Mr. Student Union Building: The Instant Life and Everlasting Legacy of Don Pulsford


When Simon Fraser University opened its doors in September of 1965, it was labeled by chancellor Gordon Shrum as “the instant university”. In only 30 months following its conception, Shrum had established a fully-formed campus with 2,500 new students ready to learn.

From its design process, to its construction, and even its traditions, everything came together extremely quickly.

Student Union however was not instant.

It took more than a month to establish the first student government and years for it to evolve into its current state. In many ways students at SFU are still trying to learn how to govern themselves.

There was one student, however, who from the very beginning had instant dreams for the students of Simon Fraser.

As a member of the inaugural student society executive council, Don Pulsford was at the forefront of all student issues.

Although he only spent four semesters at the school, he helped establish the student newspaper, fought against tuition fees, organized sit-ins and park-ins, and worked as the student society’s first Public Relations Officer.

His biggest passion however was the Student Union Building. It was with Pulsford that SFU’s first attempt at its never ending quest for a SUB began, a dream which is only now, 50 years later, really looking as if it will soon finally be fulfilled.

Befitting to the school he loved, Pulsford unfortunately ended up living an instant life. However, his vision is more relevant to our campus than ever and whenever the SUB finally does rise, it will be a testament to his enduring legacy.

Donald Arthur Pulsford was born on December 23, 1942 in New Westminster, British Columbia. His parents divorced at a young age and he lived a quiet life with his mother and stepfather. At ten years old he was joined by a step-brother, Ralph Allen Hanson.

As a student at Lester Pearson High School, Pulsford wrote for the school’s award-winning student newspaper The Mike and covered issues such as “pink slip” detention cards, wrote odes to student parking lot woes, and interviewed an English teacher obsessed with poetry about death.

According to classmate David Mustart, who was an editor for the publication, the young Pulsford was very bright, and a great writer.

“But of course his life was hell, having hemophilia.”

For all Pulsford’s intelligence and passion, he was clouded by darkness. As a hemophiliac, a hereditary genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to control blood clotting, he was unable to live the typical rambunctious childhood of a young boy.

While he had a great interest in sports — especially the element of physical contact — it wasn’t an option for him. Even if he were to just bump something, with the impact, the blood would start filling up pockets around the joints and cause great pain. He wanted to wrestle, but doing so left him bloody and bruised.

After completing high school, tragedy struck Pulsford’s life. At the age of 18, his eight year old brother passed away. Ralph also suffered from hemophilia and his untimely passing was directly related to it.

The premature death had a huge impact on Pulsford whose life became further complicated when his own medical struggles caused him to spend two solid years in a hospital bed between graduation and post-secondary.

Often not allowed to see friends and without television in the hospital, he was forced to be alone with only his mind. For two years he just read books and trained his brain and his mind, day in and day out, waiting for the opportunity to be free.

Pulsford’s freedom from the dreary life of a hospital patient perfectly coincided with the opening of a school which would immediately become known for freedom.

As an older student — Pulsford was 23 when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the new Simon Fraser University — and clearly motivated by a sense of urgency caused by his hemophilia, he became involved in the school’s burgeoning student politics right away and hoped to be president of the new student society.

He had competition though. Tony Buzan, a graduate of pre-med from UBC, had been invited to SFU not only to study English, Mathematics and Creative Writing, but to run the new student union. Although they should have been rivals, according to Buzan, it did not take long for them to join forces.“I met [Pulsford] in the student offices with his followers,” Buzan explained of their first encounter. “He was very vibrant and very passionate and he presented his case for being president. And I presented him mine. After an hour of in depth discussion, he said, there’s no good reason for me combatting you because basically everything we want in the Student Union, we agree.”

Pulsford therefore decided to run for the society’s Public Relations Officer position and have a place on council, but support Buzan’s bid for president. This ended up getting the pair in some controversy early on when in a speech for the PRO position, Pulsford did not mention his platform, but simply campaigned openly for Buzan’s presidency.

After receiving a scolding from editor Sam Steenhuus in the campus newspaper, The Peak, Pulsford and Buzan issued formal apologies. Buzan ended up winning the election and Pulsford took his seat on council by acclamation. While their letters to the paper deny collusion, Pulsford and Buzan soon became best friends at the young university.

According to Buzan, it was not easy for them as politicians as “the first student body, as we were called, was composed of every dimension of revolution.”

