create a book for Ruth Linka (the publisher) of Victoria’s TouchWood Editions.

(Both have worked for the house, Linda as an editor, and David a designer. He recently handled a cover for a novel, depicting a stiletto-heeled shoe with spilled blood on the toe.)

The title was easy and self-explanatory: “The Greatest 100 Books of British Columbia.”

The obvious problem was how to come up with a definitive list in a province with so rich a literary heritage, where every selection was inevitably going to be second guessed, where folks of good intent could disagree vehemently on so subjective a quest.

How do you build a pantheon?

In this age, you hit the Internet.

The typical schedule for a book is as follows: Writer works in obscurity to deliver manuscript, publisher transforms scribbles into marketable commodity complete with colourful dustjacket, writer hits the bricks under publisher’s publicity campaign to push product.

In this case, the campaign comes first.

Earlier this month, the authors launched a website — — calling on visitors to submit their lists. In the age of social media, they’ve also hit Facebook (85 fans as of 2:53 p.m. yesterday) and Twitter (192 followers).

We use lists as a means of sorting a complicated and confusing world. We have lists of top-10 hits and lists of one-hit wonders; lists of best-dressed and worst-dressed actors at the Oscars; end-of-year (or decade) lists are a staple of newspapers and magazines, and a certain way of filling space on days lacking news.

Ms. Richards, who was born in Vancouver, is the daughter of Karl Huber, a portraitist and postcard photographer. She grew up in Munich and Los Angeles, where she studied journalism and graphic design. For a time, she was a reporter with the suburban Delta Optimist, where she covered the police beat and wrote restaurant reviews. She later became art director of The Computer Paper, wrote an early business guide to the Internet. “I’m geek girl,” she declares happily.

In 1997, she and Mr. Middleton co-founded and launched January Magazine, an online site dedicated to “a cool conversation about books and authors.” Within three weeks, Yahoo named it “site of the day” and they went from near-obscurity to 14,000 hits overnight. “It was like heroin for me,” she said. “It was a drug.” The site continues to thrive today.

She has had critical success with her hard-boiled detective novels, some set in the province. The Chicago Tribune called her “Death Was the Other Woman” “a must-read for palookas.”

The authors are leaving it up to contributors to determine the definition of a B.C. writer, whether born here, living her, or writing with the province as the setting. That broad definition can even include, one supposes, Malcolm Lowry, who completed “Under the Volcano” while living in a squatter’s shack at Dollarton.

Still in the early stages of a book not scheduled to be published until the fall of 2011, Ms. Richards has yet to compile her own Hot One Hundred. She expects to read many submissions suggesting the likes of the poet P.K. Page, fishy non-fiction writer Roderick Haig-Brown, and William Gibson (the sci-fi guy).

Lists are irresistible. How dare you not submit one of your own, lest some other reader of less-discerning acumen trump your favourites?

Pruning will be brutal. Just think of the voluminous works by the prolific likes of Pierre Berton, George Woodcock, and George (formerly Douglas) Fetherling, each of whom could have their own personal book-of-the-month club lasting for years without repeating a title.

Can’t forget Alice Munro, or Carol Shields, or Audrey Thomas, or Dorothy Livesay.

Does anyone in the province write prose as crystalline-pure as 93-year-old Edith Iglauer? Her experiences as a novice aboard a commercial salmon troller in “Fishing With John,” an inadvertent love story, won a deserved Governor General’s award for non-fiction.

And how can you not include a work by George Bowering, Canada’s first poet laureate and a two-time GG winner for poetry and fiction?

What about Howard White, also a publisher, who has a Leacock Award for humour to his credit, but whose unforgettable “A Hard Man to Beat,” a biography of labour leader Bill White, is one a rare non-fiction book worthy of more than one reading?

The political columnist Vaughn Palmer would undoubtedly champion a work by Bruce Hutchison, who had three — count ‘em, 3 — GG awards in non-fiction.

I’d find space in my 100 titles to include “Never Shoot A Stampede Queen,” Mark Leiren-Young’s hilarious memoir of his stint as a cub reporter on the Williams Lake Tribune, and, “Guilty of Everything,” John (Buck Cherry) Armstrong’s liquids-through-the-nose-funny account of his punk years as frontman of the Modernettes.

There’re so many others. Let the culling begin.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Frank Mullens, ball player, L.A. cop (1922-2010)

The 1946 Vancouver Capilanos baseball team included hard-hitting outfielder Frank Mullens (back row, far left). Photograph courtesy the David Eskenazi Collection.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 25, 2010

Frank Mullens patrolled the outfield for the Vancouver Capilanos baseball team before patrolling the streets of Los Angeles as a police officer.

Mr. Mullens was one of the athletes who helped revived professional baseball in British Columbia after play was suspended during the Second World War.

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he came north to play for Bob Brown at old Capilano Stadium at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Hemlock Street in Vancouver.

His powerhitting led the Capilanos to the Western International League pennant in 1947.

He boasted a .321 batting average with 23 doubles, 5 triples, and 33 home runs that season. He was named to the Western International League’s all-star team, the only Capilano on the list.

The slugging outfielder smacked 70 home runs in three seasons with Vancouver.

Mr. Mullens, who also had a reputation for being a good fielder, played parts of two seasons with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, one level below the major leagues.

He abandoned pro ball at age 26 to become a policeman.

As head of the narcotics bureau in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley, Mr. Mullens decried the number of high school students arrested in 1966 for possession of marijuana.

“They seem to have an attitude of acceptance — think it is the thing to do and that there is no stigma attached,” he said.

In 1977, when posted as a robbery and homicide officer, Mr. Mullens defused a hostage-taking on the 61st floor of a Los Angeles skyscraper. An armed 21-year-old man protesting the evils of cigarette smoking held a captive for two tense hours before Mr. Mullens convinced him to surrender.

The officer received a Medal of Valor, the police department’s highest award for heroism. The medal was bestowed in a ceremony attended by Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley during which the actor Robert Stack read a dramatic account of the incident.

He retired in 1978 with the rank of lieutenant. He then worked for seven years as an investigator for the California State Bar Association.

His time with the police department was also notable for two long-distance runs, both of which brought him back to Canada.

He joined 11 fellow officers in running relays from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver in 1972, a journey taken in tribute to police killed in the line of duty. Each man ran a 10-mile (16-kilometre) leg each day to complete the winding, 2,068-mile (3,328-km) trek.

Four years later, at age 54, Mr. Mullens was the oldest of 14 police runners taking part in a Bicentennial Relay of Goodwill from Los Angeles to Montreal for the Olympics.

Mr. Mullens played for many years on the police department’s baseball team. He also coached Little League baseball. An avid woodworker, he built playhouses for elementary school students at Encino, Calif.

Frank Arnold Mullens Jr. was born on March 3, 1922, at Burbank, Calif. He died on March 11 at Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 88. He leaves Violet, his wife of 53 years; four children; six grandchildren; and, three great-grandchildren.

