In Memoriam

Robert Morford, BPE’56, MPE’59

In his early years, Bob Morford’s destiny could not have been clearer. Born into a military family of some significance, both his grandfathers were generals in the British Army. Bob himself was decorated by the King after he completed three years in the British Military Police Service, Jungle Company in Malaya where he was born. It was then that fate and happenstance intervened.

Robert MorfordWhen Bob left the protracted conflict between Commonwealth forces and the communist Malayan National Liberation Army in 1952, he was given a ticket on the next boat leaving Malaya. He was told that it was destined for the USA. With no landing or immigration papers, officials in San Francisco told him that there was a train leaving for Canada shortly and that he should be on it. When he arrived in Vancouver with 30 dollars in his pocket, he was told that displaced persons were being recruited for a massive hydroelectric project near Kitimat. Bob signed up and off he went to a remote region where his lifelong love of the British Columbia wilderness was born. Amongst the workers were several UBC students, who encouraged him to accompany them when they returned to classes.

Weeks later, his life took another fortuitous turn. While standing in the registration line-up in UBC’s Armouries, he was approached by Physical Education professor and varsity rugby coach, Albert Laithwaite, who was evidently impressed by his imposing physical stature and encouraged him to come try out for the team. He then chanced upon a student named Gerry Kenyon, who was president of the Physical Education Undergraduate Society. “We got to talking about this and that, and he asked me if I had thought of a career in Physical Education,” recalled Bob recently. “So I gave it a shot.”

He graduated at the top of the class of 1956 and won four Big Block Awards for rugby. Professor Max Howell, who Bob greatly admired, convinced him to pursue graduate studies. Having subsequently been one of the first graduates in the School’s new master’s program, Bob’s keen interest in science and physical activity prompted him to pursue doctoral studies at the University of California-Berkeley. There he specialized in motor learning and performance, and he completed his dissertation under the supervision of Franklin Henry, one of the founders of the academic discipline.

He returned to Canada for a brief time at the University of Alberta, where he was reunited with former UBC Professor Max Howell. He then moved to California State University-Hayward. Teaching motor learning and performance seminars as well as advising graduate students, he followed Henry’s lead and began to focus on the field as a whole, especially its future directions as a discipline. Ultimately, he became the school’s director, and his influence grew as he served as an invited speaker and wrote numerous papers. His rising visibility and achievements were instrumental in his recruitment to the University of Washington in 1973, where he served as chair of a newly formed department, and recruited a wide range of specialists able to advance interdisciplinary teaching and research agendas. During this time his visions for academic kinesiology took shape and his contributions to the discipline garnered much recognition, including his election to the American Academy of Kinesiology.

UBC’s initial attempts to recruit him as director of the School of Physical Education were not successful, but a subsequent telephone call from President Douglas Kenny resulted in negotiations to expand the School’s spectrum of learning and research and ultimately his welcome return to Point Grey. Bob’s vision was to create a school with superb undergraduate and graduate programs. Integrated exercise and sport sciences programs and research agendas were at the top of his list, with important connections to Sport BC and Sport Canada and also to the medical community. The latter priority resulted in the creation of the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Clinic.

Often the conversations about Bob stray to his lifelong preoccupation with birding. While  at UBC as an undergrad student he took courses in ornithology, which he considered as a career for a time before Max Howell convinced him otherwise. His love for the BC wilderness endured none the less, particularly for the Bowron Lakes region where he maintained  a shorefront cabin, and where the still deep waters upon which he plied his canoe mirrored an understated and profound intellect.

When Bob left UBC in 1995 he was recruited by San Francisco State University. Unresolved budget challenges resulted in his prompt resignation as Dean and a paradoxical return  to the place of his birth. After serving for nine years as a senior consultant to the National Sports Institute of Malaysia, he retired to Mexico where on March 27 he completed his altogether remarkable journey.