Shaping the Campus – War Memorial Gym

Shaping the Campus – War Memorial Gym

By Sheldon Goldfarb

After the Great Trek when students won the victory and convinced the government to pay the money needed to resume construction of the Point Grey campus, they realized the victory was not complete. There were academic buildings and a library, but virtually nothing for athletics.

So in the early years at Point Grey the students took the initiative and raised money for playing fields, a stadium, and also the first gymnasium, so the basketball team and others could play some home games and not always have to be trekking downtown to play in gymnasiums there.

To build the first gym, the students incorporated themselves for the first time, and in 1928 the Alma Mater Society became an officially registered society under the BC Societies Act. By 1929 there was a new gym, where the Buchanan complex is now, and it served the students well for two decades.

But after the Second World War it was thought that something larger and more modern was needed. There was also a push to create a memorial for those students who had given their lives in the war and in the First World War too: 169 in the Second, 78 in the First. These two aims came together in 1945 as the plan to build a War Memorial Gym took shape.

Mostly the students led the way. One of the new student clubs, a quirky one called the Jokers, held offbeat fundraising events: buy an egg and throw it at us, that sort of thing. Also a roller skating marathon, for which the slogan was “Break a Limb! Support the Gym!”

But one letter-writer to the Ubyssey said, Why is it up to the students to do this? Why is there no public money? And eventually the government came through with $200,000, but the students still ended up paying about half the cost, not just through quirky fundraising events, but by agreeing to an increase in their AMS fees. The Ubyssey editorialized that eventually the students would tire of funding the University’s athletic facilities, but in fact the students approved funding for the first Aquatic Centre in the 1970s, and as recently as 2017 approved a fee to help pay for the new Recreation Centre.

Fundraising and construction delays slowed completion of the gymnasium project, but eventually, on February 23, 1951 it opened with a basketball game, at which AMS President Nonie Donaldson threw in the first ball.

The War Memorial Gym continues in existence to this day, though it has been supplemented by other facilities on campus. Over the years, besides being the venue for basketball games and other sports, it has been used for student registration (before that all went online), for graduation ceremonies and of course Remembrance Day ceremonies. It has also hosted concerts by the likes of Frank Zappa, Burton Cummings, and the Spirit of the West. Notable speakers have drawn audiences there, including Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry and the preacher Billy Graham, and the comedy basketball team, the Harlem Globetrotters, used to make regular appearances.

The University has been talking about replacing WMG, since after all it is more than 70 years old, but still it soldiers on as the oldest remaining athletic facility funded by the students and as an example of how students helped build the campus.

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