“Simon Fraser was designed to bring together all the people from around the world who were involved in any kind of revolution. You know, many of them banned from their own countries,” Buzan explained. “Essentially the student body was composed of a boiling pot of United Nations revolutionaries. And that’s where Don ended up.”

While Pulsford’s unique journey to university and his extraordinary mind certainly placed him among the united outcasts of this new revolutionary institution, he had an interest that few around him had the foresight to be passionate about. Pulsford was one of the first students to care about the SFU student, and he did so before anyone even knew what ‘the SFU student’ was.

Istill remember him sitting in that English 200 class . . . he just turned around, at the beginning of the class and said, ‘What do you think about that Tartan?’”

Rick McGrath, a first-year charter student at SFU, remembers his first exchange with Don Pulsford quite well, because in many ways it ended up changing his life. 

It was the second week of classes in 1965 and Pulsford sat next to McGrath and began complaining about The Tartan, SFU’s first student newspaper. In Pulsford’s mind, because it was set up by Lorne Mallin, a student who had transferred from UBC, it didn’t really have SFU student concerns in mind.

McGrath did not share his level of outrage, but agreed to go to a meeting where they set up a rival paper called the S.F. View. Instead of declaring himself the Editor-in-Chief, Pulsford nominated the 18-year old McGrath as a candidate to go to a vote. Due to McGrath’s experience of having had a paper route as a kid, he was elected to be in charge.

The paper eventually forced a merger with The Tartan to become The Peak, the campus’ current paper. While Pulsford left the new publication as soon as it began, McGrath went on to become a longtime editor and columnist, transitioning his skills into a lengthy career in journalism and writing.

McGrath still remembers Pulsford as being ahead of the curve on caring about student issues.

“He was interested in all this stuff [that] nobody else was really thinking about at all,” he explained. “I don’t know why he was interested in the student body. The thought has crossed my mind that he may have been passionate, but he also could have just been managerially organized and interested in setting things up his way.”

According to McGrath, Pulsford was very organized compared to the rest of the young, confused campus and was a typical ‘backroom’ guy, an enigmatic personality on campus. Being older and having a deeper understanding of history, he had a huge opportunity to make an immediate impact.

As McGrath describes, “there were no seats, the clocks didn’t work, it was mayhem and to a certain degree, there was nothing on campus for students.” After his success in getting SFU’s first true student newspaper started, Pulsford was ready to take on the rest of campus life.

As student society PRO beginning in October of 1965, Pulsford was immediately thrown into the fire of the volatile world of student politics. His biggest concerns involved protecting the interests of his fellow students for which he received support, but also chagrin.

He was involved in all of the council’s early decisions and projects including: starting a student guide service, creating a student telephone directory, hiring a campus crier and the establishment of a soap box in the mall which according to Buzan was a hotbed of free speech.

“Every week, I or the council members, including Don, were publicly threatened with impeachment,” Buzan remembered. “They were either ‘pinko communists’ or were ‘fanatical right-wing maniacs or ‘over the top in sexuality’. Other times students were being gay. You name it. So my council members, and Don, had to defend ourselves.”

“I’m pleased to say that we never lost,” he added.

One of Pulsford’s early tasks was to be in charge of what posters were acceptable to be put up around campus. While the Executive decided that “lively remarks” were alright and obscenities should not be permitted, at soapbox rallies there were calls for council to explain Pulsford’s authority to take down any posters he didn’t consider in the interests of students.

He received similar complaints about his sudden decision to call for the abolition of fees at Simon Fraser in November of 1965 when the rest of his council was only in favour of freezing them.

According to Sam Steenhuus, while many supported the movement, “Pulsford should also state his reasons for wanting to abolish fees. It would be well worth his while to do so, because alone he can do nothing.”

Personally, Pulsford was also involved in organizing a ‘park-in’ which forced the replacement of SFU’s mud-pit parking lots with gravel and, in an action close to his own struggles, chaired a Medical Health Committee who brought a Doctor onto campus.

By the end of the semester however, Pulsford had found a project that was more fitting to his interests and passion. After less than three months, according to council meeting minutes: “Don Pulsford resigned in order to chair a committee to investigate matters concerning the Student Union Building.”

