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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."

Finally, about 15 years ago, Mr. Colson approached Ms. Burka and told her: "Look, I think we are a little bit too old for this. Let's face each other again."

Obviously, he was one of a kind. "There can never be anything like him again," Mr. Cranston said. Yet, he always remained current. Ms. Burka said he had the mind of a 25-year-old. And he had a Genghis Khan-like character that survived being booted out of the cricket club by a group that didn't understand his significance, according to Mr. Cranston. "It was like taking the goldfish out of the goldfish bowl. To a normal person, that would have been the death rattle. But Colson rose from the ashes, went to the Granite Club and spawned this Patrick Chan, this hot little thing."

The diamond in his crown was Sarah Kawahara, who studied with the coach when he set up the Banff Fine Arts skating school in 1960. Ms. Kawahara went on to become one of the great choreographers in the sport, winning an Emmy for her work on the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and another for Scott Hamilton's television special, Upside Down. She also was responsible for Mr. Hamilton's successful skating career.

Ms. Kawahara, who took the red-eye flight last night from Los Angeles so she could attend the funeral today, said of Mr. Colson: "He formed me. Mr. C showed me the path, and he was also the source of great inspiration and strength. He's responsible for everything I've done in my life and career. He was not just a skating teacher but a teacher of life."

Over the years, Ms. Kawahara and Mr. Colson kept in touch at least every two weeks. "It's very difficult to know that I can't call him any more," she said.

Like Ms. Kawahara, Mr. Colson's skaters always had "infinite class," Mr. Cranston said. "They were a cut above the others."

His work, Mr. Cranston said, should have been on the Broadway stage, not the ice rink. He's watched many Colson products in skating shows and "my mouth would drop open," he said. "They were so great. That kind of skater cannot ever exist again because there aren't any other Colsons to produce it."

Mr. Colson's last master project was Patrick Chan, a Toronto skater who glides over the ice with great speed and wonderful edges -- all Colson hallmarks. Mr. Colson predicted that Mr. Chan, who is just 15, would make a splash at the 2010 Olympics and that he'd try to stick around to guide him there.

But all was not well with Mr. Colson in the past year. He ended up in hospital for nine weeks with an infection after a youngster on a bicycle collided with him. Somehow, he talked his doctors into letting him out of the hospital for a weekend. Instead of resting, however, he headed to the Thornhill Summer Competition, where he coached Mr. Chan from the boards. While he was in hospital, he designed the young skater's outfit, too.

The intrepid Mr. Colson accompanied Mr. Chan when he finished sixth at the world junior championship in Slovenia last March, but he was so frail that three doctors treated him there.

In the spring, he was involved in a car accident, breaking his collarbone and suffering head injuries. It proved to be his undoing. He underwent two surgeries to remove blood clots from his brain but then developed pneumonia.

The Chan family was with him when he died. "Patrick said goodbye very close to his ears and vowed to skate his best for him," said his mother, Karen. "He knew Patrick had landed his quad toe."

It was a dismal day for Ms. Burka, who at first glance thought Mr. Colson an unusual character when she met him in 1952. For years, she had worked while facing him from the other side of the rink. They had a private joke, a pact in which they'd warn each other if their mouths had opened too wide. "It hit me hard that I cannot see him any more. . . . I had to cry.

"I enjoyed him all my life," she said. "It was fun to fight with him and to talk with him. Everybody is so boring. It is a big vacuum for me. I will miss him terribly."

Osborne Colson was born

in Toronto on March 31, 1916.

The Canadian figure skating hall of fame member died in hospital in Toronto on Friday, July 14, 2006. He was 90. He is survived by his brother, James Hall Colson.

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