Frank Mullens (back row, second from left) and the 1948 Vancouver Capilanos. Photograph courtesy the David Eskenazi Collection.

School stages Olympic-sized effort to reach goal

Jane Gregory and her daughter Samantha, 12, caught the Olympic women's hockey game featuring Sweden against Canada.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 25, 2010


Adults squeezed middle-aged bodies into kid-sized chair around low tables in the school library.

The Pender Islands School parent advisory committee meeting worked through a typical agenda. Funding? Check. Hot lunch program? Check. Playgrounds? Check.

Other business?

Jane Gregory remembers eight parents being at the meeting. She was one of the new ones, as her eldest daughter had just entered kindergarten. She felt a bit of trepidation about speaking up.

“I have this idea,” she said.

The words came in a flood.

“What a chance to inspire the kids. Work hard and you can achieve your goals. Dream big.”

If we start now, she told them six years ago, we can raise enough money to send every school-aged student on North and South Pender Islands to the Olympics.

Her brainstorm was greeted by silence and arched eyebrows. At first.

No one else had much thought of the upcoming Winter Games, whose awarding to Vancouver had only just been announced.

The verdict: Good idea. Hadn’t even been thinking about the Olympics. Let’s go for it.

The planning soon began in earnest.

Today, Ms. Gregory, a single mother with two school-aged children and a home-based business, said the idea just popped into her head all those months ago.

“How often does an Olympics happen in your own backyard?” she said.

She thought the islands’ schoolchildren would learn about the world and about sports, about different peoples and strange languages, by attending an Olympic competition.

She is also a fan of the athletes, who train diligently and make great sacrifices in trying to achieve their dream.

“I think Olympians make great mentors for kids,” she said.

Ms. Gregory’s own exposure to the Olympics was limited to watching on television every few years. She recalls the name Mark Spitz from the 1972 Summer Games. Born in Amersham, a market town in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, she had a peripatetic childhood, as her father, a salesman of office equipment, transferred back and forth between England and Canada.

These days, she sells goat’s milk soaps and jellies made from herbs she grows in her garden — dill, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary. You can find her at the Saturday market, but if you want one of her famous sticky buns you’d better get there early.

The first big fundraiser involved an car rally styled on the “Amazing Race” televison show. Clues were hidden in a treasure chest on a beach, as well as on Ms. Gregory’s mother’s boat. Contestants even had to hula-hoop atop Mount Norman. The local Legion lent their pig-roasting equipment. London Drugs donated a $3,500 entertainment centre as a prize (even though it does not have an outlet on the islands), while Poet’s Cove Resort on the south island kicked in with a free weekend with dinner.

The parent volunteers organized raffles, art auctions, and a barbecue cook-off (a team of teachers prepared vegetarian delicacies). Prizes ranged from a bushel of local apples to an autographed Trevor Linden hockey sweater to the chance to be a character in a crime novel by William Deverell.

A pie-eating contest left 30 children looking like extras in a Tide commercial.

Wheelchair basketball player Jennifer Krempion, which, of course, rhymes with champion, judged the cook-off. She also brought her Paralympic gold and silver medals, which thrilled the students.

In the end, the parents raised about $20,000.

They now had enough money, only to learn Olympics tickets were to be allocated by lottery, a system in which only individuals, not groups, could apply.

So, the parents organized a block to enter.

By avoiding the most-in-demand events, they hit the jackpot.

They got 24 tickets to a men’s hockey game between Switzerland and the United States.

They got 17 tickets to a women’s hockey game between Sweden and Canada.

They got 48 tickets to women’s curling.

They got 96 tickets to sledge hockey.

They got eight standing-room tickets to the men’s snowboarding finals at Cypress Mountain.

About 160 students — the enrollment at the Pender Islands Schools, the French immersion students who take a daily water taxi to Salt Spring Island, and home-schooled pupils — were given a ducat. The remainder went to parent chaperones.

Because accommodation was too expensive, it was agreed to turn each visit into a day trip. That meant rising at dawn to catch the 7:05 ferry to Mayne Island to Galiano Island to Tsawwassen. The students packed a picnic lunch. (Each student also brought a sleeping bag, as the emergency plan was to stay at a church in Delta if they missed the last ferry home.) They were met on the mainland by the school bus, which then parked at the local school ground closest to the competition.

The only snag — the cancellation of the snowboarding tickets. Those student spent the day downtown enjoying the Olympic atmosphere.

Ms. Gregory and her daughter Samantha, 12, a Grade 6 student, who painted a red maple leaf on her right cheek, attended the women’s hockey match. A younger daughter, Melanie, 10, a Grade 5 student, cheered on women's curlers.

Just about every school-aged student on Pender shared the experience of attending the Olympics.

“They got a memorable experience they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives,” she said.

On the way back from the final event, Ms. Gregory told a teacher she had another project in mind.

The 2012 Summer Games. In London. They’d better get to work. Only two years left to do the fundraising.

At first, the teacher thought she might be serious.

Hal Trumble, hockey executive (1926-2010)

Team USA manager Hal Trumble, goalie Carl Wetzel and coach Murray Williamson pose on the ice in 1971.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 25, 2010

The American hockey official Hal Trumble fought unsuccessfully to keep professional hockey players out of the Olympic Games.

“It would ruin our program,” Mr. Trumble declared in 1986.

As executive director of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States, now USA Hockey, Mr. Trumble had built a system in which college players deferred their own pro careers to compete for the United States at the Olympics.

His Canadian counterparts were eager to get professionals into the Winter Games and, in time, the Olympics opened the door to unrestricted participation of National Hockey League stars.

Mr. Trumble managed the amateur U.S. hockey team, featuring future hockey stars Mark Howe and Robbie Ftorek, that won an unexpected silver medal at the Sapporo Olympics in 1972.

He served as head of the Amateur Hockey Association for 15 years, a time during which the game enjoyed strong growth, especially following the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” gold-medal victory at the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Mr. Trumble was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1985 and into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1999.

He was the author of the 1975 guide, “Coaching Youth Ice Hockey.”

Mr. Trumble refereed the deciding game of the 1968 Olympic tournament, as the Soviet Union defeated Canada 5-0 for the gold medal. Canada took the bronze. He was also a qualified international umpire in softball and baseball.

Harold L. Trumble Jr. was born on Aug. 28, 1926, at Minneapolis. He died on March 5 at San Clemente, Calif. He was 83. He leaves Ida Mae, his wife of 36 years; two sons; two stepdaughters; six grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and, a sister.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Louis Holmes, hockey player (1911-2010)

Louis Holmes takes a twirl on the ice. BELOW: Holmes with the Portland Buckaroos.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 24, 2010


The career of Louis Holmes resembled that of many of his Depression-era peers — long winters spent in the minors with a stint in the National Hockey League so brief as to seem a dream.

