Gary McPherson is an advocate and role model for Albertans and Canadians living with disabilities. He is a pioneer whose life and actions have inspired positive change in the areas of sport, business, politics, and building strong communities.
Gary was born in Edson, Alberta on June 28, 1946, the first child of Dorothy and David Wilcox. His parents had met and married overseas while David was serving with the Canadian Forces and then returned to his native Alberta after the war. In 1948, the family moved to Edmonton and welcomed a second child, Joanne. Two years later, the Wilcox family was shattered when David died of a massive heart attack at the age of 32. Dorothy went on to marry Roderick McPherson, who adopted Gary and Joanne. A son, Scott, joined the family and the McPherson’s moved to the Yukon where Gary enjoyed an active life.
That life changed dramatically during a holiday to Edmonton in October 1955. Gary became ill and was rushed to hospital where the family was told Gary had polio. Paralysis overtook his arms, legs and diaphragm, leaving him unable to move or breathe on his own. Two weeks later, Gary was transferred from the isolation ward at the Royal Alexandra Hospital to the polio ward at the University of Alberta Hospital. Although the family moved within six months to Edmonton, Gary’s condition was too fragile to allow him to live with them. The hospital would serve as Gary’s home for the next 34 years.
Gary worked his way from dependency on an iron lung to longer and longer periods using a respirator. He also regained minimal movement in his left hand and leg. He eventually mastered the frog breathing (glossopharyngeal breathing) technique, which allowed him to function without a respirator during the day, although he remained dependant on the respirator to breathe at night. Gary’s active schedule included studying, spending time with family and friends and taking in events, particularly anything that indulged his great passion for sports.
Gary’s interest in sports led to his involvement as coach of the hospital’s competitive mixed slow-pitch team. He discovered wheelchair sports through a rather unique chain of events. Gary and some of his fellow polio patients had become licensed amateur radio operators and arranged for an antenna on the hospital roof. When a mail strike threatened to derail planning for the 1968 Canadian Wheelchair Games in Edmonton, their amateur radio station hosted weekly cross-Canada amateur radio hook ups so that games’ organizers could communicate. Gary got to know leaders in the field and eventually became one in his own right. With his mother providing administrative support, he took on duties as president of the Edmonton Paralympic Sports Association. Later he became the executive director and eventually president of the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association. He also served for eight years as the general manager of the famed Alberta Northern Lights Wheelchair Basketball team.
When Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion World Tour came to Alberta in 1986, Gary’s determination, combined with his ability to build relationships and motivate others, led to significant fundraising and public awareness for the cause. Gary’s interest in sport also led to his appointment as an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Physical Education and Sport Studies at the U of A.
Another prominent element of Gary’s extensive resume includes his work as a leader and advocate for the disabled community. During his decade as Chair of the Premier’s Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Gary was successful in developing a strong network to connect government with community organizations and strengthen policies and programs for disabled Albertans. More recent activities include service as chair of the Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement and vice-chairman of the Alberta Paraplegic Foundation.
Although Gary has devoted much energy and commitment to sports and advocacy work, he has also been involved in an eclectic mix of other endeavours. He helped develop a data services company that grew from a small enterprise in the hospital to a business that included 27 staff members. At 21, he joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce where he honed his leadership and public speaking abilities and served on the Board of Directors. In recent years, he has combined his parallel interests in business and community development as executive director of the Canadian Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in the School of Business at the U of A. He has long been involved in provincial politics as a volunteer and campaign organizer. In 2006, he threw his own hat in the ring as a candidate in the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership race.
If you ask Gary to choose the most significant of the many roles he has played, he quickly points to that of husband and father. He got together with his wife, Valerie Kamitomo, at a 1981 New Year’s Eve party at the hospital where Gary lived and Val worked. They were married in 1988 and Gary moved out of the hospital and into their new home nine months later. A daughter, Keiko, and son, Jamie, soon followed.
Gary’s diverse accomplishments have garnered him many honours, including the Order of Canada and an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Alberta. In 2004 he was named one of the top 100 Edmontonians of the Century, and in 2005, he was named one of the Top 100 Contributors to Sport in Alberta over the past century.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence