Building a Dream

By Judee Fong

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Berwick Retirement Communities co-founder Gordon Denford in the rose garden of Berwick Royal Oak. Photo by: Judee Fong.

In 1940, England’s fear of a German invasion after the fall of France, was a very possible reality. The decision to evacuate children living in the city of Bristol and other west coastal towns to Commonwealth countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia was instrumental in shaping the future of Gordon Denford, co-founder/builder of the Berwick Retirement Homes.

Gordon was 13 years old when he was evacuated to Canada. He clearly remembers, “It was a very traumatic experience not only for me, but also for my parents as I was their only child. Bristol was the centre of my young life. I had never even been to London yet. I was organizing kids my age to deal with incendiary bombs in my area.”

Gordon’s father worked as an ambulance driver for Bristol. At that time, most English school children from working class families went on to a specialized trade-school after age 14. Gordon’s teacher was excited for him to continue his education as he was a promising student.

“I won a scholarship to Cotham, a public school that was like the private schools here. Peter Higgs, who later became famous for quantum mechanics, was a few years ahead of me at the same school.”

Looking ahead to a bright future, Gordon had plans to apply for a scholarship to either the University of Bristol, known for its architectural and science programs or, possibly, Cambridge known for its science programs. But the war intervened and his life changed forever.

“One day I came home from school, my suitcase was packed, and the next day, I was on a secret convoy sailing to Canada.”

Gordon’s English education was more advanced compared to that of Canadian children. To determine his grade placement, he was tested with Canadian children his age and found to be two years ahead, especially in sciences like chemistry. He was already proficient with Latin. As a result, Gordon found himself in classes with children two years older.

“It wasn’t because I was brighter, but because my English education started earlier,” says Gordon.

It was a difficult time for a 13 year old to adjust to being separated from his home and parents, being in classes with older boys and just being different.

“I was a different kind of child from the one my first foster parents were expecting,” he recalls. “I could speak in two different dialects. One was the Bristol street dialect, which was like Quaker English. Instead of ‘you,’ it was ‘thee’ and instead of ‘yours,’ it would be ‘thine.’ The other dialect was a posh Cambridge one. I’m also able to mimic any other dialect, if I hear it long enough.”

Money was scarce to pay his continuing education.
“By the end of the war, many veterans were returning to university. Lab instructors were needed to teach biochemistry as a prerequisite for first- and second-year students. To solve his financial problems, Gordon became a lab instructor for the university.

“I started when I was 16. For my second and third year, I was teaching Math. I had to relate to my students and teach them what they needed to know. In 1945, it was difficult to relate to some as a number of them were veterans who were older and had been fighting a war.”

Six months before graduating, Gordon was notified that all the evacuated children would be returning home to England. He had a difficult decision to make.

“I didn’t see myself as a full-time teacher,” he says. “I was no longer a 13-year-old boy, but a young man of 18. I was in the middle of my final university year. When I first arrived, I was overeducated and if I returned home, I would be undereducated. So, I was at a serious crossroads.”

Once he decided to remain in Canada, all funding from the British government immediately ceased. Gordon was on his own with a bit of help from his parents and his salary as a lab instructor. Knowing his education was important, he worked hard to successfully graduate. When the company where he worked closed, Gordon decided to move to the west coast for a fresh start.
“I worked as a salesman for an electrical heating company in Vancouver. I used a bus-pass to go from client to client as I didn’t have a car. I would sell these units and an electrician installed them in the homes. One day, I told my boss I would like to move to Vancouver Island, where there was a good market for these heating units. He was agreeable and told me the same benefits and salary would still apply, but I told him, ‘No, I’m going to set up my own business in Victoria and be a distributor for your heating units.’ Gordon found a qualified electrician willing to work for him. By the late 1960s, Gordon’s company was one of the largest on Vancouver Island.

Meanwhile over the years, Gordon had been happily designing homes for a number of friends, helping them with their floor plans.

“My first building was for my first foster parents who had a vacant Uplands lot. I actually drew some plans for them, which my builder friend, George Yakimovich, built.”

The satisfaction of Gordon’s first construction project was followed by apartments and small condominiums. His first major retirement condominium, Summergate Village, was built in 1978. In the 70s, Gordon and his team noticed the number of Canadian “Snowbirds” in their 50s who purchased manufactured homes in Arizona or Florida and wintered there.

Gordon’s idea was to build a place in Sidney where people, 55+, could live and enjoy their Sidney home for the summer or all-year round. Gordon recalls, “It took a lot of discussion with Council and the townspeople because there were many who protested the idea of this development and warned it would be a ‘low-trash trailer park.’ That image was not a pretty picture.”

The other question asked was who would be buying it? Surprisingly, the new owners were mostly women, 75+, who were lonely sitting alone in their empty family houses. Doing a follow-up survey, Gordon discovered these women were still lonely in their condominiums and many didn’t even know their neighbours down the hall. They liked the idea of a community centre with a variety of activities and a community newspaper. “I said to my son, Chris who is also my partner, ‘One day, we’ll build all of these ideas into one building.’”

Gordon and Chris tossed about ideas. They considered areas they would like to live in themselves. “Everything we build, looks like it belongs. We study the location, the community, the culture and then we put the building in. The building is attractive and comfortable. When you walk through the door, you want that ‘Wow’ factor and this leads to a sense of residents’ pride on where they live.”

“Some of the factors we consider are: it has to look like it belongs there; it’s not out of place and it doesn’t pander to any fads. For example, turrets may be the fad of that year, but we don’t do that. We don’t build anything that would look out of place a few years down the road.”

Gordon, Chris and the architectural management team of Sid Chow and Jackson Lowe have been friends and colleagues for 25 years. Through their close collaborations, this dynamic team noticed that seniors in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s have different expectations and lifestyles. Yet, the Berwick retirement homes proved there was something that appeals to nearly everyone.

“We’re a team,” says Gordon. “It takes a team to create an idea and make it reality.”

Twenty-five years ago, the first Berwick at Shelbourne and Feltham opened its doors. “At that time, we did two things that were ground-breaking: the next level of care available after being independent, and that this next level would still be at the same site. There wouldn’t be any traumatic moves simply because you needed more assistance,” Gordon says proudly.

Gordon is involved with numerous worthwhile causes and organizations, but he has always maintained a keen interest in education. He has served on the boards of Pearson College, Glenlyon and Norfolk House as well as the Camosun Foundation. At the community colleges, he has established scholarships and bursaries to mostly single women who are training to be caregivers or nurses aids.
He candidly admits, “My own break came when I was able to earn a scholarship to a school my parents could never afford to send me.”

At an early age, Gordon showed his independence and organizational abilities. He was thrown into a different culture and country by the war and proved he had the strength of character to adapt and survive.

Throughout his life, he realized education was the key and pushed himself to succeed. “I believe you can do anything,” he says. “You don’t need to be the expert. You just hire people smarter than you; make sure their working environment is a pleasant one; that they are encouraged to do a good job because they genuinely like what they do. This formula shows what an excellent staff and team can do if given the support to do it.”



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