Fred (Whitey) Severson was a box lacrosse legend who spearheaded the successful bid by Victoria, B.C., to play host to the Commonwealth Games in 1994.
His reward was to be one of 150 guests of the Queen at a celebratory opening-day dinner based on a seven-course banquet served to her father on his visit to the British Columbia capital in 1939. Mr. Severson, who later escorted the monarch on a private tour of the Athletes’ Village, dined at Government House on roast saddle of Salt Spring Island lamb and sipped wines from the province’s Okanagan region.
Mr. Severson, who wore black tie that evening, was more familiar around town wearing a firefighter’s reflective coat and trousers, or the green-and-white sweater of the Victoria Shamrocks lacrosse team.
The chatty, playful forward, who has died at the age of 91, became the city’s most popular athlete soon after he arrived in 1951. His striking blue eyes set in a long, narrow face topped by an unwieldy mop of curly, ash blond hair – which inspired the childhood nickname Whitey – made him a heartthrob. One daily newspaper published a heart-shaped photograph, declaring him one of the province’s most eligible bachelors.
On the lacrosse floor, he was a fleet, darting ball carrier, a pesky roadrunner at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, who was as happy to pass the ball for a goal as to shoot himself. For several seasons, he was paired with fellow blond Archie Browning and the duo were celebrated by fans as the Whiz Kids and the Gold Dust Twins.
Indoor lacrosse was a wildly popular sport in B.C.’s Lower Mainland in the early postwar years and Mr. Severson was one of the game’s biggest stars. He won three Mann Cup national championships as a player and is one of the few whose careers have including playing, coaching and refereeing in a Mann Cup final.
He was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in New Westminster, B.C., a half-century ago in 1970. He has also been enshrined in the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. His famous No. 8 uniform was retired by the Shamrocks four years ago, the first number to be so honoured by the team.
Fred Robert Severson was born on Aug. 17, 1928, in New Westminster to the former Clara Amalie Syverson and Mathias Kristofer Severson, Norwegian immigrants. His mother was a nurse and homemaker, his father a farmer and, later, a ship’s cook.
Young Mr. Severson was a star athlete at Queen Elizabeth Senior High in Surrey, which at the time was still mainly an agricultural district. He was playing juvenile lacrosse when recruited to replace an injured player on the war-depleted roster of the New Westminster Salmonbellies of the Inter-City Lacrosse League. On July 14, 1944, a month before his 16th birthday, he took four shots and scored a goal for the ’Bellies in a 22-11 shellacking of the Vancouver Burrards. (The game’s officials, oddly enough, were named Gunn and Shooter.)
“I couldn’t get on the floor fast enough,” Mr. Severson said years later. “I’m sure Walt Lee, the Burrards’ goaltender, just stepped aside and let me score.”
The following year, the budding star joined the revived New Westminster Adanacs, a team that had suspended operations during the war. The A’s, known for their bright yellow sweaters, won the Mann Cup as Dominion champions in 1947 by sweeping the Mimico Mountaineers in three games, outscoring the Ontario team by 48-32. Mr. Severson, who was still a teenager, had narrowly escaped catastrophe earlier in the year when a car in which he was a passenger was destroyed after crashing into a light pole.
In 1950, the Brampton Excelsiors lured him to Ontario with the promise of a $50-a-week job as an accountant at A.V. Roe Canada, an aircraft manufacturing company later known for its Avro Arrow jet.
The following year, he and Mr. Browning were recruited by the fledgling Victoria Shamrocks. They were a dangerous pair, both fleet, Mr. Browning with a killer instinct around the net, while Mr. Severson showed creativity and imagination in playmaking. He led the league in scoring in three seasons. In 1953, he won the Maitland Trophy as the league’s outstanding and most sportsmanlike player, while sharing most-valuable-player honours with Mr. Browning. The pair, who played alongside future hall of famer Jack Bionda, led the Shamrocks to Mann Cup titles in 1955 over the Peterborough (Ont.) Trailermen and in 1957 over the Long Branch (Ont.) Pontiacs.
For a time, he shared a house with two other athletes – hockey player Eddie (The Pistol) Dorohoy of the Victoria Cougars and Norm Baker, a sometime lacrosse player who played professional basketball and was voted Canada’s top hoops player of the first half of the 20th Century.
In 1960, Mr. Severson passed Bill Dickinson’s record of 931 career points. As a young player, he had been assigned to shadow the sniper. “My job was to run with him [I could run then] and when he started to cut in I would jab, jab, jab him with the stick and try to run him off into a corner,” he told the Vancouver Sun at the time.
He retired as a player after the 1963 season, his 19th full campaign. He was the all-time points leader with 1,202, a remarkable total in an era known for defensive play. He then worked as a referee for 189 games.
He spent more than 30 years with the Victoria Fire Department before retiring with the rank of deputy fire chief in 1985, aged 57. The following year he opened the Monkey Tree Pub, a popular neighbourhood drinking spot named for an Araucaria araucana, a South American evergreen, that grew on the site.
He served as an alderman in the suburb of Saanich for eight years while working as a firefighter. He was first elected to city council in Victoria shortly after retiring from the fire department. As an alderman, he learned the federal government was contributing money to bid for the Commonwealth Games. He raised $40,000 privately to campaign against Halifax as Canadian representatives, then travelled to Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia to lobby officials. In the end, temperate Victoria won the games with 29 votes against 18 for New Delhi and seven for the Welsh capital, Cardiff.
Mr. Severson, who died on Jan. 27 following hospitalization for lung and heart troubles, was predeceased by his wife of 65 years, the former Betty-May Outtrim, who died two years ago, at the age of 87. (Her wedding shower included decorations in the Shamrocks’ green and white, while gifts were placed inside a lacrosse goal.) He leaves a daughter, Cherlynn McArthur, her husband, and two grandchildren.
On April 15, 1957, Mr. Severson was one of the first four firefighters to arrive at Government House, the estate of the lieutenant-governor, after the cook sounded an alarm at 4:14 a.m.
“The call came in as a smudge, a smouldering in the basement,” Mr. Severson told the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper on the 50th anniversary. “It appeared to be nothing too serious, so we responded with just the pumper.”
Soon, though, the fire was climbing interior walls, fuelled by a basement filled with sawdust for the furnace. The lieutenant-governor and his wife fled in their pyjamas, as 80 firefighters battled the blaze. In the end, all that was left standing was the porte-cochère. It was on the same site at a rebuilt Government House 36 years later where he was a guest of the Queen.