He toiled in American hockey outposts for several seasons, returning to Edmonton each summer for regular employment.

The hometown newspaper referred to the indefatigable skater as The Man With the Rubber Legs.

His greatest hockey accomplishment came not on the ice, but behind the bench, as he guided the amateur Edmonton Mercurys to the Olympic gold medal in 1952.

For a half-century, he was remembered as the last coach of a Canadian gold medal-winning Olympic hockey team, a designation he happily surrendered, at long last, when Canada finally triumphed again at the 2002 Winter Games.

His great longevity — he died six weeks after turning 99 — also earned him unofficial acknowledgement as the oldest living former NHL player.

Sadly, he suffered from dementia in his final years, denying historians an opportunity for further insight into hockey of the 1930s. Mr. Holmes made his NHL debut in only the third season during which forward passing was permitted in the attacking zone.

Mr. Holmes also belonged to the list of players whose offspring also played in the NHL. Interestingly, Holmes father and son managed to score just one goal each in their NHL careers.

Louis Charles Carter Holmes was born to Ellen (nee Carter) and Charles Holmes in a Staffordshire mining town known for limestone quarries and coal collieries. His father was a miner. The family emigrated to Canada when the boy was aged 18 months. His father, also an ardent gardener, found work as a greenskeeper. The family lived near the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton and it is believed Louis learned to skate on its frozen, winding expanse.

A smooth skating stride and stylish play for his junior team won the notice of Bill Tobin of the Chicago Black Hawks, who signed the prospect.

The 5-foot-10 forward weighed just 150 pounds, a scarecrow on skates.

In 1931, at age 20, the rookie travelled by train through Winnipeg to attend camp in Minnesota.

“I trained with Chicago at Duluth before being farmed to Pittsburgh for experience,” he recalled many years later. “However, the Hawks got away badly and the first thing I knew a wire came ordering me to report back to the big-league team.”

He left the Yellow Jackets to report to the parent club for a game to be played in raucous Chicago Stadium on Dec. 2, 1931.

The Hawks had suffered two consecutive losses, and no longer had the services of defenceman Helgy Bostrom, whose tendon had been slashed by an opponent’s skate. They next faced the Montreal Canadiens, the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Mr. Holmes remembered being in “something of a daze” as he changed into his hockey gear in a dressing room shared with the likes of NHL stars Clarence (Taffy) Abel, Harold (Mush) March, and goaltender Chuck Gadiner.

Wearing uniform No. 9, much later to be made famous by Bobby Hull, he stepped onto the ice with his teammates to a roar which he would never forget.

“Nothing ever gave me the lift I got that night,” Mr. Holmes said.

In the third period, the great Howie Morenz scored for the visitors to tie the score at 1-1. With a few minutes remaining, Canadiens goalkeeper George Hainsworth tripped a Chicago player. The goalie was banished to the penalty box for two minutes. (The rule was later changed so goalie infractions could be served by another player.) Tommy Cook scored what would be the winning goal by driving the puck past an overmatched Albert (Battleship) Leduc filling in between the posts.

The boney Mr. Holmes played 41 games in his debut season. So smooth was the rookie’s skating that a team publicist concocted a fanciful story about the young man perfecting his stride by delivering mail on skates along the frozen rivers and sloughs of northern Alberta.

He scored one goal and four assists, while being assessed three minor penalties while mostly used in spot duty.

The goal was scored at Maple Leafs Gardens on Feb. 27, 1932, in the arena’s first season of service. The home team’s Red Horner, a defenceman paired with the legendary King Clancy, had just scored the game’s first marker.

“Less than a minute later the Hawks got the equalizer when Holmes planted the puck in the net following a speedy exchange of passes inside the Toronto blue line,” the Globe reported.

The goal was scored against Lorne Chabot.

Early in his sophomore season with Chicago, Mr. Holmes was replaced by the unpromisingly named Clarence (Pudge) Mackenzie.

After his demotion, Mr. Holmes found himself skating for the St. Paul (Minn.) Greyhounds. The deprivations of the Depression hurt the box office. Only 871 paying customers watched the Greyhounds defeat the St. Louis Flyers, 2-1, in a match played three days before Christmas in 1932. The normally mild-mannered Mr. Holmes exchanged punches with Pete Palangio, a rare display of fisticuffs by two players with a reputation for a lawful adherence to the rules. (Mr. Palangio, who died in 2004, aged 95, was so pacific that he was employed as a chocolate dipper for a candy manufacturer.)

Though he did not yet know it, Mr. Holmes’ NHL career was over after just 59 games. He embarked on an hockey odyssey that would have him skate for the Tulsa (Okla.) Oilers, Oakland (Calif.) Clippers, Spokane (Wash.) Clippers, Oklahoma City Warriors, and Portland Buckaroos.

The swift forward had his best season in 1938-39, scoring 34 goals and 40 assists in 48 games to lead the Pacific Coast League in scoring. The Buckaroos also won the league championship.

Family lore has it that his future wife spotted him skating in a game during which she leaned over to tell her mother, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.”

After the United States entered the Second World War, Mr. Holmes returned to Edmonton to play amateur hockey.

By 1946, he was the playing coach of the senior intermediate New Method Laundry team, sponsored by the business for which he made deliveries. The amateur club won the provincial title with an 8-7 overtime victory over a squad from Coleman, Alta. The victors were each presented a “Flying Wing” razor set.

Mr. Holmes won the Allan Cup, emblematic of senior hockey supremacy, with the Edmonton Flyers in 1948.

Four years later, he was coaching the Edmonton Mercurys, a team sponsored by Jim Christiansen, the owner of a local automobile dealership.

Before arriving in Norway for the Olympics, the team endured a long tour of the continent. The Merks defeated a team in Krefeld, West Germany, by 14-2 with the 41-year-old coach dressing for the game, managing even to score a goal.

On a highway in Sweden, the team bus crashed into a tree.

“The wheels locked as we rounded a curve on the highway and the bus went over a ditch and toppled against a tree,” the coach said a few days later. “The players were tossed around and we were lucky to get out with only slight injuries.”

One player suffered cuts to his face, another to his arm, while a third complained of a sore back. They defeated a Swedish team that night by 7-2.

At Oslo, the Mercurys had little problem handling their opponents, winning seven consecutive games before tying the United States, 3-3, to claim the gold medal. It was the only gold won by Canada at the Olympics that year. The Canadians outscored their opponents 71-14 in the Olympic tournament.

One of the final games in which Mr. Holmes laced up his skates came in 1954, when he joined a pickup squad of all-stars for a charity game against the junior Edmonton Oil Kings, whose captain was his son, Chuck Holmes.

The younger Holmes also played briefly in the NHL, dressing with Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings for 23 games. He scored his lone goal against Bruce Gamble of the Boston Bruins in 1962.

The Mercurys, including their coach, were inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1968 and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2002. His Edmonton Flyers squad of 1947-48 has also been honoured by the Alberta hall.

