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Rhodes Trust 120th Anniversary Reunion

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JAMES WAUGH

(Alberta & St John's 1968) (21 May 1945 - 24 August 2020)

JAMES WAUGH

Architect, outdoorsman, educator, and life-long learner, James Waugh was born in Winnipeg on May 21, 1945 and died of cancer in Calgary on August 24, 2020.

In September 1968, on the chilly decks of the Empress of England that carried him to Oxford, Jim had a camera around his neck, his eyes surveying the horizon like a bird of prey. This was a prelude to decades of keen observation and enjoyment of life. As a student at McGill University, he was already looking beyond the conventional boundaries of architecture, more interested in the impact of building design on people than in winning the aesthetic acclaim of clients or peers. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he studied philosophy, psychology, and physiology to prepare for that broader approach. As Bob Rae (Ontario and Balliol, 1969), former premier of Ontario and leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, recalls, “He was an exceptionally thoughtful man who took full advantage of what Oxford had to offer, doing brilliantly in a challenging graduate course before putting that knowledge into action.”  

By the time he returned to Canada in the mid 1970s to teach at the newly-formed architecture school of the University of Calgary, Jim was one of a dozen people in the world putting human behaviour at the centre of the profession. Other than one stunning corporate building, Shell Court in Calgary, he designed modest structures for community organizations with limited budgets like the Girl Guides, which needed to last, be easy to run, and stand up to unusual challenges. In planning a shelter for battered women, for example, he had to foresee outraged husbands ramming the facility with a pick-up truck.

A champion swimmer at McGill, Jim was tall and broad-shouldered, but soft-spoken and self-deprecating rather than overbearing. Some thought him shy, while others saw him radiating among those he was comfortable with, who shared his curiosity, his attention to detail, and his boyish sense of fun. When he laughed, it could be uproarious, his eyes glinting with mirth but also signs of a certain Prairie restraint thrown to the wind. He had little time for nonsense but was always eager to learn. After a pompous lecture by a renowned architect at McGill describing the highlights of his glorious career, which had the student audience rolling their eyes, Jim was awarded a prize for posing the most intelligent question.

He had interests as wide as the Rocky Mountains and remembered other people’s pursuits with photographic faithfulness. He commiserated with one friend whom he hadn’t seen in twenty years on the death of the last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Group. And his sense of history and humour reinforced each other. He chuckled when told of Che Guevara’s parting words before going off to fight in the eastern Congo – “I feel the ribs of Rocinante [Don Quixote’s horse] pressing against my legs” – as if they summed up his own idealism and ambition, tempered with reality. He relished the outdoors and long-distance walks, including a memorable fifteen-mile trek across a peat bog at Cape Wrath. But he also loved books and libraries and the Oxford English Dictionary, where he would trace the origins of obsolete words as keenly as his own family history.

His daughter Xanna remembers him as a remarkable father, not only to her but also to friends who had lost their own or were less fortunate in that respect. Jim was loyal to his friends but could discomfit them with his piercing honesty. “I’d be surprised if you spent much time in ‘immense Gothic spaces’,” he wrote to one, who had described a visit to Mont St. Michel, “since most of the Mont pre-dates the Gothic era by a century or two.” Yet his learning and precision never got in the way of being practical. In retirement, he could be found digging the Prospect Trail which he designed to connect the Elbow River pathways to downtown Calgary and re-shaping the landscape of his property in Hawaii.

A devoted educator, he served for thirty years on the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for the Prairie Provinces, where his wit and lack of stuffiness set applicants at their ease. His wife Charlene Prickett, whose Arkansas upbringing prepared her badly for the rigours of a Canadian winter, wanted them to slip away each year to Hawaii by the beginning of November, but Jim would insist on seeing the selection process through. He saw promise in everyone, inviting a successful candidate home for dinner one evening alongside another who had fallen short, to buck up his spirits. “He shared stories of his life and career,” the first recalled, “in an utterly warm and unpretentious way. I marvelled at his infectious energy and passion for life.”

At the University of Calgary, he endowed a Rural Medicine Residency Award to honour his two grandfathers, who were country doctors, and an architecture scholarship for those who had demonstrated a palpable concern for the well-being of others.