Ron Southern's Spruce Meadows a gift that outlives him

Ron Southern, the founder of Spruce Meadows, died this week. CBC Sports host Scott Russell reflects on his memories of the man and predicts his legacy.

'Canada has lost someone who helped make our country great'

Ron and Marg Southern, shown in this file photo, founded the internationally-recognized show jumping venue Spruce Meadows in 1975. (Scott Russell/CBC Sports)

He wasn't physically a big man but I came to think of him as a giant.

Ron Southern died on Thursday, and I can't help but feel that Canada has lost someone who helped make our country great. 

Mr. Southern founded Spruce Meadows, building it from a cattle feedlot in the foothills outside Calgary into a wonderland for sport.  

More than that, he carved out a gathering place where ordinary people flourished in the presence of magnificent animals and became awestruck by our country's raw and powerful beauty.

At Spruce Meadows, the greatest horses and the most talented riders on the planet have engaged in the sport of show jumping for 40 years. World and Olympic champions have made this luscious, emerald-green turf into a spectacular theatre for the drama that is equestrian competition. 

Untold riches have been won on its myriad fields of play.

Mr. Southern often referred to Spruce Meadows as being an "unlikely" place for this kind of endeavour to unfold. Perhaps he thought it was too far from the centre or too anti-establishment. It's more likely he fancied the notion that Spruce Meadows was ambitiously creating a new frontier for this kind of sport.  

He was, after all, a self-made man who built an internationally-renowned business enterprise from next to nothing. 

He loved and respected horses and championed the contribution they made to the Canadian experience. On his watch, no one mistreated or failed to honour these "noble athletes," as he called them. Those who dared to cross that line inevitably paid a price. You didn't want to get on the wrong side of Mr. Southern when it came to this non-negotiable truth.

He thought of Spruce Meadows and trumpeted it as a version of Camelot, that magical court associated with the fabled King Arthur. Mr. Southern translated this romantic notion with the undying support and devotion of his family.

More importantly, he shared this rare jewel of the Canadian west with the wider community.

I only once asked him about the price of admission to Spruce Meadows.

"It costs five bucks for as many people as you can cram into your station wagon," he said, laughing. "And if you don't have five bucks, I'll look the other way and you can jump the fence."

I never felt the need to ask him again.

Over the years, millions and millions of people went there to gaze in wonder as the horses jumped. They've languished in the sunshine and huddled under blankets as freezing rain pelted their hides — often in the course of a single afternoon. 

Movie stars, prime ministers, presidents and even Queen Elizabeth II herself are on the roster of those who've been drawn to Spruce Meadows. But the most important folks have always been the ordinary ones who have been welcomed without prejudice.

Each and every fan has always been encouraged to reach out and touch the horses and to connect with the creatures who roam the Spruce Meadows grounds. 

Mr. Southern's thinking here was that to know the country you might best be advised to get close to the beast that helped build it.

"It's not for me to say, but I think we've found something unique and even special at Spruce Meadows," Mr. Southern always said.

It was his greatest understatement.

Each spring, for a quarter of a century, it has been my good fortune to venture to Spruce Meadows. My sense of amazement never wanes at its humble yet striking grandeur.

Mr. Southern was always there to greet me, and we chatted at least once a season. Now that he's gone I will miss the way he had about him.  




I believe he and his family have delivered something of real value to all Canadians.

They have given us a lasting national treasure.