Capping off a meaningful career

From practitioner to professor and research, Gordon Walker wraps up his 25 year career leaving his mark on the leisure studies landscape

Nicole Graham - 24 April 2019

From the Parks and Recreation Department in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to lecture rooms at the University of Alberta, and classrooms in China and Japan, one would say that Gordon Walker's career has been what leisure researchers and practitioners would call a meaningful experience.

Gordon has spent nearly 25 years teaching and researching motivations for, constraints to, experience during, and outcomes of leisure. When one speaks to Gordon, they get a sense that by immersing himself at looking at leisure using various lenses, the principles of the field have seeped deep into his professional life. From travelling the world to better understand other ethnicities' and cultures' leisure habits to helping to shape the minds and skill sets of young academics and practitioners, Gordon is certainly leaving his mark on the leisure and recreation field.

While completing a Bachelor's Degree in Physical Activity Studies at the University of Regina, Gordon worked as a Recreation Program Supervisor for the City of Moose Jaw. After spending five years as a recreation practitioner, Gordon decided to pursue a Master's degree in Leisure Studies at Arizona State University. His motivation to do so was three-fold: to learn more about his field at an advanced level, to complement this with courses in public administration, and to try to better understand the United States in terms of its history and politics. It was there he met a mentor who changed the course of his career path from practitioner to academic.

"I had this incredible professor named Maria Allison, who taught the sociology and psychology of leisure. She shifted my thinking from, 'How do we plan and implement recreation programs?' to 'Why do people even participate in leisure activities in the first place'? It was my 'ah-ha' moment, and I started off on the path I've been on for the past two decades."

Gordon returned to his practitioner job at the City of Moose Jaw with his coursework completed and most of his thesis written. However, he was contacted shortly thereafter by the University of Regina with an offer of a lecturer job in the Faculty of Physical Activity Studies. After teaching for two years, Gordon had caught the academia-bug and decided to pursue his PhD in Natural Resource Recreation at Virginia Tech. In 1997, while the ink was still drying on his diploma, Gordon accepted an Assistant Professor position at the then Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta.

Over the course of his 22 years at the University of Alberta, Gordon's research has primarily focused on leisure behaviour, especially in terms of ethnic and cultural similarities and differences. This focus was spurred by an experience early in his tenure when he was assisting with a group of students on a field trip to Elk Island National Park. The park warden mentioned to Gordon that they had become aware of an influx of visible minority group members coming to the park, but they didn't really have an understanding of why the park was so appealing, or what the visitors hoped to get out of their experience. Gordon and his graduate students soon started working with Parks Canada to learn more about the leisure behaviour of these New Canadians.

"It was around this time that one of my graduate students said to me 'this is great, but to really understand Chinese-Canadians' leisure behaviour, you first have to understand Chinese culture and leisure practices'. This set me off on a path where I often travelled to better understand the cultures I was studying."

Learning more about immigrants' cultures before they come to Canada, explains Gordon, is helpful in better understanding their leisure behaviour and in providing them with more meaningful experiences. This is a mandate that he has carried throughout his research, and is something that he impresses upon not only his graduate students, but his undergraduate students who are just making their first foray into leisure and recreation.

"Being able to share research experiences and outcomes with my students has been one of the more rewarding aspects of the past 20-plus years. I've had the pleasure of teaching short courses in Japan and China, and I have even spent part of my final undergraduate class having some great discussions about the demographic changes occurring in Canada what this means from a leisure perspective."

Gordon sees his legacy as having helped build a solid base for his graduate and undergraduate students so they can go off in different directions-academic, business, government, and not-for-profit-to further leisure research and practice. He is certainly leaving an impression on the leisure studies field, closing out his career with what he considers to be the most meaningful awards he's received over his career. In March 2018, he was one of the recipients of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research Great Supervisor Award in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation; and in May 2018 he was the recipient of the inaugural Leisure Scholar Award from the Canadian Association for Leisure Studies-an honour he considers to be a lifetime achievement award.

Two years ago, when Gordon was contemplating the decision to retire, he had just had the best year of his career, research-, teaching- and service-wise. He had been the chief editor of Leisure Matters: The State and Future of Leisure Studies, he had witnessed his graduate students go on to accomplish great things in the leisure studies field, and he had been able to extend his research into the area of positive psychology, where leisure is considered to be a key aspect of people's lives that contributes to their happiness and quality of life. "I looked at that year and, like most people, I kind of wanted to go out at the top of my game."

Rather than retire outright, Gordon "pretired", working fifty-percent for the past two years. This allowed him the time to teach his graduate course once more, to help some graduate students complete their degrees, and to be the lead author for the third edition of A Social Psychology of Leisure-a textbook he and his co-authors had been working on for a number of years.

For a lifelong learner, teacher, and researcher, Gordon recognizes that there will be some days where he will miss his work, but he knows that it's time for him to move on to full retirement.

"Where else is there a job where you're paid to ask questions, and then try to answer them? When you have an inquisitive mind like I do, it's hard to explore these questions, and some days I sit there and think, 'Wow, it would be great to do research on…', then I stop and tell myself that I'll leave that for somebody else to do."

Retirement will still hold a lot of travel for Gordon and his wife, Janet, who is retiring at the same time. They have a six week trip planned to Central Asia post-retirement, and then a couple of wilderness canoe trips over the summer. Still being intellectually inclined, Gordon also has plans to audit a few courses at the University of Alberta.

"I just want to sit in a classroom and listen to a great lecture and read some great books. That, to me, would be a very special leisure experience."

As Gordon prepares for this last day in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation on June 30, 2019, he looks back on his career and reflects on what he is going to miss the most.

"In terms of undergraduate teaching-I've enjoyed the excitement (and a little bit of anxiety) first-year students have. You know, there's just energy when they come in, and that is something I will miss. The intellectual interaction with the graduate students has also been phenomenal. I will certainly miss that too."