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Digital media pioneer Tom Calvert.Courtesy of SFU

When Merce Cunningham, known as the father of modern American dance, battled arthritis in the late 1980s, he sought software to help him choreograph his productions.

Some Italian producers wanted Mr. Cunningham to create a show and, after reading an article about digital-animation software under development at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., connected him with the professor leading the project, Dr. Tom Calvert.

The collaboration between Mr. Cunningham and Dr. Calvert led to the creation of a tool that could be used to show animated figures moving through three-dimensional space. Mr. Cunningham used the program, initially known as Life Forms and renamed DanceForms, to experiment with choreographic ideas. Motion capture functionality was also integrated into the technology and it was deployed around the world.

Dr. Calvert spun out a digital-animation company, Credo Interactive, to market DanceForms. Credo was one of several successes for Dr. Calvert, who died of bladder cancer at age 85 on Sept. 28 in a hospice in North Vancouver, B.C.

Always a consensus builder, Dr. Calvert became a digital media pioneer by listening to and bringing together people with widely varying views.

“He was very early in some of these things that are still considered leading-edge now,” said Sang Mah, a Credo director.

One of Dr. Calvert’s former students, Ms. Mah collaborated on the development of DanceForms, co-founded Credo and served as chief executive officer in its early days. Dr. Calvert, she said, was open to new ideas and able to listen and ignite people’s curiosity and ambition while maintaining an “interdisciplinary vision” that influenced artists and academics alike.

“That kind of leadership, it’s not very often that people see it nowadays, because it doesn’t make the front-page headlines – it’s not sexy,” said his wife, Hiromi Matsui, who worked on diversity and recruitment in SFU’s applied science faculty.

According to Ms. Mah, Ms. Matsui and others, Dr. Calvert shaped careers, communities, companies, institutions and industries while serving as an educator, researcher, administrator, entrepreneur and mentor during his 49-year association with SFU.

“He loved building things [in his youth],” Ms. Matsui said. “But in his career what he started doing was building projects.” Especially large ones.

Dr. Calvert was the leader of a team at Simon Fraser University that developed groundbreaking digital animation software used by Merce Cunningham, considered the father of modern American dance, to help choreograph productions.SFU Archives

Among other initiatives, Dr. Calvert led the creation of national online learning networks, SFU’s engineering science faculty, its School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), and the professional Master’s of Digital Media program at the Centre for Digital Media, which includes SFU, the University of British Columbia, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). He also played a leading role in the development of SFU’s Surrey campus, where digital media is a learning staple.

He earned the 2017 Canadian Digital Media Pioneer Award, from the Canadian Human-Computer Communications Society, which said Dr. Calvert’s impact extended “well beyond his personal body of work.” And, his commitment to interdisciplinary work set him apart from his peers and “pushed the boundaries of university teaching, administration and research.”

Thomas William Gillies Calvert was born April 12, 1936, in the small village of Dunaskin, Scotland, where he lived briefly. He was the elder of two children of Rev. Thomas Calvert and Vara Rosemary Holmes (née Gillies) Calvert. His father served as a Church of Scotland and Scottish Presbyterian minister, and military chaplain during and after the Second World War.

Young Tom and his sister, Rosemary, were the products of Mr. Calvert’s second marriage following the death of his first wife. The boy developed a love for electrical engineering through his father and maternal grandfather Rev. William Gillies, also a church minister.

Tom received a copy of the Popular Mechanics book The Boy Engineer from his father. Mr. Gillies, an author, bestowed his widely acclaimed book In Famed Breadalbane: The Story of the Antiquities, Lands and People of a Highland District upon his grandson.

The latter tome details the history and growth of Breadalbane, a district of Kenmore, Scotland, where Tom and his sister spent their early years before relocating to Ireland during the Second World War; and Edinburgh to complete their schooling.

Between 1957 and 1964, he earned electrical engineering degrees from University College London (bachelor’s), Wayne State University in Detroit (master’s) and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (PhD). In intervening years, he worked as an instrumentation engineer for Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain and Canadair in Montreal; taught for a year at Wayne State, lectured at the Western Ontario Institute of Technology in Windsor, and obtained an Ontario high-school teaching certificate.

After five years as a professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Calvert applied for a similar position at SFU without realizing Burnaby was in the Vancouver area. Upon arriving for an interview, he became smitten by the North Shore mountains, in which he would later hike, and Burrard Inlet, where he would sail his beloved boat. He became a rare fully appointed professor in three faculties: computing science; kinesiology; and engineering science, which he co-founded.

“It wasn’t just technology for technology’s sake; it was to do something better and in very creative fields,” SFU vice-president of external relations Joanne Curry said.

As an SFU graduate student, Dr. Curry worked with Dr. Calvert at the Science Council of B.C. while he was its president. He later recruited her for the executive-director post with a national tele-learning network that he spearheaded. She and Dr. Calvert also worked together with the Technical University of British Columbia (TechBC), which he helped spawn, and collaborated on SFU projects. Dr. Curry handled licensing for the new software.

When it came to giving opportunities to women, he was “way before his time,” Dr. Curry said. “He just, for me personally, has been an important part of every career decision I make, whether it’s him recruiting me directly or just giving such good advice.”

SFU took over TechBC when British Columbia’s NDP government of the time discontinued the body’s funding. TechBC became SIAT, located on the university’s Surrey campus.

Although Dr. Calvert was disappointed by TechBC’s closing, he was happy to see new doors open at SIAT. Ms. Matsui said SIAT helped SFU’s faculty and student body become more diverse while enabling women to pursue non-traditional roles.

“You have a lot of young women interested in this interactive design whereas the number of women going into physics and engineering, for example, [and] computing science, is still very low,” Ms. Matsui said. “So [SIAT’s faculty and students] have a good mix of genders.”

Laura Jo Gunter, president and CEO of the Edmonton-based Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, said Dr. Calvert inspired her to pursue a career in postsecondary administration while she served as a policy co-ordinator with the Science Council of B.C.

Ms. Gunter strives to deploy the same collaborative leadership approach as her former boss, who “knew how to move people” regardless of what views they held.

“It was funny because he was such a calm personality,” she said. “But if something needed to happen, he was the person you would call because he managed to shepherd things – and I still to this day don’t know how he did it.”

Entrepreneur Myles McGovern, an SFU alumnus, tries to mentor budding business leaders at the University of Calgary in the same way that Dr. Calvert mentored him when he was starting his collaboration-software company MC2 in the early 1990s.

Dr. Calvert, then SFU’s vice-president of research, helped Mr. McGovern launch MC2 with assistance from other SFU research and development experts. MC2′s server-based software had 20 million users in 55 countries before the company was sold to information-management firm Open Text. Mr. McGovern went on to launch Immersive Media, which was sold to Hollywood special effects company Digital Domain for $100-million in 2016.

“He had a significant influence on me,” said Mr. McGovern, who was not one of Dr. Calvert’s students at SFU. “I was a young guy and young in my career, and Tom was a very supportive character.”

Ironically, after connecting Mr. Cunningham with Dr. Calvert, the Italian dance producers scrapped their proposed production because of a lack of funding. But by then, the seeds of Mr. Cunningham’s partnership with SFU were planted.

He and SFU enjoyed a 15-year collaboration, recalled Thecla Schiphorst, an SFU interactive arts and technology professor who, as a graduate student, helped steer the development of DanceForms.

“The rest is history,” she said.

Dr. Calvert, who was predeceased by a stepbrother, leaves his wife, Ms. Matsui; his children, Jason and Rachel, from a previous marriage; one grandchild; a sister; two stepbrothers; and one stepchild.

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