The idea of creating a Student Union Building at SFU was first brought up at a luncheon between chancellor Gordon Shrum and student council members in October of 1965. While President McTaggart-Cowan had plenty of interaction with students, a meeting with Shrum was rare, which made the SUB idea quite salient to members of the council.

As a building that was intended to house everything that was in the interest of students, Pulsford was first in line to lead the project. Seeing as he was nearly the only one at the university who wanted such a responsibility, the main leadership role was his.

Along with Tony Buzan, he became co-chairman of the SUB committee in late November and was independently in charge by early 1966.

Wishing to waste no time, Pulsford set in motion plans for the SUB beginning in December of 1965. In order to hear directly from students on what they wanted included in their building, he sent out letters on December 19 to all the directors of SFU’s already amazingly long and diverse list of clubs, and asked for them to be returned by January 1.

“The SUB building, was a generic idea [but] Don was the great fighter to make that dream come true,” Buzan said of Pulsford’s role as the SUB committee chairman. “He was incredibly commit-

ted. He was a good leader because he was so kind and supportive. He was good at fighting for the good.”

“He also was good at building teams.”

Along with his good friend Buzan, Pulsford recruited a number of students and faculty members to be on his team to get the SUB off the ground. Fellow students Dave Alder, Bob Swift and John Mynott were on the SUB committee as were faculty members Dr. G. Kitchner and Dr. A. McPherson. The team was rounded out by council culture director, Art Tomlinson, who served as Pulsford’s assistant for a fee of $1.00.

In early January, with the project barely started, Pulsford was already looking to the end of the rainbow. In the January 5, 1966 issue of The Peak, he is quoted as saying that “construction will begin as soon as possible but will not be completed before September ‘68.”

Current plans expect construction for a SUB to begin (hopefully) sometime in 2016.

Under Pulsford’s leadership, plans were prepared for a SUB that would eventually house 20,000 students and the first construction phase was intended to begin in either the summer or fall of 1966. The building was to be located in the area between the Madge Hogarth residence and the gym. At the time, this area was a parking lot but was also the allotted space left by Erickson-Massey (SFU’s architecture firm) for such a structure.

In addition to the letters he had solicited from clubs and students suggesting how much and what sort of space they were interested in, Pulsford had a usage survey distributed to the entire student body through The Peak on January 19, 1966.

There seems to have been no question in Pulsford’s mind at the time as to whether or not the project would happen. It was just a matter of when.

The Peak survey did not ask “would you like a S.U.B.?” but did raise the question “Would you like a bowling alley in the S.U.B.?” and also “please indicate your preference: A) 5 pins B) 10 pins”.

In the first month of the project, there was a great deal of excitement surrounding everything that could go in the SUB. The Bridge Club wrote to Pulsford requiring card tables, the Sports Car Club wanted a garage-racing pit, and “Rick Bauder (Arts 1)” proposed a room for billiards and snooker. Pulsford and his team also had extensive correspondence in order to determine the feasibility and cost of a non-denominational chapel as part of the SUB.

By February however, the issue of financing quickly deflated the air out of Pulsford’s party. On February 2, it was confirmed that building the SUB would cost at least $4.5 million and according to SUB committee member and ombudsman, John Mynott, a fee increase would be required if the project were to happen.

This possibility caused a lot of arguments amongst the council. Some members, like Dave Alder thought it was absolutely necessary, while others, such as treasurer Bob Penny didn’t think it was worth it at all. Many, like Mynott, stood in the middle, believing it was up to the students to decide how they wanted their money spent.

Despite being obviously dedicated to the SUB, Pulsford was torn as he was also a notable advocate for lowering fees. He did not want to see an increase of more than $3, but conceded that it would probably have to be at least $5. Mynott’s best estimate, taking into account enrollment increases, was a $10 increase.

Pulsford and the committee immediately began seriously looking at alternate financing options, but were stumped at every turn. The school didn’t yet have any alumni who could help out, they did not wish to use administration money as it could take away student control, and their letters asking for federal and provincial support were met with polite refusals.

Even a student fee increase would be a challenge. Although the council planned a public drive for funding, according to Shrum this would not be approved by the Board of Governors. He suggested a much smaller building which could be expanded later, a frustrating notion to the fast-living Pulsford.

