2021 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Jason Beck turned a chance encounter into a historic career

Jason Beck thought farming was his destiny. An Abbotsford boy born and bred, as a teenager he assumed that his future was literally in his backyard, working on his family’s farm.

“That was my plan,” Beck, 39, says before quickly clarifying. “Well, it wasn’t even a plan, it’s just what I thought was going to happen with my life.  And then my family decided to sell the farm.”

Pivoting away from the family business may have been a blessing when you consider the impact he has had for nearly two decades as curator at the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Since he joined the Hall in 2003 (first as a practicum student before becoming the full-time curator in 2006), Beck has been instrumental in exposing the public to the province’s greatest past athletes and moments, while making a push towards inclusivity.

For his service and contribution to the preservation of BC’s sports history, the UFV Alumni Association has named Beck the 2021 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award (DAA). The honour has taken this multiple award winner off guard.

“I was in a meeting and I remember seeing an email come through and I kind of looked at it like it wasn’t legit. I didn’t believe it,” says Beck.

“I’ve looked through stories about some of the past winners, and I still don’t know if I belong there. I’m extremely humbled and honoured.”

As an accomplished sportswriter, Beck has contributed to several local publications and international journals over the years, telling compelling historic sports narratives. One of those stories became the subject of his debut book The Miracle Mile: Stories of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games which was released by Caitlin Press in 2016. The book became an obsession that took him more than a decade to finish, much of it written while commuting on the West Coast Express from Mission into Vancouver.

“I’ve always felt a responsibility in my role that if we don’t bring these stories to life, they’re going to be forgotten,” he says. “It’s our place as the Sports Hall of Fame to make sure that the stories and the athletes are remembered and recognized.”

For Beck to have gone into sports history is actually not that far-fetched. As a child, he read the sports section of the Province newspaper religiously — particularly the columns of Jim Taylor, the late legendary sportswriter. He would also spend hours in the library reading sports biographies, mainly on past hockey greats. Beck was always fascinated with the anecdotes of the athletes’ upbringings, their setbacks, and their internal drive that ultimately made them great.

He was also a standout athlete himself, turning down scholarship offers elsewhere to try to earn a spot on the University of Victoria’s men’s soccer team. After deciding to transfer after his freshman year, UFV (then the University College of the Fraser Valley) caught his eye for reasons beyond athletics and hometown proximity.

“I remember going through UFV’s academic calendar and all of a sudden this one course jumped out at me, and it was Canadian Sports History taught by Robin Anderson — History 325,” he effortlessly recalls. “And honestly, that moment kind of changed my life.”

That course and Anderson, who is a history professor at UFV, not only fueled Beck’s passion for BC sports history but challenged him to dig deeper and uncover untold stories of his own. For a thesis-like directed studies course assignment, Anderson had given Beck the heads up about an epic rowing race that took place in 1954 on the Vedder Canal, not far from Beck’s family farm, as part of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Anderson told Beck that he’d have to do some hands-on research to pursue this topic and that the best place to start was the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

The Hall had sentimental value for Beck. His father took him to the Hall’s original location at the PNE as a child, and Beck vividly remembers being intrigued with the exhibits. Researching the 1954 Empire Games at the Hall, he remembers getting lost in the process, spending hours on end in the seldom-used archival room sifting through microfilm and other sports artifacts.

The thesis project turned into a summer hire, before becoming a part-time job. Beck’s drive, natural curiosity, and creative instincts did not go unnoticed by his peers and supervisors. In 2006, curator Bob Graham, as well as director of operations Allison Mailer, lobbied for Beck to succeed Graham, despite Beck’s youth and inexperience.

Graham and Mailer’s gamble clearly paid off as Beck has remained in the position ever since. Even though he finished his undergraduate degree in history at Simon Fraser University, Beck credits his time at UFV (where he also captained the Cascades soccer team) and learning from Anderson, one of his mentors, as being the turning point in his career.

Even 18 years in, things have not become complacent nor repetitive for Beck. He and his team at the Hall will continue to seek out BC’s sports past, while adapting to our evolving society and promoting equality.

Highlights include the creation of the Indigenous Sport Gallery; the Greg Moore Gallery; the new Hall of Champions; the In Her Footsteps Celebrating BC Women in Sport gallery; an exhibition paying homage to the long-standing sports TV program Sports Page; and the several hundred legendary athletes he has worked with leading up to their inductions into the Hall of Fame.

“People need to know all stories,” he says. “Especially more recent ones from groups that haven’t been given the recognition that they deserve, such as Indigenous, Paralympic, and female athletes. And even the LGBTQ movement — there’s a whole other group of athletes there and stories that haven’t been looked at in detail.

“It is unfortunate that sports coverage is still so slanted towards male athletes and sports.”

Along with the highs in his job, there have been lows. As it did with many companies and organizations across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted the BC Sports Hall of Fame’s operations. Most of the staff were laid off, and Beck’s hours were cut down to two days a week. He passed the time returning to his roots in the Fraser Valley, driving a tractor part-time — a temporary position that he found some pleasure and peace in.

He also kept the Hall fresh in people’s minds during the pandemic by posting ‘On This Day in BC Sport History’ moment almost daily on social media.

“It really re-energized me,” he says, noting the moments are discussed on The Sport Market show with Tom Mayenknecht on Saturday mornings on Bloomberg AM 1410. “I started doing it to try to keep engaging with people about BC’s sports history even if we couldn’t be together in person.”

By his side during the pandemic and through nearly all his years at the Hall has been his wife Nicole, a UFV alumna who is now a naturopathic doctor in Abbotsford.

And Beck’s passion for digging deep into B.C. sports history continues. He is wrapping up a new nearly completed book on a series of great Vancouver Rowing Club crews in the 1950s.

Despite being busy with family time, writing a book, and working on a farm, he returned to full-time hours in October 2020. He still has some stories to tell.

“My time away made me appreciate what I had even more,” Beck concludes. “Like, ‘okay, you’re decent at driving a tractor, but you’re not great. You’re meant to be doing what you do at the Hall of Fame.’”

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