W.J. McLean’s credential for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Red Deer Archives photo)

W.J. McLean’s credential for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Red Deer Archives photo)

Michael Dawe: Notable contributions by former central Albertan

Another Olympics is currently being staged in Tokyo, Japan. This Olympics is different than others in many different ways. First, it is being held one year after the original date of 2020. The COVID pandemic has also restricted many activities, with virtually no spectators, strict controls on athlete movements, etc. Early published ratings indicate that this Olympics is not drawing the television audiences experienced with other ones.

Nevertheless, it remains a significant sports spectacle, with triumphs, split-second finishes and heart-breaking losses. Most of all, the Olympics provide a chance to watch thousands of incredibly dedicated and skilled athletes, as they strive for a medal or best possible finish, not only for themselves, but also for the countries they represent.

The first from our community to compete in an Olympics was Marcia Parsons Beckner. She was one of several first-class speedskaters from Red Deer, who trained and competed with the Red Deer Lions Speedskating Club. She earned the honour of competing in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

Another person from Red Deer, who made an important contribution to the Olympics, but unfortunately is not well remembered, was William John (W.J.) McLean.

W.J. McLean was born in Wellington County, Ont. After teaching school in Ontario for a few years, he decided to try the prospects of the great Western Canadian frontier. He got a job in 1899 teaching at the Springvale School, a short distance southeast of Red Deer. He also took up farming in the district.

In 1904, he married Elsie Cole, whose family had homesteaded in Springvale in 1889. They were to have three daughters – Leah, Myrtle and Nellie.

In 1904, he also became the principal of the Red Deer Public School, which only consisted of four rooms at the time. He quickly became renowned as an excellent teacher and administrator, as well as a strict disciplinarian.

He put a strong emphasis on sports as an important part of education. He was particularly interested in football (soccer), track and field, and boxing. He helped to found the Red Deer and District Football (Soccer) League. He also organized the Red Deer High School team. That team quickly became so strong that it won the Rutherford Cup, the Alberta provincial championship trophy for high school and collegiate soccer.

Just before the outbreak of the First World War, W.J. McLean was appointed as a school inspector in East Central Alberta. He helped to organize some of the earliest athletic field days in the region. He became active in the Alberta Branch of the Amateur Athletics Union of Canada and ultimately served as president.

His most impressive accomplishments came in the realm of boxing. He was a judge at several Dominion Boxing championships. In 1932, he was an official at the Olympics in Los Angeles, California.

In 1936, he became the assistant boxing coach in the Canadian trials leading up to the Berlin Olympics. He was then appointed as an Olympic boxing judge and was the only boxing official to represent Canada at the Berlin games.

In 1939, in recognition of his provincial, national and international work on behalf of the Olympic movement, W.J. McLean was made an honorary life member of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

He remained active in the promotion of sports and recreation in Red Deer. He was one of the founders of the Red Deer Athletic Association, which was later reorganized as the Red Deer Recreation Commission and then as the Red Deer Recreation Department.

In 1960, W.J. McLean was honoured with the official naming of the McLean Athletic Field, immediately south of the Central School complex. Shortly thereafter his health began to fail. He passed away in Red Deer on March 19, 1962.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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