They hadn’t seen each other in 53 years, but when they got the call that their rugby team was being inducted into the University of Toronto Sports Hall of Fame, they flew in from places as far as Zambia, New Mexico and British Columbia to attend the ceremony.
This was, according to Paul Wilson who addressed the audience on behalf of the Varsity Blues 1959-63 men's rugby team, an evening of nostalgia. Turning back to look at his beaming team mates on the podium, he gleefully volunteered their average age was 78.
“You look at them and you’d never believe they could play rugby," joked Wilson, "but I tell you, they could.” In fact, they played so well, they were intercollegiate champions five years in a row. And they still knew how to make merry, breaking into a cheerful chant on stage.
There were songs, tears and laughter as U of T welcomed more outstanding athletes, teams and builders into its Hall of Fame on June 2. Addressing friends and families of the 2016 inductees, acting dean of Kinesiology and Physical Education Gretchen Kerr said the U of T Hall of Fame was an important recognition that U of T's tradition of excellence includes sports.
"This year was another remarkable year for sports at U of T, with the Blues completing an incredible season with four national and ten provincial championship wins," said Kerr. "Tonight we honour the individuals and teams who helped build that tradition of excellence through their outstanding achievements and contributions to athletics."
Marlene Donaldson’s family was among the first to arrive for the celebration. They filled two rows. Donaldson, a four-year team captain for the Varsity Blues women’s rugby team, thanked her family for their unwavering support, but also coach Michele Belanger for cutting her out of the Varsity Blue women's basketball team. Waiting for the laughter to die down, Donaldson said she then turned her sights on rugby, becoming the first Varsity Blue to earn CIAU all-Canadian honours in 1998 and a two-time OUA All-Star.
“Being a Varsity Blue connected me to U of T," said Donaldson. "I am still proud of U of T and cherish the lifelong friends I made here."
No hard feelings between Marlene Donaldson and Michele Belanger
The Varsity Blues 1995-96 women's basketball team turned out to be a perfect fit for Laurel Johnson, who helped the team win three OWIAA championship titles and two CIAU silver medals, all while earning academic all-Canadian honours. Holding back tears, Johnson spoke of the lasting effect university sports had on her life, saying the skills she learned as a basketball player extended into her current work as a psychologist.
Squash and rugby champ Victor Harding, rugby star Brett Hennenfent, champion footballer Mike Raham, water polo Olympian George Gross Jr., basketball star Eddy Meguerian, the 1994-95 men’s basketball team and the 1995-96 women’s basketball teams all took turns on the stage thanking their families and alma mater for giving them lifelong skills, friendships and memories.
David Wright thanked KPE for expanding the sports program to include mountain biking. Wright is the lead founder of the Varsity Blues mountain bike team and helped to establish 12 university mountain biking teams across the province.
“Volunteering as a coach enriched my life, but I equally enjoyed seeing students’ lives transformed by the sport,” said Wright, remembering a 21 year old man who enrolled in U of T only so that he could become a part of the Blues’ mountain biking team. He recently graduated and is married with kids.
Football coach Harry Griffith, basketball coach John McManus, diver and swimmer Ruth Volpe, tennis and basketball player Ellen Buzek and wrestling champ and fitness administrator Gordon Wright were inducted posthumously, with family members and friends taking to the stage to accept the honours and speak of their legacies.
“Harry Griffith was a legend,” said headmaster of Ridley College Ed Kidd, who accepted Griffith's posthumous induction. In 1909 and 1910, Griffith guided the Blues to the Grey Cup championship and later became the Headmaster of Ridley, where a gymnasium was named after him. Griffith was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
A legend in his own right, Paul Carson had personally witnessed and chronicled the successes of many of the inductees as U of T's sports information director for more than 25 years. Carson was presented with the Thomas R. Loudon Award for outstanding services in the advancement of athletics. (Read more on Carson here).
Winner of the Thomas R. Loudon Award Paul Carson posing with acting dean Gretchen Kerr
Wrapping up the evening, acting assistant dean of co-curricular physical activity Beth Ali said it takes a remarkable amount of dedication and perseverance to reach this level of excellence in sport.
"I am overwhelmed at the talent gathered here in this room tonight,” said Ali. "The Loudon Award also reminds us of the variety of ways individuals contribute to the success of our athletic programs."
You can see the full biographies of the 2016 Hall of Fame inductees and their predecessors on the newly launched website: halloffame.utoronto.ca