Western community mourns Philbrick

Loyal supporter of Mustangs football passes away at 93

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Professor Allen Philbrick

Dave Picard

PHILBRICK SHOWS HIS PURPLE PRIDE. Prominent geography professor Allen Philbrick brought smiles to the faces of many Mustang fans during his time at Western.

The Western community was dealt a severe blow this summer, as one of its most beloved members passed away.

In June, Allen Philbrick, a professor emeritus in the department of geography, succumbed to pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 93.

Philbrick was a multi-faceted individual, his experiences ranging from serving in the Second World War to sitting on London’s Ecological and Environmental Protection Advisory Committee. However, for generations of students, “Big Al” was known as the man who celebrated touchdowns at Mustangs football games with his trademark lap around the stadium.

Early years
Philbrick was born in Chicago in 1914, the son of Allen E. Philbrick, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Edith Lucretia Kellogg, a pianist.

With his parents absorbed in their own careers, Philbrick actively pursued music and art as a child, and maintained these passions throughout his life.

Later, while attending Harvard University, Philbrick became a popular figure among his peers.

“I became an extrovert [at Harvard], and I’ve never turned back,” he once said while reflecting on his time in Boston.

Following university, Philbrick took on a number of pursuits, including serving as an anti-aircraft artillery officer in the Second World War.

He also worked in the geography faculties of Syracuse University, the University of Chicago and Michigan State University prior to joining the department at Western in 1965. At Western, he helped found the PhD program in geography, where he remained until his retirement in 1979.

“Run In” with Mustangs football
An avid jogger, Philbrick’s nearly three-decade relationship with the Mustangs football program began in the fall of 1971.

While going for his daily jog, Philbrick stopped by J.W. Stadium [the former Mustangs football stadium] to take in some of the game, where he stood next to legendary coach Frank Cosentino. At the time, the Mustangs were trailing.

After Western scored to take the lead, Philbrick leaned over to Cosentino and said, “Well, I better be going.” He took one lap around the stadium before continuing on his normal route.

As the season progressed, Philbrick started coming to every Mustangs game, running victory laps after touchdowns. He became a hit not only with players but with fans, who would chant “Albert, Albert” every time he passed the student section of the stadium.

The Mustangs captured the Vanier Cup that year and Philbrick joined the team after the season as a faculty advisor, becoming a permanent fixture with the team and running his trademark laps at home and away games.

Contribution to the team
Darwin Semotiuk, an assistant coach with the Mustangs during the 1971 season who later became head coach, described Philbrick’s attachment to the program despite lacking a football background.

“His initial interest was on two levels,” Semotiuk said. “The first level was to provide a strong academic link between students involved in the football program and their academic responsibilities, and then I think it grew beyond that to a means by which he could express a philosophy, his philosophy being one of balance in life.

“And then...he saw these activities as a way to engage the university community, and the outside community in the football program.”

Beyond his role as mentor, Semotiuk said Philbrick’s geography background often came in handy.

“He was very helpful in making strategic decisions with the football program as related to weather,” he said.

“He’d be the first guy on the bus or at home saying ‘I think if the wind is going to be blowing, it’ll probably subside by the fourth quarter, so if you have the advantage take the wind right away.’ He would make those kind of contributions.”

Larry Haylor, who took over the program from Semotiuk in 1984 and was head coach until last season, discussed Philbrick’s role in gauging the character of his athletes.

“He would first meet with players at training camp, and afterwards give me an assessment on what he thought of them,” Haylor said. “In hindsight, [his assessments] were remarkably accurate.”

Elaine Bjorklund, Philbrick’s wife and also a professor emeritus in the department of geography, said Philbrick would try to get players to pursue their endeavours in the classroom with the same intensity they brought to football.

While not all players would take these meetings seriously, those who did continued to develop a rapport with Philbrick throughout their time at Western and would not forget the impact he had on them, Bjorklund said.

“Even years later, when Al ran into former players, they were always keen to tell him how much he meant to them.”

Philbrick’s ability to listen was not lost on the coaching staff either. Describing Philbrick as a confidant, Haylor said the two would meet for hours at the conclusion of each season to talk about the team.

Though Philbrick stopped traveling to road games the past two seasons, he continued to show up to home games until last year.

Over the course of his life, he is estimated to have completed over 700 laps in celebration of Western touchdowns.

Passion for art
Philbrick’s work took him to different areas of the world, including China, where he and his wife Elaine visited a half dozen times after their initial trip in 1975.

His early art training assisted him in his career; his drawings have appeared in many textbooks, including his own book, This Human World.

Beyond cartography, Philbrick’s love of art seeped into other parts of his life.

Bob McDaniel, a professor emeritus in the geography department, described Philbrick’s love for illustrating his thoughts.

“I can recall him specifically sitting in faculty meetings...Alan would sit quietly and listen to what was going on, and he’d always be drawing or creating some sort of abstract, and by the end of the meeting, there it was, completely finished,” he said.

Philbrick continued to put on artistic displays for the greater university community after his retirement.

Overall legacy
Since retiring, Philbrick has been designated emeriti status by the geography department for his contributions and, in 2006, was inducted into the Mustang Wall of Champions.

A musician, painter, scholar and mentor for generations of Mustang football players, Allen Philbrick has made a significant mark on Western.

A public celebration of Philbrick’s life is planned for Sunday, Sept. 16 at 4:30 p.m. in the Great Hall. The event is free, and will feature a concert and some of Philbrick’s artwork.

Philbrick is survived by his wife, Elaine, his son, Allen James Philbrick, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to: the Allen K. Philbrick Research Fund, attention Donna Swanson, Foundation Western, Room 11, Alumni Hall, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, M6A 5B9.

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