The Godfather of St. Albert rugby gone

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St. Albert will have trouble filling the shoes now left vacant by the passing of a titan among citizens.

People from all corners of the city were shocked and saddened to hear that Gareth Jones died in the early hours of Dec. 31. The former city councillor, community organizer, and sports enthusiast was devoted to activities to improve the lives of as many people as possible. He was 78.

Born in Wales, Jones moved to St. Albert while following his passion for rugby while on tour as a referee in the early 1970s. That was only after he met and married the greatest love of his life, Heather. They had three daughters across the pond, making the transition to North America a family trek.

Once they settled here, Gareth immediately set to work. He was either instrumental or the champion of a variety of community projects, not the least of which was helping to establish the St. Albert Rugby Football Club (SARFC) and making the sport important to the city and its people. Some even consider him to be the Godfather of St. Albert rugby.

Jones was instrumental in the formation of the club as one of the Nervous Nine, who pledged themselves as guarantors for the initial loan for the purpose of building the SARFC clubhouse. Jones was the club’s first president.

“Gareth was a very goal-centred individual and an excellent leader. He carefully assembled an admirable team around him to take on challenges and commit to his goals. He worked energetically on committees much like he coaches teams – bringing out the best in everyone in order that the ends justified the means and projects were completed,” said Roger Scott, who served on the inaugural 1981 executive committee and joined Jones as the first SARFC members into the Edmonton Rugby Union Hall of Fame last year.

Jones was also inducted into the Alberta Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005.

“Conduct, etiquette and decorum were always important to Gareth. He was precise in his life and precise in rugby,” Scott added. “He truly taught all of us the important protocols and nuances of rugby that make it such a fabulous sport.”

Scott, a physical education teacher back in the day, recruited Jones to help coach the first rugby team at Paul Kane High School in 1980. His passion as a proud Welshman and former hooker with the storied Carmarthen Harlequins impacted so many players young and old, male or female.

But it was junior rugby where Jones left a distinguished mark as a revered coach and mentor.

The Gareth Jones Shield, presented to the ERU U17 play-maker of the year, was established in 1995; and the Gareth Jones Cup was first awarded in 2012 to the male and female winning teams of the Battle of St. Albert in high school rugby.

“Gareth had an amazing influence over so many of these young players and indeed especially over those who might have been seen struggling with issues in their youth,” Scott said.

Jones was a tireless champion of the sport through his involvement as a board member with the ERU, Rugby Alberta and Rugby Canada. As a respected referee, Jones worked a match between England and Canada and was one of the officials for matches involving Canada against France and the United States. He also assisted in the formation of the Al Charron Rugby Canada National Training Centre in Langford, B.C.

He leaves behind a legacy in St. Albert rugby.

“Because of Gareth, his passion for rugby and our St. Albert rugby club, many of us are better people in our lives and for knowing him,” said Scott of the larger than life figure who coined the phrase “Bloody hell!” as a SARFC trademark and traditionally watched The Game They Play in Heaven at the back of the try area while enthusiastically holding court.

When he wasn’t there, he was everywhere else. Jones tried his hand in civic politics a few times, getting onto city council once from 2007 to 2010. He had his hands in every kind of community effort from sports to human services to culture and more.

He was a founding board member of St. Albert Victim Services, St. Albert Bingo Association and the St. Albert Housing Society. He had been on the board of the St. Albert Seniors Association for the last several years, and was serving as its current president. He supported the St. Albert Food Bank and Stop Abuse in Families (better known as SAIF).

He held prominent volunteer roles with the Alberta Sport, Recreation, Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2006, the 2009 Special Olympics Provincial Summer Games, and the 2012 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games held in St. Albert. He was the volunteer ambassador and member of the torch relay team for the St. Albert 2011 Alberta 55 Plus Winter Games too.

This is barely skimming the surface of his community work. When he was given one of the Stars of Alberta Volunteer Awards in 2011, it was estimated that he volunteered 100 hours a month.

“He was a very kind person who was passionate about his community. He will be missed,” said Suzan Krecsy, the executive director of the St. Albert Food Bank.

Joe Becigneul, executive director at the Community Information and Volunteer Centre, first met Jones when the two were helping to organize the city’s first Celtic Festival, an event to showcase East Coast performers here in the middle of the Prairies. He said that there wasn’t a soul around quite like him.

Becigneul liked the fellow so much that he also helped to convince him to run for politics, and worked on his campaign. Becigneul agreed that no one ever shook hands better or more gentlemanly than Gareth Jones, and said that he was a good guy to have on your side. His involvement with the seniors association saw him shaking a lot of hands for the funding for the new building known as Red Willow Place.

“That was the thing with Gareth: once he put his mind to it, he was with you 100 per cent.”

Karin Debenham, the executive director at the St. Albert Seniors Association, will remember his strong social conscience. The club is a much better place because of him, she said.

“He’s left the ship in pretty incredible shape, when you think about it,” she said, adding how he also made it his mission to seek funding for a new bus, a necessary complement to the centre’s services and programming.

“He raised nearly $100,000 to get this new bus on the road. Very impressive. It spoke to his connections that he built and the respect that he held in the community. He was a pretty special guy.”

Even with his busy schedule, his daughters Julie, Marie and Penny confirmed that he was a fantastic father, an amazing grandfather to granddaughters Sarah, Jessica and Bryanne, and a devoted husband of 54 years to Heather. He even planned on teaching his five-year-old great-granddaughter Molly to play rugby next year. Gareth always bought flowers for all of the women in his life on Valentine’s Day. Christmas was a special time for him too, and he would often put on a special red suit to help others to rejoice in the spirit of the season.

Gareth spent the last several months fighting a rare aggressive and spreading cancer but still managed to get himself to the end zone with all of his dignity intact.

A celebration of his life will be held at Red Willow Place at 7 Taché St. on Friday  Jan. 12 at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the St. Albert Seniors Association, St. Albert Victim Services, or the St. Albert Food Bank.

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