James Garry Watson: Pioneer. Visionary. Father. Skier. Born Sept. 3, 1933, in Stewart, B.C.; died Apr. 6, 2023, in Whistler, B.C., from a stroke, aged 89.
Garry was born into a pioneering family and grew up in mining camps in Stewart and near Nelson, B.C., where he learned to appreciate a simple life and the importance of community. His first experience skiing was at age 4, sliding down the mine dump. He was hooked for life!
He studied law at Dalhousie University and, postwar, spent time as an officer of the Canadian Forces Intelligence Corps. At every Remembrance Day ceremony, he was sought out by friends for the wee flask of rum he never failed to carry to spice up their coffee.
After graduating in 1958, Garry returned to B.C. and settled into life as a lawyer in West Vancouver with his first wife, Peggy. Their children, Shelley and Rob, remember their father as committed, supportive and encouraging.
But it was his first visit to the Whistler area in 1961, when there were no ski lifts and not much of a road linking it to Vancouver, that his destiny revealed itself to him. He soon became involved with a group of crazy dreamers who envisioned building a ski resort close to Vancouver and bidding for the 1968 Olympics, an idea he at first found “utterly preposterous” but one that would change the rest of his life.
Garry built a simple cabin just prior to Whistler Mountain’s opening in 1965 and spent many happy weekends skiing with friends and family. His son became an accomplished ski racer before a tragic ski accident in Austria left him a paraplegic at age 20. Never one to leave an injustice unresolved, Garry spent the next 10 years in court until the International Ski Federation was found liable for insufficient safety precautions, leading to improved safety practices.
In 1975, a near-death encounter with a logging truck on an icy road left Garry with a major concussion and a new perspective on life. The experience convinced him to leave his law practice in Vancouver, end his marriage of 16 years, and move to Whistler full-time.
Shortly thereafter, he was elected as alderman to the newly formed Resort Municipality of Whistler. He served for five years and played a guiding role in almost every decision that shaped Whistler into Canada’s pre-eminent mountain resort. He helped create employee housing so that those who worked in the community could afford to live there and helped set aside land zoned for “cultural purposes,” which became home to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, a major legacy of the 2010 Olympic Games.
Garry loved the adventurous spirit of the early days in Whistler. He quickly earned a reputation as a guy who knew how to get things done – helped by his legal background, outgoing personality, charming smile and wry sense of humour. He was given a lifetime ski pass and was named a Freeman of the Municipality, Citizen of the Year and received a Community Achievement Award. When he left the Municipal Council in 1980, the road leading to his cabin was renamed Watson Way.
Then in the mid-1980s, Garry began putting his stamp on a new community: Vancouver’s False Creek. During that time, he met Anne Popma, 18 years his junior, on a blind date. They fell deeply in love and married in 1987. (He often said she was “smart, attractive and could ski real fast.”) The couple moved back to Whistler, where Garry became a mentor to a new generation of community leaders and Anne became an advocate of local arts and culture. Upon retirement, they continued to ski, play tennis and travel, often visiting with Garry’s three granddaughters.
When the community learned of Garry’s death, municipal flags were lowered for two weeks prior to a civic celebration of his life. He was well-loved, highly respected and is sorely missed by so many. This year, Anne brought Garry’s flask of rum to the Remembrance Day ceremony in memory of his spirit.
Anne Popma is Garry Watson’s wife.
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