Mr. Holmes kept his Olympic medal, encased in plastic, atop the family television.

Louis Charles Carter Holmes was born on Jan. 29, 1911, at Walsall, Staffordshire, England. He died at Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton on March 11. He was 99. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest surviving former National Hockey League player.

He leaves sons Charles Holmes , known as Chuck, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and Greg Holmes, of Calgary; a daughter, Gail Plican, of Surrey, B.C.; five grandchildren; and, five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, the former Helen Ruth Coulson, known as Buddy, who died in 1997.

The Edmonton Mercurys pose for a team shot in the dressing room. Coach Louis Holmes is standing on the right in a suit and tie.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A pioneer marvels at today's athletes

Bill Inkster shoots hoops from his 'chair. He played for Canada at the 1976 and 1980 Paralympics. He was a veteran on the Vancouver Cablecars team with such rookies as Rick Hansen and Terry Fox. BELOW: Stan Stronge was a soccer goalkeeper before his injury.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 17, 2010


Sitting in his apartment in Terrace, Bill Inkster marvels at the Paralympians on television.

The cross-country skiers? “Amazing.”

The downhill skiers? “How do they do it and keep their balance? Holy man!”

The sledge hockey players?

“That’s a rough game,” he says. “They bang each other around really good.”

He pauses, laughs softly.

“And I thought basketball was rough.”

Mr. Inkster, 69, has thickened at the waist since his playing days. He wears his jet black hair combed back. He speaks in the measured tones of a man in no hurry.

Though you will never hear him say it, his own pioneering efforts helped contribute to making the Paralympics what they are today.

A proud Tahltan from Telegraph Creek, he grew up along the Stikine River. Hunting provided the large family of four boys and four girls plenty of deer, moose and caribou, as well as smaller game. “Beaver’s good,” he says. “All they do is eat bark off trees. And they’re always fat.”

They had no electricity or running hot water. They shut off the water pipes in winter. Young Willie, as he was known, played outfield on a boy’s softball team in summer, went skiing a few times when the local Catholic priest organized a youth ski club.

After school on a Friday, he and friend would walk 20 kilometres to a favourite fishing hole, camping overnight, returning in time for class on Monday morning.

“A Tom Sawyer type of existence,” he says. “A great life.”

On a fall day, he and an uncle went into the forest to cut wood about seven kilometres from their home. The boy scurried up a tree. Even all these years later, he recites the date as though it was a birthday — Nov. 23, 1957.

He remembers waking at the base of the tree. He had landed on his head. His face began to swell.

“My uncle was talking to me,” he recalls. “I told him I couldn’t move my legs.”

The uncle built a camp fire, lifted the boy into a sleeping bag, placed a tent over him. He then hiked back to Telegraph Creek to get help.

They hauled him to town. He was flown to hospital in Whitehorse by the legendary bush pilot Bud Harbottle. The diagnosis — the T9 and T10 vertebrae were broken, one completely.

“I was devastated,” he says. “No different than anybody else.”

They transferred him to Vancouver. He spent more than a year in hospital, including his 18th birthday, his day filled by appointments with physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

A fellow named Stan Stronge came to visit. He had been a champion soccer goalkeeper with provincial and national championships, as well as prestigious starting assignments against visiting English teams. A versatile athlete, he had played baseball and been a competitive swimmer.

On a blustery night in the fall of 1940, a southeast wind swept across the Lower Mainland, causing minor damage. Mr. Stronge was driving in North Vancouver when a 22.8-metre (75-foot) hemlock toppled onto his car. Mr. Stronge, the storm’s only victim, would not walk on a soccer pitch ever again.

The athlete turned his attention to organizing wheelchair sports, which had more possible participants as the numbers of war wounded grew. In 1950, Mr. Stronge helped form the Dueck Powerglides wheelchair basketball team.

The team’s first exhibition match, at the new War Memorial Gymnasium on the University of British Columbia campus, attracted a crowd of 2,700.

The Powerglides were a local powerhouse. On a tour of the region, they challenged teams of able-bodied athletes who used wheelchairs. The Powerglides won 74 of 75 games.

The team’s roster included men who’d lost mobility from polio, or from car wrecks, or from logging accidents. One player, Pat Bell, had been shot in the back while trying to rob a bank.

The team was sponsored by a car dealership for which Doug Mowat was a night tire salesman. Mr. Mowat, who had become a paraplegic at age 17 from injuries suffered at a party, later was later elected to the Legislature under the Social Credit banner.

Mr. Stronge invited Mr. Inkster to join the basketball squad. He’d only ever once before played the game, but, in time, he became a stalwart forward.

Mr. Inkster took part in wheelchair basketball as part of disabled games held following the Pan-Am Games at Winnipeg in 1967. Four years later, he finished third in archery at the disabled Pan-Ams in Jamaica. “The greatest bronze medal you’ll ever see,” he says today. The next year he set a national record at the Canadian National Wheelchair Games at Calgary. He also competed at the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto the 1980 Paralympics in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

Mr. Inkster continued to roll across the parquet. The Powerglides got a new sponsorship from a cable-television company, so the team became the Cablecars.

By then, he was a savvy veteran, used sparingly as young guns took on the responsibility of ensuring the team’s dominance.

One of them was Terry Fox.

“A lot of determination,” Mr. Inkster says. “A hard worker.”

Another was Rick Hansen.

“Tremendous athlete,” he adds.

Once, a wheelchair was seen as a mobile prison, which found expression in common language. You were confined to a wheelchair. Or wheelchair-bound.

It took Rick Hansen and his round-the-world trek to show a wheelchair was a noun and not a sentence.

Before the world knew of Mr. Hansen, and just at the point where Mr. Fox captured the nation’s imagination for his own cross-Canada run, Mr. Inkster, then aged 39, had to fill in for Mr. Fox as the Cablecars battled for the national crown at the wheelchair basketball championship in Winnipeg.

The Vancouver team won. Their coach called Mr. Inkster the team’s “unsung hero.”

You can say that again.

The Dueck Powerglides of Vancouver were inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame last year. Shown above is the inaugural 1950-51 team. Bill Inkster joined in 1959.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A whale of a research project

George Tzanetakis is developing software that assists researchers in understanding orca sounds. Geoff Howe photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 16, 2010


Two Vancouver Island researchers eavesdrop on orcas.

For more than four decades, Paul Spong and Helena Symonds have recorded whales passing by their OrcaLab research station on Hanson Island, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

They gathered boxes filled with high-quality analog audio cassettes.

The tapes are filled with magnificent whale sounds — pulsed calls, tonal whistles, echolocation clicks.

Less interesting are the untold hours of background noise and hydrophone hissing.

The tapes run for more than 20,000 hours. That’s two years and three months of around-the-clock listening.

It would take nearly seven years to listen to the orca conversations as part of a daily job, not including lunch or coffee breaks.

