Tex Mowatt, twice Nelson’s mayor and one of Whitewater ski hill’s founding fathers, has died at 85.
Mowatt was the city’s political leader from 1973-75 and 1979-81 and made waterfront development a central plank of all his campaigns. He first ran against incumbent Louis Maglio in 1969 but lost by a wide margin. Two years later he lost again to Maglio by an even bigger majority in a then-record 74 per cent turnout.
He changed tactics and successfully sought an alderman’s seat, topping the polls in 1972. (In those days council terms were two years and staggered so that votes were held every fall.)
The following year, in his third bid for mayor, Mowatt prevailed over Maglio by about 160 votes. The victory was made sweeter by the approval of a referendum to build an indoor aquatic centre, something Mowatt had pushed for since 1966 when he formed the Presidents’ Club, a committee of service club representatives who banded together to raise money, lobby government, and generate support for the pool.
“He had a dream and it actually happened,” says Wilma Turner, who managed the city’s outdoor swimming pools in the 1960s and the aquatic centre once it opened in 1975. “Give him credit. If it hadn’t been for his driving force, I doubt we would have got an indoor pool as soon as we did.”
Mowatt, however, couldn’t swim. Turner reveals that at his request, she gave him and fellow sportsmen Gus Adams and Seth Martin lessons. “They came to me and said ‘Would you teach us how?’ We met about twice a week at noon at the Rotary pool at Lakeside Park.”
Michael Jessen, who served with and under Mowatt on city council in the 1970s, recalls they didn’t always see eye-to-eye: “There were certainly occasions when we had words. I can recall one that was pretty intense.”
But he adds Mowatt was a forward-thinker. On a visit to Victoria for library board business, Jessen heard someone remark about Nelson: “Oh, that little city in the Kootenays that’s hurtling into the 19th century.”
“He didn’t mean it in a heritage way,” Jessen says. “Tex was one of those people who tried to take us into the 20th century. It required somebody like him to wake the community up that we needed to move forward.”
During his first term as mayor, Mowatt presented his grand vision for the waterfront, including sports fields, a marina, convention centre, and industrial park. None of it was reality by the time he sought re-election in 1975, but he secured the Nelson Daily News’ endorsement.
“In his determination to get the project off the ground, in his commitment to improving recreational opportunities for Nelson’s citizens today and in the future, Tex Mowatt deserves another two years at the helm,” the paper wrote. “We feel he has done a fine job as mayor; his commitment to this community cannot be questioned, and he should be allowed to continue to see his plans through.”
The electorate didn’t quite agree: Maglio was narrowly returned to office by a margin nearly identical to that by which Mowatt had previously won. “I really expected to be in there,” Mowatt said, admitting he lost the vote over the lakefront development. “I needed more time.”
Mowatt sat out the 1977 election and backed Mac McAdams in his bid for mayor. McAdams won, but Mowatt became disenchanted with his leadership, to the point that two years later he ran against his former ally in a four-way mayoral contest that also included alderman Bill Freno and past mayor Gene Bodard.
Mowatt opposed the location of the Chahko Mika mall, suggesting a smaller shopping centre could have been built on CPR lands and the mall site used for sports fields. By then it was too late, but Mowatt easily defeated his challengers to return to the mayor’s chair.
Ruth O’Bryan, who was on that council, says she was astonished when Mowatt asked her to take on the public works portfolio, which had always been a male bastion.
“He said ‘You have your husband to help you because he’s with the Ministry of Highways and is knowledgable in those areas.’ I said ‘I can handle it on my own.’ It was an incredible compliment but what he was really saying is that I had a back-up. He and my husband were good friends. He was an incredibly vital and gracious man.”
During that term, the city got some waterfront development underway, including construction of a playing field next to Lakeside Park.
Howard Dirks, another member of that council, who is now mayor of Vulcan, Alta., says Mowatt also tried hard but unsuccessfully to convince someone to develop a vacant Vernon Street lot.
“He was trying desperately to get a hotel built there. I remember making a trip to Vancouver with him to see the Sandman chain and trying to talk the Gaglardis into building there.”
