Young Ontario rugby players must sometimes wonder, as they journey towards Markham and the Fletcher's Fields complex, about the identity of this person Fletcher after whom the Mecca of Ontario rugby is named. As the years go by, recollections of him will grow more and more obscure so it seemed appropriate that, while some of my grey matter is still alive, I should share a few personal reflections of the man. This will not be a biographical sketch of Denis but rather memories of how I came to know and experience him.
A more unlikely looking rugby man you couldn't possibly imagine. The first time I set eyes on him he was standing on the touchline on the back campus field at the University of Toronto, one Saturday afternoon in September 1949. I was preparing to take part in a lineout. Denis was talking to my stepfather Norman Fawdry, who was on of the small founding group of post-war Ontario rugby. He had approached him when he spotted his solitary figure displaying an interest in the game. To me he looked so out of place there and not all the kind of person we hoped might come down to see us play. He was a tall, slim man with a hint of a paunch. He wore plain dark clothing and a navy coloured heavy wool cap. He wore round black rimmed eyeglasses and a Hitler type black moustache. He carried a briefacse by the handle and beside him was his companion, a stocky small dog we later learned was called Jeep. Jeep was as aggressive and yappy as Denis was submissive and quiet. His alter ego, you might say. When the ball was kicked into touch Jeep was the first to reach it. Barking furiously he would push the ball along with his nose, usually in the opposite direction to where the referee wanted it.
After the game my stepfather introduced me to Denis and it was then that I noticed how shy and retiring a person he seemed to be. He had large brown eyes which avoided mine, un uneasy smile which revealed an ill-fitting pair of dentures and a hint of a Yorkshire accent by the was of a nasal sounding voice. Later, when my stepfather told me of Denis' keenness for rugby, I found it hard to believe. My impressions were that he just didn't look the type. When he suggested that we keep in touch with Denis to harness his energy, I wondered why.
What Norman had found out about him during his conversation on the touchline was that he had come to Canada before World War II, worked as a payroll clerk of a construction company, usually at the job site, was married and had one daughter and no sons. He didn't own a car, didn't smoke or drink and interestingly, had never played rugby. But he had spoken sincerely about his desire to see the game catch on in Ontario. He had an expressed aversion to Canadian sport, which he felt was too professional and unsportsmanlike. He admired the commitment to fitness that rugby demanded and the fun and camaraderie which it engendered. All of the things he had never experienced. Yet he wished them so much for the young men of his adopted country. And wished it with a passion.
Denis came out to all the games we played that first fall season. He was always there, briefcase in his hand and Jeep by his side. We could sometimes hear his muffled voice cheering "come on Wanderers". But he would never socialize with us after the games but rather would steal away to his modest little house near the corner of Mortimer and Woodbine in Toronto's east end.
By the time we came to form the Ontario Rugger Union in the spring of 1951 Denis had demonstrated such commitment to the game that we simply could not ignore him. He and his pen had become the most potent force imaginable in the development of the game. His discomfort with people moved him to write rather than to encounter others personally. He had become a regular contributor to the columns of the great sports reporter, Ted Reeve, of the Toronto Telegram. Denis wrote with a poetically colourful style not unlike Reeve's own and as a result Ted would publish verbatim lengthy articles on rugby which Denis would send him. And they were brilliant. When the ORU was formed the only portfolio Dens would consider was that of Expansion. We frankly wondered how he would singlehandedly handle this function but since we didn't have too many bright ideas we felt we had nothing to lose.. What we underestimated was the power of his pen. It is now widely acknowledged that Denis Fletcher was probably more responsible than anyone else for the growth of the game in Ontario high schools and today no province in Canada boasts more participating schools. I cannot say for certain, but unless I miss my guess, Denis probably met very few of the principals and athletic directors he was in touch with about rugby. He did most of it by mail. He also encouraged those members of the ORU who taught in Ontario high schools to bring pressure to bear for incorporating rugby into the sports cirriculum.
If there is an equivalent function on the ORU today to that which Denis performed in the '50s and '60s he would probably be called the Development Officer which I presume would be concerned with expansion and more. But whatever expansion is taking place now is, to be sure, building on the foundations laid 50 years ago by Denis Fletcher.
He died of cancer in 1965 in East General Hospital just down the street from where he lived. I was a theological student at the time and the reverend Canon Guy Marshall, then president of the ORU, invited me to accompany him to visit Denis on his deathbed and give a final blessing and farewell to this shy but dedicated rugby man. But more than that, it gave me an opportunity to atone for my very inaccurate first impressions of him.