Oral History at the J.P. Metras Sports Museum: Preserving the Voices of the Past

[The following is an article I wrote for Western News, published on March 22, 2012.  Check out the link, or read on.]

1977 Student Games, Bulgaria
Leyshon (far right)

In 1954, Glynn Arthur Leyshon became the first member of his family earn a university degree.  Born to Welsh immigrant parents in 1929, Leyshon enrolled at the University of Western Ontario in 1950 to play football and study physical education.  When a knee injury ended his football career, he found an athletic outlet in the wrestling ring.  Although Western’s athletic program included wrestling in 1931, it was not until 1950, when the university built its first gym, that wrestlers were able leave the cleared locker rooms in the football stadium for real training facilities.

 Under the coaching of Dr. Earle Zeigler, Leyshon went on to win the CIAU Wrestling Championship in 1953 and 1954.    Eventually earning a Masters in physical education and a PhD in kinesiology, Dr. Leyshon returned to Western as an  assistant football coach, head wrestling coach, and professor.  During his tenure at Western, (now Doctor) Leyshon transformed the Mustang wrestling team into national competitors, bringing home seven championship titles.  Additionally, Dr. Leyshon trained five out of the ten Canadian Olympic wrestlers in the 1976 games.  Four years later, he accepted the position as the head coach of the Canadian Olympic wrestling team, but due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent boycott of the Olympic games by sixty-four nations, including Canada, he never served in this capacity.

Although 1980 would be his last year coaching wrestling full-time, Dr. Leyshon continued to assist Western wrestling coaches on a part-time basis.  He transformed Western wrestlers into national competitors and proved instrumental in developing an Olympic wrestling program, solidifying his name in a number of Canadian Sport Halls of Fame.  At 83 years old, Dr. Leyshon’s mark on the athletic and academic culture of Western remains palpable as he continues teaching as a Professor Emeritus and writing sport fiction.  The story of Dr. Leyshon exemplifies how participation in university athletics propelled a life of leadership that impacted (and continues to impact) both community and country.

In fact, athletes, coaches, and the athletic traditions they inspire, have shaped the Western experience since school’s beginnings in 1878.  Some Canada’s foremost leaders in business, medicine, and education have been former wrestlers, football players, or volleyball coaches (to name only a few).  Other athletes, most notably Silken Laumen and Marnie McBean (rowing), left Western and represented Canada proudly as Olympians.

Silken Laumen
Photo: JP Metras Museum

The unique stories of Western’s athletes and coaches offer valuable insights into the world of university and Canadian athletics.  Listening to them, we are able to hear firsthand the life lessons learned through competition, teamwork and self-discipline.  Yet as time moves forward, all that will remain of these personal stories is what  we will find in the written record.  The actual voices of those who lived, learned and competed at Western will be gone with the athletes when they pass away.  But what if we could capture these voices, preserve them, and listen to them long into the future?  This question is being answered by the JP Metras Sports Museum this summer.  The JP Metras Sports Museum began in 1978, Western’s centennial year and the curator was Dutch Decker. The current curator is Ted Hessel, a Western alumnus, sport enthusiast, and current president of the “W” Club.  This club, a volunteer organization whose directors donate their time, energy

and money to enhance and promote athletics at Western University, created the museum in Alumni Hall to commemorate the athletic legacy of the university.  In 2009, the Metras developed a working relationship with the Public History Department at Western taking on Jordan Goldstein as an intern to identify, catalogue and digitize sports artifacts and photographs.  This summer the museum hired me, Dave Sikkema, to expand its collection with oral histories (a fancy word for recorded interviews), of former athletes and coaches such as Dr. Leyshon.

My work with oral history projects began three years ago as a graduate student in History at Baylor University.  Under the guidance of Dr. Sloan, Director of the Baylor Oral History Institute, I conducted interviews with local residents of Waco, Texas to understand race relations in the 1960s.  This work taught me that personal interviews provided a human element to a difficult subject, allowing me to see segregation from different viewpoints within the community.  Although the subject of sport is not as controversial as segregation, I am interested in capturing and preserving the human side of athletics at Western through similar personal interviews.

Joe Krol - 1942
Photo: JP Metras Museum

In order to do this, I will create interview questions, conduct interviews, and place the interviews online.  Recently the project was awarded with a Mitacs-Accelerate grant of $15,000 that will help us purchase recording equipment, and acquire the necessary software for digital preservation to meet our goals.  While I hope to have ten recordings completed and accessible to students and scholars by the end of the summer, this is only the beginning of an on-going project.  As individuals like Dr. Leyshon retire, the number of stories to preserve continues to grow each year.  Students interested in history, and who are willing to listen to the stories of Western alumni, are encouraged to visit the Metras Museum or check out the Public History program at Western University.

The stories Western’s athletes and coaches who have become influential leaders and mentors, will add a human element to the growing collection of photographs and sports statistics. Because of close ties with the Public History Department, the JP Metras Sports Musuem has witnessed significant expansion and exposure and with this oral history project  the “W” Club will continue to fulfill its mandate to enhance and promote intercollegiate athletics at Western University.

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