From rock-n-roll to academe

February 10, 2005, vol. 32, no. 3
By Roberta Staley

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When Warren Gill was a child, a visit to grandparents in Nanaimo meant boarding a mini CPR coastal liner for a 2.5-hour brush with the finest in 1950s travel.

Here, Gill ate the best in Canadian cuisine - breaded veal cutlets - on real linen using real silver. To a small boy, it was like assuming the mantle of royalty.

This early infatuation with ocean travel maintained its sea legs over the years. The VP-university relations, who first came to SFU in 1977 as a geography professor following studies at UBC, has written numerous academic papers on West Coast shipping.

Not unexpectedly, he has also become a cruise-ship aficionado. But a love affair with the ocean wasn't the only passion spawned in youth. As a teen, Gill became bass player for a homegrown, rhythm and blues band The Spectres, which played such clubs as the Grooveyard and Oil Can Harry's. The Spectres had a unique synergy. Many of those associated with the band later shot to artistic and political prominence. Trumpet player Bruce Fairbairn, now deceased, produced records that sold more than 65 million copies for such acclaimed acts as Van Halen, INXS, Aerosmith, the Cranberries and Bon Jovi. The band's agent was Douglas Miller, mayor of Lion's Bay.

Keyboard player Don Ramsey, also deceased, was a mayor of Harrison Hot Springs while trombone player Malcolm Brodie is mayor of Richmond. Ever the academic, Gill, drawing upon these musical experiences, contributed a chapter about Seattle and Vancouver bands from the 1950s and 1960s in a book called Fast Foods, Stock Cars, and Rock-n- Roll.

Gill straddles the fence between cool and conservative. He still plays with the classic rock band Wager and has antagonized the right-wing media outlet, the Fox Network, as well as U.S. officials, whose criticism of Vancouver as Vansterdam backfired when Gill returned the volley, saying that the moniker implied enlightenment and tolerance.

Yet Gill is also the president of the Vancouver museum commission and is a past chair of the Citizen's Advisory Committee to Vancouver fire and rescue services and has served on many other community boards.

As a transportation expert and urban geographer, Gill emphasizes the need for the Lower Mainland to cease being small-town and prepare for a population surge of up to eight million people from 2.2 million in the next 20 years. "This will be a very big, sophisticated, important place, and we have to continue preparing for it now," says Gill. He says that an efficient, high-speed, public transportation system, such as the RAV line, is vital to create the capacity that can support such a large population.

SFU is playing a key role in shaping Greater Vancouver's future, Gill adds. The UniverCity development and the new Surrey campus are models for growth management. The university's 25-year commitment to downtown Vancouver has also been influential in making the downtown a more complete community. The goal of moving the school for the contemporary arts into the downtown eastside's soon-to-be renovated Woodward's building might be a reality. Once a symbol of urban decay and human despair, the Woodward's building now represents regeneration and hope. "I have no doubt that SFU can contribute to the rebuilding of that community," Gill says.

Gill's early experiences on the CPR coastal liners taught him an important lesson - the best of the best can be found right here on the West Coast.

"Vancouver is a young, vibrant city and SFU a young dynamic institution. Both are heading towards maturity with much to be proud of and much to anticipate. I'm very fortunate for having the opportunity to be involved with the development of both."

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