Although Pulsford and Buzan set a referendum for March to find out both, whether students wanted the SUB and if they would be willing to pay for it, with the realities of bureaucracy sinking in and a lack of funds preventing the SUB from moving any further at the present time, it all became too much for Pulsford. On February 21, he quit.

Despite having printed quite a bit of criticism of the SUB and Pulsford in the past, The Peak’s editorial following the resignation of the man they called “Mr. SUB” was quite somber.

“Pulsford, for all his wiered [sic] methods of doing things, was a one man committee. He fathered the SUB and up until now has been playing the role of mother as well,” they eulogized. “He thinks there will be no difficulty in finding a new chairman, and that he will be able to take over the position with ease just by reading the SUB file. We doubt this very much.”

The Peak explained that Pulsford was “perhaps the one person on campus who could get his way with council and even more important with Tony Buzan” and also wrote of The Peak’s own plans for the SUB.

“We were to eventually get a good portion of the basement in which to eventually produce a daily newspaper.”

While they signed off on Don and the project, and said that they would miss the copy and controversy he provided for them, he wouldn’t stay gone for long. On March 14, two weeks following his resignation, he sent a letter requesting that the Student Council reconsider and allow him to come back.

When he had left, it had been because of lack of funds and also because he “felt it was no job for a student”. Apparently, the financial prospects were better and he had matured significantly in 14 days. According to his letter, a major problem with other universities’ SUB buildings had been resignations by their chairmen and felt as if he would be doing the students a disservice by not continuing.

As difficult as it was for him to do, he wrote that the project would be delayed and he would be careful to take a more methodical approach to his planning. He had wanted an instant SUB but over time had realized that he would have to slow down.

Throughout March, both the referendum signifying students desire for a SUB and the referendum agreeing to a financial commitment to the SUB passed and the project was slowly moving along. Unfortunately by June, Pulsford was forced to leave the SUB project again. This time it was not by his own volition and he wouldn’t be able to come back.

After carrying on as SUB committee chairman at a more relaxed pace, Pulsford tried to extend his political power further and ran for President of the ‘66 summer council. Buzan had left to tour the world and although he wished for his friend Don to take up his post, it did not work out.

A student named Alex Turner took the election with 94 votes while Pulsford finished third with a respectable 60 votes. While this shouldn’t have necessarily spelled the end for his SUB, he vehemently disagreed with Turner and the new council when it came to the project.

After being asked to present to council on the SUB or be dismissed, Pulsford wrote a letter to Turner, as he put it: “in reply to your ultimatum”. In the note, which they read aloud in council on June 20, Pulsford states that “since the majority of this semester’s Council members ran on a platform of an exclusively administration-built Student Union Building, and since council is in any case, constitutionally powerless to deal with S.U.B., I do not choose to appear before Council at this time.”

Pulsford continued by saying that he would make his report at the first meeting of the fall and keep the data inaccessible to them, with the exception of the Ombudsman.

While he was convinced that council had no power over him, there was a vote which agreed to “remove him with thanks” and a new SUB committee was immediately set up under vice-president John Kenward and science rep Doug Sandberg.

The SUB project slowly evolved into a building with less and less emphasis on students. Pulsford made one last plea for his version of the SUB in November of 1966 after fall president John Mynott pushed for a joint faculty-student building called “the Longhouse”.

Pulsford, worried about a lack of communication between the administration and students, was quoted in The Peakwarning students to not agree to a fee increase prematurely for the Longhouse. The Longhouse had plans to be partially financed by the administration, an element which concerned the pro-student Pulsford.

Mynott dismissed Pulsford’s comments and simply wrote that he hoped President McTaggart-Cowan realized his thoughts were simply “a letter from an individual student [and] not necessarily the opinion of the whole student body.” It was the last time Pulsford would have to be criticized for speaking for SFU students.

After the fall of 1966, Pulsford never addressed the Student Union Building issue publicly again. At a school of instant creation when it came to anything that came from the administration, he had been unable to get a project dedicated to students past the stage of squabbling and politics.

Exhausted by the life of a student politician, he retreated back to the world of newspapers he had occupied in high school. In 1967, he became the Production Manager at The Peak, a refreshing change of pace.

It was at this time that he also found love. Through Tony Buzan, he met Mayling Weaver, a recent UBC graduate who began studying English at SFU in its second year.

“He was a very romantic man,” Buzan recalled. “When I left BC traveling around the world, Mayling and he fell in love.”

