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Thursday July 20, 2006

OSBORNE COLSON, SKATING COACH 1916-2006

Eccentric and prickly, the 'Jurassic Park' of skating won prewar national titles, directed Barbara Ann Scott's professional tour and coached a parade of top-notch competitors

TORONTO -- Osborne Colson was the last of an era, an old figure-skating world of blueblood families, of impeccable manners and proper etiquette. "He stood alone in an era of figure skating that has long gone," said Toller Cranston. "He was the Jurassic Park of the Barbara Ann Scott era."

Mr. Colson's father, Henry, was one of the founders of the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, an institution that was like mecca for the skater who won the 1936 and 1937 Canadian men's championships.

His cousin, Cecil Smith, finished second to Sonja Henie at the 1930 world championship. Mr. Colson was a walking history book of figure skating. He lived it. He met Ms. Henie at a skating show in Toronto. He directed and choreographed Barbara Ann Scott's Canadian professional tour in the early 1950s. He took Donald Jackson under his wing when he became a professional skater during the 1960s. "His great accomplishment was producing some of the most unique skaters in history," Mr. Cranston said. "He moulded the minds of splendidly artistic people who went on to even greater heights than he."

All this from a Toronto boy, who joined the Dominion Bank in 1935 as the youngest teller in its history. According to a Toronto Cricket Club history book, "both bank and his father thought Osborne was a good prospect for promotion with an ideal future in finance."

Mr. Colson earned $32 a week. He took a temporary leave of absence when he landed a $500-a-week, 20-week contract as the star of Ice Follies. He never returned.

Through his Ice Follies adventure, he met and worked with Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart. Later, he was introduced to stars such as Boris Karloff, Mickey Rooney, Ronald Reagan and Judy Garland.

He was also one of the true eccentrics of the sport. Mr. Colson rarely invited anyone to his Toronto apartment, not even his 60-year friend, Ellen Burka, who had been Mr. Cranston's coach. He rarely let anyone inside his private life, but then maybe he was "a sphinx without a secret," Mr. Cranston said.

Ms. Burka said skating was his life. He went to every little competition. He'd drive all over the city and teach at six different rinks every day until, at 75, he finally settled at the cricket club. For all that, he still worked at different rinks. This was risky business, because he was widely known as a rather erratic driver.

Except for his red cap, Mr. Colson dressed conservatively. Mr. Cranston, however, believes he really wanted to be rather baroque. "He was always after my clothes. Many, many times I gave him things that he liked. Colson didn't quite have the guts to be flamboyant, yet he admired it in others. He always wanted my coats."

Once, when Mr. Colson and Ms. Burka visited Mr. Cranston at his Toronto home, the coach took one look at the skating outfits in a closet, and began to try them on. "They were all his crazy costumes from the '70s -- all glitter," Ms. Burka said.

He tried on a turquoise number, the most glittery of them all, waltzed into the room and began to dance. "We had a party," she said, laughing.

He had lots of frank opinions on many subjects. It was not something he developed in later life. The legendary coach Gus Lussi taught Mr. Colson for six years and once said: "He was a very well-behaved child with good discipline, although he was rather an opinionated boy. He had unique views and ideas about everything."

It's no surprise that Mr. Cranston calls him "madly eccentric." But he adds that the coach was really quite funny "as long as you were out of range." He could be prickly. Ms. Burka calls him mean. Mr. Cranston refers to him as the "red-hot stinger." People feared him, wondering if they'd be next. Few escaped.

"At any second of the day or night, he could stick you with a [verbal] sword that would leave you flat on the ground," Mr. Cranston said. "One might say he was difficult."

Ms. Burka referred to him as her "best friend and loving enemy."

"Everybody knew it. I got used to it," she said. "In the beginning, he would call me the most horrible names. I talked back to him, then we had a fight. Then, of course, we didn't look at each other and sat in the coffee shop back to back."

One of these fights lasted six months, another three months. Ms. Burka also knew how to push his buttons. When she saw he was in a bad mood, she'd provoke him further. "Did I ever get it."

At the very least, Mr. Colson kept her on her toes, she said. She always arrived at the rink well dressed with her hair perfectly coiffed, because if she didn't, "I got hell."

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