Some called him the quintessential British Columbian.
Gordon Shrum was many things to many people, but there’s no denying that in all things he was a doer. He moved. The man just got things done. Big things.
And inevitably for a man who did as much for BC as Shrum, his doings delved into the realm of sport.
Shrum arrived at UBC in 1925 from the University of Toronto as the newest member of the Science faculty. The man, who in his early twenties was credited with the liquification of helium, was very much a scientist and educator first and foremost, but the effect sports like football could have on the spirit of a university gripped him. It was his hope that football could captivate and inspire the UBC student body as it did many American universities.
With Max Cameron and Gordon ‘Doc’ Burke, Shrum ensured the game was a well-entrenched part of UBC campus life by the late 1920s. He spurred the development of the program with the hiring of strong coaches, a few of whom became legends in their own right, such as Frank Gnup. The Thunderbird football program still exists today eighty years later as but one of Shrum’s UBC legacies.
Yet football was but one sport, and Shrum was wise to realize the value of a well-rounded athletics department for the university. Many of the most influential early athletics administrators and coaches, like Maury Van Vliet, Gertrude Moore, Bob Osborne, and Bob Robinette to name but a few—themselves deserving of hall of fame recognition—were appointed by Shrum.
Improved athletic facilities were constructed under his direction. UBC’s Varsity Stadium, the university’s first sports stadium and the city’s most modern sports ground prior to the building of Empire Stadium, was completed in 1937. War Memorial Gym followed after WWII, and Empire Pool in 1954.
Besides supporting the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver with a pool facility, Shrum served as the head of the Athletes Housing Committee offering UBC’s student housing for accommodation of hundreds of foreign athletes. For a month, the UBC campus was transformed into Empire Village hosting many of the Commonwealth’s best athletes including Miracle Milers Roger Bannister and John Landy.
Retiring from work at UBC in 1961, Premier W.A.C. Bennett named Shrum co-chairman of BC Hydro. His work harnessing the massive hydroelectric potential of BC’s rivers is marvelled at today. Two years later, he was tapped again by Bennett to develop a new university atop Burnaby Mountain. Shrum oversaw the rapid construction of the futuristic Arthur Erickson-designed campus and by 1966 Simon Fraser University was officially opened with Shrum in place as chancellor and chairman of the board.
Shrum always had understood the association between a healthy body and a sound mind and saw university sports as a way to foster the athletic and academic potential of BC’s youth. With Lorne Davies, he modelled SFU’s athletics department on the American university style. Athletic scholarships were offered to student athletes hoping to stop the drain of BC’s best south of the border, a controversial practice years ahead of its time in Canada then, but generally accepted today.
To honour Shrum’s contribution to university sport at both UBC and SFU, the Shrum Bowl, initiated in 1967, is contested annually by the Thunderbird and Clansmen football teams. In tweed hat and overcoat sitting at the top of the Empire Stadium bleachers, Shrum could often be seen quietly taking in his namesake game before he died in 1985.
It seems somehow fitting that the man many considered to be Premier Bennett’s utility man, the man Bennett went to when something big needed to be done right, should be honoured with an award bearing his benefactor’s name. Shrum left behind a mountainous legacy of development that touched many disparate aspects of society throughout BC.
In his lifetime, Dr. Gordon Shrum willed big things into existence. When he left, something big was truly gone.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
Shrum is also inducted in the UBC Sports Hall of Fame. For his UBC biography, please visit www.ubcsportshalloffame.com