Then, the sounds would have to be registered, cross-referenced, and annotated. It would be a painstaking task should anyone ever be foolish to attempt it.

Too much data?

Call in a computer scientist.

“It’s a huge amount of audio,” said George Tzanetakis of the University of Victoria. “It’s impossible for a human to process, even if you had an army of volunteers.”

For the past four years, the professor has been transferring the sounds recorded on analog tapes into digital signals. He is about halfway through the batch.

That’s just the first step.

Now that the sounds can be heard online by researchers (and other curious cetacean sympathizers), the next step has been to develop software capable of identifying patterns.

Think of it as the development of a search engine, based on phonetic units, or “small melodic fragments,” instead of proper nouns.

He is also working on filtering unwanted sounds, so the whales’ clicks and squeals are clearer.

The creation of a large file of searchable whale conversations makes more possible the chance we might one day be able to say, “Parlez-vous orca? Sprechen sie orca? Habla orca?”

This aural archive of orca sounds is known as the orchive.

Mr. Tzanetakis, 34, retains his wonder for the noises made by ocean creatures who navigate and communicate by sound.

“There’s something very haunting about it,” he said.

He reminds himself not to read too much into the sounds he hears.

“They may be having quite a mundane conversation. We don’t know.”

He will say this after hearing a gabfest among one resident pod.

“They’re top-of-the-(food)-chain animals. Their only possible enemy is us. They’re quite confident. They can be quite loud in conversation, because they don’t care who’s listening.”

He has become sensitive to the assault of noise which the whales endure from boats and aircraft.

“It must be like living inside a construction zone all your life. That must be quite annoying.”

The professor has a background in music, not marine biology.

He was born in Grenoble, France, where his father was working on his doctorate. His parents, both Greek nationals, were physics students, finding it opportune to be away from their homeland while it fell under control of a military dictatorship. George was born the year after the fall of the junta.

The family returned to Greece, settling in the Heraklion on Crete. The boy played piano, but chaffed at the discipline of practice, preferring instead to improvise. This led to the happy suggestion he join the junior high marching band, for which he was handed a saxophone with the instruction to teach himself. He became a jazz fan.

University studies in computer science, and more formal training in the sax, eventually led him at Princeton University, where he earned doctorate in computer science. His research focuses on music information retrieval.

He has designed software to scan signals to track the beat and determine the genre of the music.

Mr. Tzanetakis (zanna-TACK-iss) also performs with LaSaM, an eclectic ensemble of composers and performers. Their speciality is creative improvisation. (The playful band name is an acronym for Luminosity and Sounds by Adventurous Musicians.)

The work on orca acoustics will also help in culling helpful sounds from the constant hydrophone recordings made by the VENUS and NEPTUNE networks of underwater observatories.

He does not know whether we will ever understand orca language. Imagine being dropped in a land in which you do not know the language, or even the structure of the language, and you cannot ask anyone what anything means, or the context in which it is said. Good luck.

Because orcas are intelligent, their conversation while eating may not be about eating.

He has noted one similarity to human behaviour.

Young orcas use fewer calls than adults, but do so more often.

“Like when children use a word again and again and again,” he said. “They have a smaller vocabulary.”

His help in deciphering the tapes is all the more remarkable for two facts.

The taping began five years before he was born.

Before joining the project, he knew little about orcas.

“I saw ‘Free Willy.’ That was the extent of my knowledge.”

He has since visited the OrcaLab on Hanson Island, but it was at a time of the year when the resident pods were not in the area.

The closet the computer scientist has come to communing with whales, other than listening in on their conversations, came when he joined tourists on a whale-watching tour.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dick Starrak, hockey player (1927-2010)

Dick Starrak and the 1947-48 Michigan Wolverines won the inaugural American collegiate championship.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 4, 2010

Dick Starrak, a recruit from Moose Jaw, Sask., helped the University of Michigan capture the inaugural American collegiate hockey championship in 1948.

The Wolverines won the title with victories over Harvard and Colorado before knocking off Dartmouth 8-4 in a tournament played at Colorado Springs, Colo.

Mr. Starrak joined Michigan for the 1946-47 season as a defenceman. He also played on a forward line with centre Gordie McMillan and winger Lyle Phillips. The trio all hailed from Moose Jaw, where Mr. Starrak had played for the juvenile Monarchs.

Michigan failed to repeat as champions the following season. In a tournament game against Dartmouth, the normally law-abiding Mr. Starrak received five minor penalties, a record that stood for 39 years. He had been charged with but two penalties in the previous 23 games. Michigan lost, 4-2.

His brother, Jim Starrak, also a defenceman, won the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship with the Colorado College Tigers in 1950. The brothers were both named All Americans for the 1948-49 season.

After graduation, Dick Starrak skated for the Windsor (Ont.) Ryancretes and Detroit Auto Club of the professional International Hockey League.

Away from the rink, he worked in the lumber industry, starting with the Capilano Timber Company of Vancouver. He later moved to New England to work for a wholesale lumber company, eventually becoming president of the George McQuesten Lumber Company of Massachusetts.

Richard Bonar Starrak was born on May 26, 1927, at Moose Jaw, Sask. He died on Feb. 6 at Hanover, N.H. He was 82. He leaves his wife, Jacquelynne; a step-daughter; a son; and four daughters.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Recalling the Human Fish

Charles Zimmy smokes a cigar as he floats on his back during his epic conquest of the Hudson River in 1937. BELOW: Zimmy as featured in a 1986 Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon and in a 1931 photograph in the Toronto Star.

By Tom Hawthorn
March 12, 2010

Howard Kessler, who died earlier this year, was a reporter in Oregon and California. He gave up the trade soon after the failure of his Mill City Log in an Oregon mill town. He then worked for the California Farm Bureau and later became a bookseller.

In 1934, he interrupted his studies at the University of Oregon to travel through Morocco and Western Europe. He filed dispatches to his hometown newspaper, the Lethbridge Herald, in Alberta, Canada. (His father hailed from a family of barrel manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio. They settled on the Canadian Prairie near a hamlet named New Dayton after their old home.) On his overseas expedition, Kessler interviewed the tennis great Bill Tilden over a roast beef dinner at The Savoy in London.

In his career, he also had interviews with a handful of Hollywood stars, including Shirley Temple and Groucho Marx.

Of all the famous personages he met, the one with whom he was most impressed was Charles Zimmy. He had first read the name in a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” cartoon.

As a boy, Charles Zibelman had fallen beneath a streetcar in Chicago, losing both legs below the hip. Zimmy later taught himself to golf and to drive a car with special mechanisms, but his claim to fame came as a marathon swimmer.

Kessler wrote that he found his conversation with Zimmy in a Spanish cabaret so engrossing that he nearly failed to notice the gyrations of the nearby cabaret dancers.