They were soon married and the pair worked together in the summer of ‘67 as Mayling was elected Editor-in-Chief of The Peak. While she remembers Pulsford experiencing a lot of suffering due to his hemophilia, she still looks back on that time in her life fondly.

“He was a very congenial person and he was a very gentle man, in both senses of the word,” she recalled. “He had a gentle disposition, but at the same time he had a very good sense of humour. A slight sense of playfulness there… very bright too. He was a very likeable person.”

After a semester at the student paper, Pulsford was hired as the Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper in Jasper, Alberta called The Jasper Gateway. He left SFU and went off with Mayling for what Tony Buzan believes was a more relaxed life.

“He wanted peace. He wanted tranquility. And he wanted an environment in which he could really think and be creative,” Buzan said on Pulsford’s journey away from SFU. “One of his great joys was for his own creativity . . . poetry, music . . . when artists work, they al- ways feel fulfilled. So being in nature, which is where he was going, in a job that was purely creative, he didn’t have to end up in political meetings, business meetings, which he did find a little bit tedious and taxing.”

“Similarly, he needed to make sure he was taking care of himself. He could only take care of other people by taking care of himself. Because if he didn’t take care of himself, he’d be gone.”

However, while in Jasper, Mayling recalls that his health was a major concern. He had lived a fast paced life, taken a lot of risks, and now it was all tragically coming to an end.

On January 27, 1968. I was in England, in London, at that time, and looking forward to going back and that is when I got the telegram announcing his death.”

Perhaps of all people, Tony Buzan was most affected by Don Pulsford’s tragic and sudden death. According to Buzan, during their conversations Don had often described a recurring nightmare he had.

“His main fear was that, he would be driving a car on his own and the car would crash when he was on his own. And he would bleed to death. And he could do nothing about it,” Buzan recalled. “He technically never drove on his own. He was always with somebody. And once, he did.”

Pulsford was 15 miles from the town of Lake Louise, Alberta when his car collided with a snow plow on the Jasper-Banff Highway. Funeral services were held at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver and a memorial service was also held at Simon Fraser in front of the three flags at the entrance of the university.

Shortly after his death, Buzan wrote his first poem, entitled “Death of a Hemophiliac” about and in honour of his departed friend. While Buzan has gone on to have a distinguished career studying and writing about issues surrounding the brain and thinking, he has continued to be inspired by Don Pulsford.

“It was the loss of one of the great brains in British Columbia. You know, he definitely was one of the great brains in British Columbia.”

After Pulsford left the SUB project, it was never quite the same. After a few stops and starts, in the fall of 1968, a new plan for a combined student-faculty-staff “University Centre Building” began. The UCB project ended up being a success and was opened in 1970, although it was quite small and only really consisted of one of the amenities that students desired: a pub.

In the mid-90s the UCB was renovated and a new student service building — which received half of its funding from administration — was attached to it, creating the Maggie Benston Centre. There was still however a need for more areas just for students.

It wouldn’t be until 2006 that a project began that matched the scale and magnitude of Pulsford’s original vision. After a great deal of planning, in 2013, the Build SFU campaign launched and they have since made concrete plans to bring a SUB to SFU. While they have faced similar problems as Pulsford did in regards to financing, the project is still looking like it will eventually break ground.

Fifty years after it seemed like he was the only one who cared about the SFU student, Pulsford’s attitude has spread across the entire student population with not just one student, but hundreds, if not thousands, taking on his mantle. Current members of SFU’s student society credit the success of the most recent SUB project to having many Don Pulsfords, not just one champion.

“I would say it’s definitely been a team effort, because no single board has really pioneered it and nobody on our staff and management side either,” SFSS President Enoch Weng explained about the Build SFU campaign. “It’s a reflection of [all students’] voices, and the students that are currently pursuing it have advocated for it, and have invested countless hours and time and effort into it, those are the real champions.”

“You don’t really see them, because they’re out working in the background . . . [but] these are the people that I think should be given the credit.”

According to Tony Buzan, when the SUB opens it will be the fulfillment of Pulsford’s dream.

“The SUB was like a monument in his mind for caring and looking after and protecting students,” he said. “So that building was a monument for the love of education and students and making sure that that building was there to guarantee a better educational future for the province and the world.”

“One can fight for that and to have that building raised as an icon for the legend of Don Pulsford.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *