Words used to describe one of Brock University’s most “prolific figures,” included ‘iconic’ for Dr. Arnie Lowenberger, long-time Queenston resident, who died Feb. 13 at the age of 92.
In the bright and cheery living room of Vicki and Arnie’s historic home on Princess Street, the sun streaming through the windows, friends and colleagues Anna Lathrop, Lorne Adams and Bob Davis gathered to talk about Arnie’s enormous contribution to Brock, where he arrived in 1967 with a plan to develop a physical education program, the first of its kind in Canada, as well as the athletic and recreational facilities that support it to this day.
In the following years, the program and facilities would drive Brock enrolment and help it out of financial difficulty, allowing it to flourish and grow.
In his initial efforts, Lowenberger had faced “major push-back,” recalls Davis, from the university which was intended to focus on liberal arts, not physical education. Lowenberger had guaranteed 50 students the first year — he had 135.
And teachers who had graduated began returning to add physical education to their degree courses.
Lowenberger’s focus, explained Adams, was developing a degree program with a “movement” approach, a concept of non-competitive physical education well-suited for elementary school students.
In his tenure at the university, Lowenberger became the first Dean of Students, established health services and residences, and was a professor, director and then dean of programs related to education and recreation.
He was behind the building of two extremely well-used gymnasiums, and the lead in acquiring a swimming pool.
He tried twice to get that pool, said Adams, and failed.
But “the third time was the charm,” when he was able to obtain a grant to help fund it. He wanted the pool to be open and available to the public, and having community involvement meant it met the criteria for the grant.
He didn’t want a pool that would meet Olympic standards, because all the national teams would want to train there, leaving little time for community scheduling, explained Davis. Instead he had the foresight to have a hydraulic floor built that could be raised in the shallow end, making it perfect for offering swimming lessons for youngsters, and bringing families to the facilities from across the region.
“He also had plans for an arena and curling rink,” said Adams, “but he couldn’t sell that.”
Lowenberger was a huge hockey fan, and played himself from the time he was a boy growing up in Saskatchewan. He wanted a rink for the university hockey team, and although he was never successful, the arena “is about to happen, fulfilling that final step,” said Lathrop. The university has approved contributing a section of land on its main campus for the Canada Games coming in 2021, she pointed out.
Lathrop said she knew Lowenberger as instrumental on two of her journeys throughout her life. Her father was a chair of the university’s board of trustees, supporting Arnie’s quest for the programs and facilities that were his vision, which focused on training elementary school teachers who would go on to teach physical education. Arnie became a family friend, and for Lathrop, now vice-provost of teaching, learning and student success, her professor when she first attended Brock.
“When I started at Brock in 1974, I wanted to major in phys. ed. My first class was taught by Arnie. I ended up following in his footsteps in my career,” said Lathrop, adding her current portfolio mirrors his.
Adams was among the first five faculty members brought on board by Lowenberger, along with Davis, who said he had been about to accept a job from Lowenberger in Regina. But then Lowenberger came to St. Catharines and Brock, so Davis figured he was out of a job. But it wasn’t long before he received a phone call asking him to join the education venture Lowenberger was embarking upon. Davis, whose name ended up on the Brock gymnasium, packed his bags and became another of the five original faculty members.
Lowenberger had settled into his job with his first wife, Patricia, by his side. However, she became ill and died not too long after they moved to St. Catharines with their two children, Tim and Monica.
Over the years, the three men became life-long friends as well as colleagues, and although Lowenberger was their boss, he never acted as such — he was a friend first and foremost, one who never got angry, who was kind, as a boss and a professor, and was loved and respected by his students. He could remain calm in difficult circumstances, loved to chat, and had an endless supply of jokes.
“He was very humble,” said Adams. “I grew up at Brock. I came here when I was 24, and he was like a dad to me. He was my boss, but it never felt like he was my boss. He was a good man . . . a really good man.”
“He was a friend,” agreed Davis, “and he was a leader.”
“And he was fair,” added Lathrop. “He was approachable. And he was an exceptional story-teller,” she said, an important quality that separates good teachers from great ones. “He was one of the great teachers, absolutely.”
He also loved sports, and participated in many, including badminton, squash, racquetball, golf, curling and skiing. He played squash almost every day at Brock, and on the days he missed, he played racquetball. He watched as many of the Brock basketball and hockey games he could get to.
On the golf course, recalls Adams, “he was never concerned about his score. He was much more interested with how many golf balls he could find to add to his collection.”
In 2004, Brock commemorated his legacy and the impact he had on the early days of the university by naming a residence after him. Lowenberger said at the time he was most proud of being the first dean of the physical education faculty, and was grateful to Brock for giving him the opportunity to contribute to the program and its facilities. He called the naming of the residence “an immense honour, and one of the highlights of my life.”
Vicki, who also worked at Brock, met her future husband when he was arranging a conference at the university. He asked her out at that first meeting, she said.
Adams recalls Lowenberger going through a difficult time, not the happiest period of his life, leading up to that meeting, but from then on, he said, “Arnie was always smiling. I think it was love at first sight.”
Vicki, who was sitting quietly listening to her husband’s long-time friends reminisce, nodded in agreement. They were married in 1982, living in Niagara Falls for a short time before finding their Queenston home, where they built a life together as part of the community they would grow to love.
Lowenberger also loved his historic home, pouring hours of work and sweat into its restoration. Adams recalls helping the couple move in 33 years ago, and wondering why they would want a house that required so much work, but the result, he said, was a credit to his friend’s determination.
Over the years Adams would be called on to help, and admired Lowenberger for doing as much of the work as he could by himself on the house, believed to be one of four surviving that predates the War of 1812.
He became president of the Queenston Residents Association for a time, and remained on the board for many years.
“When you live in Queenston,” says Vicki, “you have a community. We thought we were buying a house in Queenston. Really, we were buying a community.”
Vicki shared a note she had received from a past student who remembered something Lowenberger had said in the student’s first class, that she felt best described her husband: “What you are speaks so loudly that what you say can’t be heard.”
Lowenberger’s funeral will take place on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 11 a.m. at St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in Queenston.