The swimmer made appearances on the carnival circuit as The Legless Wonder and The Human Fish. He tried to conquer the Catalina Channel, but failed, and had to abandon an attempt to cross the English Channel in 1933 after being stung by a jellyfish.

Despite those disappointments, the determination of the legless man caught the public imagination.

Zimmy claimed the record for continuous swimming by completing 100 consecutive hours — four days and four hours, plus 15 seconds, just to be sure — in a swimming pool in Hawaii.

In 1937, he splashed into the Hudson River from off the end of a dock at Albany, heading south to New York. He battled river tides, twice needing to pass Saugerties after he was carried back upstream.

Zimmy liked to amuse those who came to cheer him on by smoking a cigar as he swam on his back.

Newspapers covered his daily progress in breathless prose.

After six days in the chilly waters, his torso slathered in grease to retain heat, he called it quits at the 129th Street ferry dock in Manhattan.

He boldly suggested his next attempt would be to swim from Key West to Havana.

The newspaper coverage of Zimmy’s exploits seems to evaporate after 1937, his fate a mystery. He simply disappears from the printed record.

Meanwhile, the daily Ripley’s feature continues to this day. In 1986, the cartoon published in the Lethbridge Herald, the same newspaper in which Kessler wrote a long feature about his encounter with The Human Fish, included this item:

“Charles (‘Zimmy’) Zibelman, who lost both his legs when he was nine, in 1937, at the age of 44, swam 145 miles down the Hudson River from Albany to N.Y. City, remaining in the water for 148 consecutive hours.” Believe it or not.

A pilgrimage to honour baseball's greatest — and it's not who you think

Martin Dihigo Jr. (left) and Kit Krieger discuss baseball at the gravesite of Dihigo's father in the cemetery at Cruces, Cuba. CENTRE: Martin Dihigo was known as The Maestro and the Immortal. BELOW: Every year, Krieger leaves a baseball signed by his tour group on Martin Dihigo's grave.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Tyee
March 12, 2010


The museum in this town has on display leg irons and shackles used to imprison slaves who worked on the surrounding sugar-cane fields in colonial days.

Another room, facing onto the town square, presents happier artifacts expressing freedom in a land in which such a quality has always been in short supply — a passport, a leather glove, a photograph of a young son on the knee of a father wearing baseball flannels.

The boy is aged 67 now, his pear-shaped physique barely hinting at the professional athlete he had been. To Martin Dihigo Jr. has fallen the responsibility for bearing witness to his father’s athletic greatness.

The Dihigo name (pronounced DEE-go) remains revered in Cuba, where the father, once known as El Maestro, is remembered as The Immortal. His bust can be found beneath the grandstand at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. Many baseball historians regard the elder Dihigo as the most versatile athlete ever to take the field, capable of playing the infield as well as the outfield, even while being highly regarded as a pitcher.

He was a demon on the mound and a terror at the plate.

A group of 25 baseball fans from the north, led by Kit Krieger of Vancouver's Cubaball Tours, made a detour to Cruces to honour the Immortal’s memory and to pay homage to his legacy. Eleven of the tourists hailed from British Columbia, counting among themselves a tax lawyer, a publicist, a journalist, a cartoonist, a travel agent, a corporate headhunter, a stay-at-home dad, two retired teachers, and a provincial court judge.

The northerners were English-speaking whites from a wealthy land come to pay homage to the son of a black-skinned, Spanish-speaking man denied the opportunity to ply his trade in baseball’s major leagues owing to the colour of his skin.
The touring group crowded into the museum room.

“We’re all members of the same family,” Dihigo assured the visitors. “The baseball family.”

The senior Dihigo has been called “the black Babe Ruth,” though the record suggests Ruth be described as the “white Martin Dihigo.” In 24 stellar seasons, the Immortal hit for power and average, winning twice as many games as a pitcher as he lost. He retired in 1947, the year in which Jackie Robinson at long last breached the colour barrier. Had Dihigo not been barred from the majors, he would have been as celebrated as Ruth, with whom he shares the honour of having been inducted into the famed Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Dihigo has also been enshrined in the Cuban, Mexican, and Venezuelan halls of fame.

His reputation in Cuba is all the greater for his brave opposition to two tyrannical presidents. The ball player opposed the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado in the 1930s. In 1953, by which time he had become a prominent sports writer and announcer, he left Cuba vowing not to return until Fulgencio Batista was overthrown. While living in self-imposed exile in Mexico, it is said he donated money to Fidel Castro's movement after Che Guevara made a personal plea for funds.

After the 1959 revolution, he returned to his homeland ever more a hero. That he never broke with Fidel Castro means the regime has a continuing interest in promoting his legacy.

Dihigo died at Cienfuegos in 1971, five days before what would have been his 65th birthday. The death received scant notice in the United States. In Mexico, every baseball park held a minute of silence in his honour. In Cuba, his passing was mourned throughout the land and his achievements were lauded in public ceremonies.

His namesake son tried to follow in his cleats. Marty Dihigo, as he was styled by sportswriters, never came close to his father’s brilliance. His greatest performance came in smacking seven consecutive base hits with the minor-league Geneva (N.Y.) Redlegs in 1959. When playing for teams in Palatka, Fla., and Macon, Ga., he sometimes had to stay in his car while teammates ate in whites-only diners. He returned to his homeland and his father’s shadow.

“It is really difficult to have the same name as Martin Dihigo and to play baseball,” the son once told me. “Everyone thought that because we had the same name I had to be as good as he was and I had to do what he could do.

“On the other hand, it has always been beautiful to have this homage and tribute, and it is the result of carrying his name.”

It was time to go to the cemetery. Just beyond a large memorial to the local “martyrs of the revolution,” the Dihigo grave is covered by a concrete bed on which rests an opened book, also in concrete, on which can be read, spilling across both pages, the inscription: "Recuerdo al inmortal Martin Dihigo Llano, 1906-1971.”

As he does on every annual visit, Krieger placed on the grave a baseball signed by each member of the tour group.

The visitors brought a sack of baseballs for local children. Dihigo received as a gift a package of dried B.C. salmon. He had a request for next year’s visit. He would like a pair of athletic shoes, perhaps Nike, size 10 1/2, the supply of such limited on the island.

The Dihigo pilgrimage is a reminder that an athlete’s glory lingers long after their departure.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sidewalk mosaics: the next step to art

Liz Calvin and Bruce Walther are lead artists for the Mosaic Art Tile Project, which has embedded 18 colourful mosaics into the sidewalks of downtown Vancouver. The pair later learned they had an important connection. BELOW: Bruce Walther's design for a mosaic honouring Doug Hepburn, the World's Strongest Man.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 10, 2010


In the crush of a crowd on a downtown Vancouver street, I noted with horror the position of my right foot.

I was standing on Dal Richard’s head.

Not that the nonagenarian band leader was complaining.

A tile mosaic embedded in the sidewalk on Georgia Street features the bandleader. It is near the front entrance of the Hotel Vancouver, where he was longtime bandleader in the rooftop Panorama Room.