Mowatt was no stranger to controversy, Dirks adds. “Tex was a progressive mayor and whenever you are progressive you run into some static. There was some of that. Overall he was very proud of Nelson and served the community well.”
Mowatt didn’t seek re-election in 1981. In all, he was a mayoral candidate five times in ten years and also unsuccessfully sought the Nelson-Creston Social Credit nomination.
Much of the waterfront development he encouraged ultimately came to pass, but not until years later. A conceptual drawing from one of his early campaign ads looks remarkably like the waterfront today: recreation grounds where soccer fields were added in the early 2000s and a convention centre almost exactly where the Prestige resort is now.
BIRTH OF WHITEWATER
Mowatt’s other major contribution to Nelson was its ski hill. He and his five kids learned to ski on the Silver King hill a short distance from town and he later became president of the volunteer society that ran it.
“I went up the rope tow and fell on the way up and on the way down,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with the Daily News. “I was laughing the whole time. I went home and told my kids if I could survive after falling so much, we’d have to take it up as a family sport.”
By 1969, however, the club was looking for a new area with better snow. On a motorcycle ride, Mowatt and fellow ski enthusiast John Stanger found a bowl that fit the bill.
“It was June and the weather was beautiful,” Mowatt said. “We came around the corner and the snow was gleaming white on the tops of the mountains. We got so excited. We investigated the whole area and never went anywhere else.”
To determine how much snow fell in the area, they tied ribbons to trees and came back in winter. When they had to dig down several feet to find the ribbons, they knew they had found their powdery promise land.
Whitewater was built with a combination of donations, bank loans, government grants, and volunteer labour.
“Things like this don’t happen in small towns unless people are really into it,” Mowatt said. “People opened their chequebooks and gave up their weekends to volunteer time. People knew it was a valuable resource.”
It took more than five years, but Whitewater became a commercial reality. In the 1980s, Mowatt encouraged a young couple, Mike and Shelley Adams, to buy into the partnership. Mike held a business degree and took ski hill management at Selkirk College. In a recent blog posting, Shelley writes that Mowatt’s support was key.
“He really convinced us that this would be a good move. So although we were nervous because we had no idea what would happen — and we did have some rough times — we decided to rely on Tex’s advice and my husband’s knowledge of money and business and ski areas, and just go for it.”
A few years later, they decided they wanted to be sole owners rather than in a large partnership.
“So we took another big, giant gamble in our lives, again on Tex’s advice. He said ‘Mike, Shelley, I think it’s time that you make an offer to the other owners that they can’t refuse.’ And he was really right, that was the way to do it. We made an offer to each of the ten guys to buy them out. And they all said yes.”
John Texearle Mowatt was born in Saskatoon on September 27, 1927, but grew up mostly in Vancouver.
At 18, he came to Nelson to work for Kootenay Stationers, a small typewriter business that he later bought and turned into J.T. Mowatt and Co. Ltd., which also dealt in furniture and office supplies. He excelled as a salesman, earning trips to Bermuda and Europe as rewards from Remington and Royal typewriters.
When rent in the KWC block increased from $75 to $125 per month, he put up his own building at the foot of Baker Street, now home to Dr. Kelly Davidoff’s dental practice. He also built, renovated, or owned the Duke Hyssop labour centre, Villa Ski Hut, and old bowling alley on Vernon Street.
Mowatt sold his business to the Cowan family in 1972, who run it to this day.
In 1949, he married Edith Monty, who like him, was born in Saskatchewan, raised on BC’s coast and then moved to Nelson. She arrived here a week before he did.
“I always teased him that he followed me,” she says.
They met at a Teen Town dance in the Civic Centre’s badminton hall, a weekly event Tex and a friend started.
In 1976, the Mowatts moved permanently to their Crescent Valley ranch, where they kept horses. Tex lived there during his second term as mayor. “He would come home and that would relax him so much to ride around the farm,” Edith says. “It was a good mental change for him.”
Mowatt died June 19 at Mountain Lake Seniors Community in Nelson. He’s survived by Edith, his wife of 63 years, daughters Gaye and Jeanette, and sons John and Earl, five grandchildren, and a brother. He was predeceased by son Grant, two brothers and a sister.
At his request, there will be no service.