True sportsman Harry Wipper leaves legacy

We mourn the passing of a true local legend – and possibly the most influential person in the sports history of our city.

Of the many tributes that have been expressed over the past weeks, perhaps words from a poem written by his grandchildren summed things up best: “He’s respected by all who know him. Loved by his family. His honour is beyond question. He’s a man of integrity.”

Harry Robinson Wipper. Born May 8, 1930; died March 22, 2012. And so we mourn the passing of a true local legend – and possibly the most influential person in the sports history of our city. When the Nanaimo Sports Hall of Fame opened in 2008, he was inducted not once but twice – once as part of a national championship team and once as a sports builder in our city.

Harry Wipper’s life was celebrated at a service held two weeks ago at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Nanaimo. It was a time of sadness, of course, but also a time to share memories and enjoy stories of a life well lived and a man who seemed emblematic of the Nanaimo sporting community for those whose roots go back here for any length of time.

Born in St. Catharines, Ont., Harry became an accomplished athlete due largely to his drive and fierce determination. He excelled in lacrosse, playing on Peterborough teams that won four national Mann Cup titles at the senior A level. Tall and strong, he led by example with toughness and perseverance and earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike.

Following graduation from McGill University, Wipper in 1956 moved west to Nanaimo at the urging of former Peterborough teammate Don Ashbee and signed on as player/coach of the Nanaimo senior A Timbermen. It was a landmark decision and a historic year for sports in our city. In his portion of a shared eulogy at the service, Ashbee recalled the ’56 team that Wipper led to the Mann Cup championship, achieving what is commonly regarded as the greatest moment in Nanaimo sports history. That alone would have assured Harry Wipper’s place in Nanaimo history. But he went on to accomplish so much more…

In 1958, mayor Pete Maffeo decided to amalgamate the city’s parks board, recreation commission and arena commission. Wipper successfully applied for the job as manager of the new department, thus becoming Nanaimo’s first director of parks and recreation.

Nanaimo was a much different town in those days: Commercial Street was the business centre, the only arena was the Civic and there were virtually no recreational programs. Wipper had the vision to foresee Nanaimo’s growth and the determination to provide the city with needed parks and rec facilities. He spearheaded a drive to obtain land for parks, to build more facilities and to offer community recreational programs. We can thank his leadership for many of the facilities we now enjoy.

As tough as he had been on the lacrosse floor, Wipper was equally tough across the board table. You wouldn’t get any handouts from Harry. But he was always willing to meet groups halfway. He encouraged cost-sharing proposals and empowered sports groups and service clubs such as Rotary and Kinsmen to sponsor projects by offering as much support as possible.

As well, recreational programming was developed, and projects supported such as the B.C. Summer Games in 1985, and bringing the Vancouver Whitecaps to Nanaimo for their training camp in 1983.  “One of the main reasons we’re here is Harry Wipper,” said Whitecaps general manager Peter Bridgewater at the time.  “He’s a real dynamo.”

Wipper made possible the infrastructure for sports and recreation in Nanaimo. The developments he oversaw included Maffeo Sutton Park, May Richards Bennett Pioneer Park, Robins Park, tennis courts and field houses. Harry’s greatest pride was Bowen Park, which today stands as a jewel of Nanaimo – combining sport, social and nature activities.

When Wipper retired in 1989, mayor Frank Ney appropriately dedicated a new sports field on Hammond Bay Road in his name. A plaque there reads, “The director of parks and recreation is recognized for his creative parks planning, development of facilities and programs and his loyal and dedicated leadership over the past 31 years.”

I was fortunate to have many sports-related dealings with Harry over the years and I was also very proud to be able to claim him as a relative. He was always helpful and friendly; invariably polite and modest; unfailingly fair and honourable. He was a strong, forceful man who got things done, but at the same time displayed a quiet gentleness and a keen sense of humour. He was always a gentleman, even when forced to struggle with Parkinson’s Disease in his final years.

Harry Wipper was pre-deceased by wife Sharon and is survived by children Jennifer, Peter, Philip and Elizabeth and by seven grandchildren. He loved his family greatly and he loved Nanaimo almost just as much. He will always be remembered as a true sportsman and by the legacy of recreational facilities that he made possible in our city.

Ian Thorpe writes about sports Saturdays.