The Swing of Things” is one of 18 street mosaics commissioned by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. These can be found scattered around the commercial district, like colourful manhole covers.

Sidewalk mosaics: Taking art to the next step. Or, taking the next step to art.

The spectacular pieces are the work of Liz Calvin and Bruce Walther, lead artists for the Mosaic Art Tile Project.

During the Olympics, they could be found in a Granville Street storefront at work on new mosaics.

Mr. Walther had a knife in his hands and a stock of colourful bits of tile at his feet. The mosaic on which he was working was in its earliest stages, the outline drawn but only a few bits of tiles in place.

“It’s kind of meditative,” he said yesterday. “It’s like making a puzzle. One little piece at a time. The hours go by.”

The artist turned 52 last month. He is a soft-spoken man whose grinning countenance and stubbly appearance hint at some inside joke, all of which makes him resemble the British comic Alexi Sayle.

Though formally trained at Langara College and what is now known as the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Mr. Walther credits an art teacher at John Oliver Secondary for showing him the possibilities of art as a life.

The subject of the mosaic on which he is currently working was inspired by a visit to a barber shop near Victory Square some two decades ago. Mr. Walther noticed on the wall a photograph autographed by someone described as the World’s Strongest Man. The accompanying yellowed clippings indicated the fellow was from Vancouver.

“I’d never heard of the guy,” he said, “and I was born and raised here.”

He kept Doug Hepburn’s name and story in his mind.

He learned more about the strongman from Jon Thor, the former bodybuilder who won titles as Mr. Canada and Mr. USA before becoming a heavy-metal thunder god. Mr. Hepburn mentored Mr. Thor early in his weightlifting career. (It should be noted Mr. Hepburn also performed on stage as a nightclub crooner, even releasing an album of Christmas songs.)

Hepburn was born with crossed eyes and a club foot. A botched childhood operation left him with a limp. He took up weightlifting in response to schoolyard bullying. Still unknown even in his hometown, he became a laughingstock when he tried to raise funds to attend the world weightlifting championships in Sweden in 1953. To the surprise of his detractors, he returned as champ at age 26. He was so broke he spent his first night home in a $3-per-night skidrow flophouse.

The following year he won the heavyweight gold medal before an appreciative home audience at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

He never received the accolades and support he felt he had earned.

Mr. Hepburn — poet, inventor, dietitian, cabaret singer, reluctant professional wrestler — spent his final years as a self-described recluse, entertaining those few who sought him out with a rambling philosophy. He died in 2000, aged 74.

Mr. Walther’s mosaic depicts the strongman lifting with his back six hockey players in skates standing on a platform. He is also shown flexing his beefy right bicep, which is as thick as a the waist of any of us mere mortals.

After completion, a sidewalk site will be selected and the mosaic will be imbedded.

Like Mr. Hepburn, the artist, too, is an eastside kid. He was born to immigrants from war-torn Germany who met in Canada as young adults. His introduction to mosaics came courtesy of his carpenter father, who brought home from construction sites leftover boxes of tiles, some of which he used in the top of a homemade coffeetable. The boy also accompanied his mother on visits to the Blue Boy Motor Hotel at the foot of Fraser Street, which boasted a bowling alley. The hotel’s exterior included a tile rendition of the figure from the Gainsborough painting from which the lodge took its name.

“The mosaic has a long history,” he said. “Every year they’re digging up another mosaic that’s been buried for a thousand years. They’re always finding Roman mosaics in Britain and other places.”

When the business group launched its public art project four years ago, Mr. Walther and Ms. Calvin were commissioned to design, produce and supervise the installation of the mosaics. While they were talking, Mr. Walther realized it was her late father who had been his high school art teacher.

Bruce Walther's mosaic titled "Walk of Champions," which honours Vancouver's victorious sporting teams.

Monday, March 8, 2010

At 95, trailblazer Bernice Levitz Packford wants the right to end her life

Bernice Levitz Packford has taken as her final cause a lobbying effort for the right to die with dignity. Globe and Mail photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 8, 2010


The door of the white clapboard house in Fairfield opens to reveal a diminutive figure clutching a walker.

Dressed in purple corduroys, a green sweater and a sleeveless red fleece pullover, Bernice Levitz Packford invites a visitor into a dining room that now serves as a parlor.

“I’ll put in my hearing aid,” she says, wheeling into her adjacent bedroom.

A recent copy of Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine, rests atop a New York Times Book Review on a table.

A few greetings cards stand open.

“Thank you for continuing to be a trailblazer,” read the neat handwritten script.

“Bernice, you continue to be a champion, giving voice to the concerns of the most vulnerable people.”

She turned 95 yesterday (Sunday), a landmark birthday in a life of activism. Soon after arriving in Victoria in 1953, she could be found on a downtown street wearing a sandwich-board sign seeking foster parents for needy children. She became more sophisticated in her protests over the years, but has never wavered from a desire to improve the world, little bit by little bit.

She has championed clean water, old-age pensions, and the importance of voting. She demanded a CBC Radio station in Victoria, which finally arrived a decade ago. In 1983, the taxman seized $549.21 from the pensioner’s chequing account because she had diverted payments in opposition to military spending.

She protests Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan.

A local politician once greeted her in public with a hearty, “Bernice, my rabble-rousing friend!”

She recently announced her final issue, her last cause, by writing a letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper. In it, she made a shocking confession.

“I am tired,” she wrote to the Times Colonist, “and I am ready to die now.”

Ms. Packford wishes not only to die, but to kill herself.

Or, more accurately, to have herself killed.

She settles into a chair at the table, brushes a hand against her magnificent white hair.

“I want to go, I want to die, when I’m able. I want to go on my choosing,” she told me.

“My greatest fear is to have a stroke and remain conscious and be aware that I’m helpless.”

It is not a crime to commit suicide, but it is a crime to counsel, or to aid and abet, suicide. Hence Ms. Packford’s dilemma and sad plea.

“It’s simple to do,” she acknowledges, as though speaking of an ordinary chore. “I haven’t got the means to do it. There’s lots of potions. But I don’t know them and I haven’t got access to them.”

She spent months perfecting the 331-word letter calling on Parliament to give her the right to an assisted suicide.

Her fear is not unique, nor is her dilemma.

Born in Toronto, she was raised by her mother, Hinda, a seamstress and garment worker from Russia. Her father, a partner in a men’s clothing store, was a soft touch when it came to credit. With the outbreak of war in 1914, many young men enlisted in a spirit of jingoism and patriotism, stiffing Sam Levitz. The store closed. Her father died when she was aged six.

A sickly girl, who struggled with breathing problems, she found solace in reading. Once, she was so engrossed by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” she rode the streetcar past her home to the end of the line and back again before realizing she had skipped her stop.

She learned about social democracy in magazines, joining the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation at age 20, soon after sharing a car ride with party leader J.S. Woodsworth, whom she found inspiring.

