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.



  1. John Gordon-Kirkby says:

    Professor Robert Morford was one of my 1st cousins.
    His father , my maternal Uncle Eric St.Clair-Morford. Circumstances were such that I never met Robert in person.
    From this tribute I have learned much of his life, and recognise the family trits.
    Rest in Peace , dear Robert.

    1. Andrew petersen says:

      He was my uncle and I tried go see him at ubc but he was always to busy. My parents met in kitamat too. I did not know they were there together. My mom Elizabeth Petersen (morford) has passed now. Too late to ask.
      Andrew Petersen, bsc ag 86

      1. Nat St Martin says:

        Just doing the family tree and started to research ‘Uncle Bob’ – actually my Gt Uncle as his Sister, Patricia (‘Paddy’) was my Grandmother. I recall meeting Uncle Bob just once when I was very young. All these years all I really knew was that he lived in Canada and adored birdwatching – something I now also love. It seems our family is spread across the globe. Interesting to see Bob died just 17 days after my Grandmother (his sister) in 2012. I like to think they’re having a good old catchup about all that’s gone on over the years 🙂

      2. John Gordon-Kirkby says:

        My Dear Andrew,
        We are remotely related .
        Roberts father was my mother’s brother.
        I hope you keep well and active ?
        I’m now an 83 year old Australia
        I can be found on the www & Facebook
        It’s a small world !
        With my good wishes to you and family
        John Gordon-Kirkby

  2. Dwight Zakus says:

    Bob was my masters paper supervisor. I stood in awe of his intellect and life passage. I was fortunate to have spent much time with Bob and inquiring into his background. Needless to say, it was fascinating and impressive. Nicknamed the “jungle fighter” at the University of Alberta, his life is one of mix of fantasy fiction and a real world experience and expertise. What is not mentioned here is his understanding of Plains Indians culture. His agon motif and collection of artefacts was considerable. His military training and jungle fighting also gave him a key eye to track movement. That was his skill easily translated into his love of bird watching. He knew where and how to look for birds.

    I was very fortunate to have know and worked with Bob. The people he brought to UBC in the period I was there was considerable. At the forefront, as the bio states, of a broad-based, integrated understanding of kinesiology.

    RIP Bob

    1. John Gordon-Kirkby says:

      Hello Dwight , You we’re indeed fortunate to have known my cousin Bob.
      I never did , though I have met some of the Canadian and British family. I recognise much of his character , common to many of the descendants of my grandfather ; Walter Wordell Morford . I appreciate your tribute.
      With my good wishes from Australia .
      John Gordon-Kirkby

  3. James McAlister says:

    I was fortunate enough to play scrum half for Robert Morford when I was an undergraduate at California State University at Hayward (now Cal-State East Bay). He was a great coach, mentor and teacher. Interestingly enough, my last rugby game was against UBC, when I made an unwise decision to try to tackle a forward head-on and was carried off the field.

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