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The North Shore Outlook's sporting sleuth
He’s a sports history sleuth who relentlessly tracks down eyewitnesses and clues from the past so he can retell colourful tales about the “great events and the quirky” that happened decades ago — or even longer — on the North Shore.
This week’s installment of Len Corben’s Instant Replay column will be his 470th column in The Outlook — and for each one the story behind getting the story is often a story in itself.
With his neatly combed grey hair, button-down collar and amiable personality, Corben comes across as a mild-mannered, sports-loving retired school teacher — which he is. But when it comes to his researching and writing columns he’s got another side.
“Yeah, very tenacious. Research — I love research,” says Corben.
“I spend hours and hours on research and writing [and] trying to find pictures.”
How much time does he spend on each column?
“No idea. In fact, I wouldn’t want Mayvis [his wife] to know,” he says, with a grin.
Sitting inside his office located on the second storey of his Upper Lonsdale home, Corben is literally engulfed in his work.
A long bookshelf that takes up an entire wall is filled with media guides, yearbooks, record books, directories, programs, souvenir baseballs and bats, bobble heads and sports team mugs and hats. Precariously tall piles of newspapers and books fill the remainder of available space. His desk is covered by a welter of paper.
“I have a lot of books. You know I never throw anything away,” he says reaching over to pull out a copy of UBC’s alum directory from the 1990s, which he says is useful for locating people.
When I asked to interview Corben about his just-released book The Pitching Professor: The Life and Times of Ernie Kershaw and his forthcoming Play it Again! A Century PLUS of North Shore Sports Stories, I requested that we meet in his office. He flashed a smile that suggested a surprise awaited.
“I think I may be able to fit a second chair in there,” he said while sitting in my office beforehand.
It fit, barely.
While it may seem cramped and chaotic to a visitor, for Corben there’s complete order.
When discussing his stint as sports editor of his high school yearbook, he leaps out of his chair, squeezes past me and quickly retrieves a stack of yearbooks from the shelf.
“I know where everything is. It just looks like…,” he says, the sentence trailing off.
His next book will feature 100 stories that previously ran in The Outlook.
He’s tried to include stories “about individuals and teams, men and women, different sports and representation of all time periods.”
Telling historical narratives requires frequent trips to the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, hours at the library scrolling microfilm and flipping through old city directories and cold calls — lots of them. Corben thinks nothing of coming across a somewhat unique last name, typing it into Canada411.com, getting 25 or more results and calling up each one to gather intel for his story. He’s tracked down people as far away as Germany for his column.
That doggedness once even earned the inveterate researcher a return call — from the law.
When Corben was making his way through a list of names for a story on New Year’s babies, one call recipient became suspicious, thinking the man on the other end of the line might be a fraudster looking to glean some personal info so he called the RCMP, who in turn called Corben.
“That’s the first time that’s happened,” Corben says with a laugh.
Usually his calls end up turning into long conversations or later interviews.
“They do some of the research themselves,” he says.
“Pretty much everyone I deal with is so helpful. ‘You might try so and so and here’s their number.’”
Mostly Corben relies on his own history on the North Shore for story ideas. After all, he grew up here, played sports here, had his own sports column in the North Shore Citizen beginning when he was still in high school and served as the coordinator of athletics for the North and West Van school districts for three decades.
Of course, during his research he also stumbles across gems.
A good example is “A Footrace for the Ages,” which appeared in his first book, Instant Replay.
“That story came about because of a few lines that were tucked away in a story in a newspaper that hasn’t existed in years,” he explains.
While doing research for a West Vancouver May Day story he stumbled across a paragraph or two about a 100- yard race in 1931 that ended with one runner tripping over his shoelace and the race being rerun in an incredible act of good sportsmanship.
“Now if I could get ahold of the people,” he said to himself.
“I researched and researched and eventually found an Oldum [the last name of the sprinter who stumbled] in West Vancouver who was a distant relative.”
That led him to an Oldum living on Salts Spring Island.
Corben called, expecting to speak to the daughter.
Turned out, it was his wife, who was now in her 90s.
“She remembered that race in minute detail,” he says leaning forward.
“Wow, what a memory.”
His story appeared in The Outlook on May 25, 2006 “exactly 75 years after the event,” he says proudly.
“I hold stories for a key moment.”
And he’s got hundreds more story ideas stored on his computer that just need a little more research.
— For more information about the Pitching Professor and Play it Again! email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-988-0455.