May 25, 2023

The man — and family — behind the Jack Simpson Gymnasium

John Simpson’s transformative gift both honoured his father and elevated sport-science at UCalgary
Jack Simpson
Jack Simpson, left. Construction of the Jack Simpson Gymnasium, part of the Faculty of Kinesiology expansion, began in 1985, right. CANA Construction/John Simpson

It stands as quite an accomplishment — Calgary siblings representing Canada at the Olympic Games.

Equestrian standouts, Barbara Simpson competed in 1972 in Munich, Germany, and John Simpson show-jumped in Montreal four years later.

Pinpointing the start of that glorious journey — where the kids learned to ride, where they had been first hoisted onto a saddle — is simple, even today. It was a corral located on the northwest outskirts of the city, a parcel of land that is now occupied by MacEwan Hall at the University of Calgary.

Which makes for a delightful little story, especially considering how the relationship between the Simpson family and the university has evolved, becoming so much deeper, so much richer over the years.

Jack Simpson, father of Barbara and John, was the chief engineer of the company that would construct many of the buildings on campus, including the first two, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Then, in the leadup to the 1988 Olympic Games, John — now holding the reins of the family business, CANA Construction — oversaw what was being referred to as the “phys-ed expansion” at UCalgary. The $28-million project, coinciding with the building of an indoor speed-skating oval, included a massive gymnasium and a research wing for the Faculty of Kinesiology.

The complex, a one-of-a-kind marvel, opened on time. But Jack, a victim of pancreatic cancer, was not alive to witness the unveiling. His son felt strongly about commemorating his legacy.

Honouring Jack Simpson

“There were very few pictures of him. There was very little fanfare,” says John, Hon. LLD’05. “And there was no obvious place to hang his hat (as a tribute).”

John Simpson, here with his mother Mary, received an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, from the University of Calgary in 2005.

John Simpson, here with his mother, Mary, received an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, from the University of Calgary in 2005.

CANA Construction/John Simpson

Dr. Roger Jackson, then dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology, suggested a gift that could be leveraged into an investment from the province and earn the Simpson family naming rights to the gym.

John liked the proposal and made a $1-million gift to UCalgary. The province then double-matched the donation and the $3 million was channelled into the newly created Sport Medicine Centre. That endowment, in perpetuity, supports research programs and training for physicians and physiotherapists.

“Thanks to the Simpson family’s generosity, the Faculty of Kinesiology has become the top sport-science school in North America, and one of the finest in the world,” says Dr. Nick Holt, the faculty’s dean. “They’re a real example of the kind of philanthropy that this city is known for.”

And on June 3, 1987, Dinos headquarters — which contained three full-size gyms and seating for 3,500 fans — was christened the Jack Simpson Gymnasium.

“I just saw it as a way to honour him,” says John. “It just made sense. The Olympics were coming. Both his daughter and his son are Olympians. It was a natural fit.”

A Calgary landmark

The Jack Simpson Gymnasium is a Calgary fixture — and not only for sports. It’s the home of UCalgary convocation ceremonies, with another 4,000 students set to grace its stage next week. High school graduations, trade shows, and retirement celebrations take place there. Former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev appeared as part of the James S. Palmer Lecture Series in 2000.

“It’s been a gym for all occasions,” says Jack Neumann, who was UCalgary’s sports information director for more than 30 years.

Neumann will never forget the first USports championship contested there — 1989 men’s volleyball tournament, which was telecast live coast to coast.

With the Jack packed, the Dinos performed heroically, claiming the title. “It was euphoric in there — and that image went right across the country,” says Neumann. “It put that gym on the map. We knew we had a crown jewel.”

Everyone in the city now knows the name Jack Simpson.

The man behind the name

But who was Jack Simpson? Born in Saskatoon, raised in Edson, Alta., and Smithers, B.C., educated at the University of Alberta, he was a self-made man. He took over the company that hired him, erecting dozens of landmarks, such as the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the Saddledome. His biography is titled By Own Forces.

John Simpson

John Simpson.

CANA Construction/John Simpson

“If you made a deal with him, you better deliver,” says John. “He didn’t need a lot of paper, he just needed a handshake. Firm but fair, and very demanding. Driven. Very, very driven.

“Just a hard-working son of a gun.”

The family’s support continues to be robust, helping to create UCalgary Strong in the aftermath of the 2014 Brentwood tragedy and, in 2020, the Simpson Centre for Agricultural and Food Innovation and Public Education, a think tank housed by the School of Public Policy.

The donation that attached Jack Simpson’s name to the gymnasium had been the family’s first to UCalgary. And the structure, like that initial gift, remains impactful.

“It’s still a great building,” says John. “I was there the other day, and it’s still a building that makes you proud.”

He smiles. “It’s the Jack.”

Join our celebration as another class of enterprising University of Calgary students marks the milestone of graduation and begins making a difference in society, in fields such as health care, engineering, business and the arts. Spring Graduation and Convocation takes place May 29 to June 2, 2023. Learn more 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary alumni: As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads — custom-built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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