With men away to war yet again, she found work which financed her studies in social work. She came to British Columbia in 1945 to avoid winter, earning a bachelor’s degree. Still seeking to avoid cold weather, she rejected a transfer to Pouce Coupe and ended up on Vancouver Island.

For 40 years, she was an outspoken advocate for foster care. She befriended the parents (“wonderful people”) of current provincial NDP leader Carole James, as they raised many troubled children.

“I won’t say I love helping people,” she says. “That isn’t it. I satisfy myself. I fulfill myself by being active and by assisting people. I always want to improve things.”

She knows she is fortunate in having enough money to live in her own home, to hire helpers who cook and clean. She trundles with her walker to the Cook Street Village for shopping, lunches with lady friends at some favourite restaurants, is a regular at Saturday services at the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, founded when Vancouver Island was still a colony and which she proudly describes as the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the land.

She follows with admiration the lives and careers of her daughter and three grandchildren.

Other than suffering from heart congestion, she is in good health, though her hearing is failing and she finds herself fading in ability. “My energy is limited,” she acknowledges. It is the possibility of an incapacitating stroke she most fears.

On the day we met, the health department in Washington released a report on the first 10 months after the passing of the state's Death with Dignity Act. Doctors can prescribe lethal medication for terminally ill adult patients. In the first 10 months, at least 36 people did so.

Of course, Ms. Packford is not terminally ill. She is not even ill. I tell her I am in no hurry to see her depart. She has the most wonderful, infectious, impish laugh.

Her argument, as always, is compelling.

If the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, it also has no place in the deathbeds.

Diamonds are forever

Dorothy Jane Mills holds a bat and her own Seymour medal at her home in Naples, Fla. New York Times photo.

On Sunday, the New York Times published a fine article by the baseball writer Alan Schwartz in which baseball historian Dorothy Jane Mills (formerly Seymour) is credited for her work on three important books. Back in 1996, when she lived in British Columbia, I profiled her for the Province newspaper, an early acknowledgement of her important contributions to our understanding of baseball history. The article was reprinted by the Edmonton Journal, the Winnipeg Free Press, and the Kingston (Ont.) Whig-Standard.

By Tom Hawthorn
The (Vancouver, B.C.) Province
June 18, 1996


Dorothy Mills, who has never played an inning of baseball in her life, probably belongs in the Hall of Fame.

She has spent much of her life in windowless rooms reading yellowed newspaper clippings, sifting the ashes of baseball's forgotten history, seeking larger truths in the minutiae of the summer game.

Her late husband, Harold Seymour, was the author of three noted volumes of baseball history, a trilogy that is to baseball historians what the Dead Sea Scrolls are to Bible scholars.

Only now, four years after Seymour's death, is she willing to take credit for her contribution, which includes most of the research and much of the writing.

"After he passed away, that was my opportunity to point out that I was deeply involved," she says today.

That is not a minor confession. Their trailblazing work made the study of baseball a respectable one, inspiring untold college courses and uncountable volumes of baseball history.

Their pioneering efforts also made possible the filming of Baseball, the 18 1/2-hour documentary by Ken Burns for which Mills was a consultant.

Last weekend, the inaugural Seymour Medal, honoring her and her late husband, was presented in Kansas City to author David Zang for his biography of Moses Fleetwood Walker, a 19th-century black player.

Yet she admits she'd "probably drop the ball if anyone ever threw one at me," and confesses she has no favorite team, no hero of the diamond. Truth be told, she does not much care for the game.

"I am not a ball fan," she says. "I'm not a games person. No games excite me, really."

These days, she winters in Naples, Fla., and summers in Sidney at a tidy trailer park favored by seniors, a development sandwiched between the Victoria airport and the ferry traffic on Highway 17. Her contributions to baseball research are now limited to an online chat group, although she is quick to respond with a letter when she spots an error in a newspaper or magazine.

As Cleveland State sophomore, back when the Indians won the World Series in 1948, she fell in love with a dour professor who maintained an uncharacteristically boyish enthusiasm for baseball. They married and she left the school to embark on a self-directed study of baseball, economics and America. She haunted archives and libraries in New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis and Cooperstown, N.Y., mining a rich lode of documents.

"I began to think of it as a treasure hunt," she says. "Each time I found something interesting it was a clue to something else."

While baseball was a new-found interest for her, to her husband it was a lifelong obsession.

Seymour was born in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, an area so tough his mother refused to let him play outside. The family moved to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn when Harold was six and he grew up within earshot of fabled Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers.

He found work at the park as a turnstile boy, scoreboard operator and, to his everlasting delight, as a bat boy, all the while dreaming of a major league career for himself. The closest he got was forming a semi-professional team at age 17.

"He was a very strict manager," Mills said. "They called him McGraw," after the tyrannical John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants.

The closest Seymour got to the majors was by bird-dogging as an unofficial scout for two clubs.

While his pro ball career was left in the on-deck circle, he began to put up some good numbers in academia.

Still, in the 1940s, his inaugural proposal to teach a course on baseball history was unanimously rejected by faculty.

"At the time, it was not a respected field for serious research," said Tom Heitz, the former librarian of the Baseball Hall of Fame. "People laughed at him and belittled him for what he was doing."

Some years later, Seymour was studying at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., when he submitted a Ph.D. dissertation on the same topic.

His thesis was accepted and, in 1957, he won national publicity for earning so high a degree for so low a subject.

The couple recast the thesis into two volumes for Oxford University Press, the first of which -- Baseball: The Early Years -- was published in 1960. The second volume was called Baseball: The Golden Years. Both received standing ovations from critics and are still in print.

Sports Illustrated magazine, comparing the author to a famous chronicler of the Roman Empire, called Seymour the "Edward Gibbon of baseball history."

While Seymour had a well earned reputation as an imperious and taciturn man, his whimsy found expression in the naming of two New England homes in which he wrote his histories. The first was called Bush League Farm, the second Big League Camp. A third volume, Baseball: The People's Game, an account of the sport as played by amateurs, was published in 1990, most of it written by his wife as his conditioned degenerated. Seymour died of Alzheimer's disease at age 82 in 1992.

A year ago this month, his widow made a pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. She brought with her to the baseball shrine a box containing her husband's remains.

On an unseasonably cool summer's evening, a handful of historians gathered in the grandstand above the red brick wall that is the backstop at Doubleday Field ("where Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball," Mills notes pointedly).

A eulogy was read. Then, one historian stepped on to the dirt surrounding first base, shaking free a dusty ribbon of ash at the position where Harold had played as a boy.

Dr. Alvin Hall, a professor from a nearby university, told the assembly that the scene reminded him of a classical dialogue not so much Platonic as vaudevillian.

He said, "I'll never again be able to hear the famous Abbott and Costello baseball routine 'Who's on first?' without thinking, `I know who's on first."