Obituary: Former UVic president Howard Petch left ‘incredible legacy’

Under his leadership from 1975 to 1990, university’s student population rose rapidly

Former University of Victoria president Howard Petch has died at 93.

Petch, a nuclear physicist by training, was UVic’s fourth president. He held office from 1975 to 1990, during a period in which the student population grew from 7,400 to 13,000.

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“Under his leadership UVic went through a period of extraordinary transformation,” current president Jamie Cassels said in a statement. “And Howard’s influence and impact are palpable in so many areas of our university’s distinctive characteristics.”

Cassels said Petch was viewed as a mentor and role model by many.

“He left behind an incredible legacy that has had a profound influence on the university UVic has become,” he said.

“The positive impact of his leadership on UVic during its formative years will be remembered for generations to come.”

Petch was born in Agincourt, Ont., and got polio in 1925, his first year of life. His right side was paralyzed, but his mother, Edith, refused to accept that young Howard would not be able to walk or work.

“She would tie my left arm behind me to force me to use my right arm,” Petch recalled in 1992. “It was exercise, exercise, exercise, and I had braces and a so-called iron boot.”

Gradually, he regained the use of his limbs, though he said his right arm was “noticeably smaller.”

Later in life, he would be overcome by fatigue — the effects of post-polio syndrome.

Petch served in the Royal Canadian Air Force before completing a bachelor of science degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and a PhD in physics at the University of British Columbia. Before joining UVic, he held posts at McMaster University and the University of Waterloo.

He was married to leadership and human-resources expert Linda Petch. His first wife, Rosalind, died in 1975.

Trevor Matthews, who was a vice-president during Petch’s tenure at UVic, called him “the right man in the right place at the right time.”

“He was guided by strong principles. He believed in the truth, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, academic freedom, in minorities and that women had not been given fair opportunities,” Matthews said.

“It was a privilege to be involved and a privilege to work for someone who had both feet on the ground.”

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Howard Petch in 1983, during his tenure as president of the University of Victoria. - Times Colonist file photo

During Petch’s tenure, schools in nursing, child care, social work, business and law were established, along with the faculty of engineering.

A First Nations teaching program was created in Hazelton, and UVic became one of the first universities in Canada to start formal relations with a Chinese university.

Under his guidance, UVic became the second Canadian university to create a co-operative education program, which allows students to combine school with on-the-job experience.

He also oversaw considerable construction, including the McKinnon, Phoenix and Fine Arts buildings, the University Centre and the Interfaith Chapel. He has two campus elements named after him: the Petch Building, built in 1986, and the Petch Fountain.

Petch was a champion of athletics and is admired by Ken Shields, who coached the men’s basketball team to seven consecutive national championships. Shields pointed to a 1978 athletics report that Petch commissioned.

“Without his initiative and support, athletics wouldn’t have had a chance to grow like it did at UVic,” Shields said.

“He was absolutely and completely on board — behind it from the day the report was delivered.”

Petch also served as the chair of the Seniors’ Advisory Council of B.C. and the Victoria Foundation, and was a member of the Order of B.C. and a Fellow of the Royal Society ofCanada.

A public service and celebration of life for Petch will be held Sunday, Dec. 16, from 3 to 5 p.m. The event will be in the Arbutus and Queenswood rooms in the Cadboro Commons on campus.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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