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Dr. James A. Vance, P.Eng. (1892-1981)
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By M. Frances Stevens and Keith V. Stevens, P.Eng.

"Working in the private sector during World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), his steel bridges and telephones enhanced transportation and communication in the Western Region, and as Chair, Ontario Water Resources Commission he served in environmental protection.

Dr. James Alfred Vance, “James A,” was an active member of both the engineering community and society as a whole. In his professional life he designed and constructed highway bridges, industrial buildings and worked on water resource development projects. He was active internationally in engineering and conservation projects. His volunteer work covered a broad area. Wherever he saw a need, he took an active role in making things better. Due to his dedication and commitment, Dr. Vance received numerous awards in engineering, conservation and public service.

Beginnings

“James A” was born May 8, 1892 in East-Zorra Tavistock, Oxford County, to James Armstrong Vance and Ella (Cooper) Vance. His father was a farmer who developed an interest in the construction of steel highway bridges. His father was associated with both the Stratford Bridge Company and the Hamilton Bridge Company. “James A” worked with his father on many of these projects. He attended public school in East-Zorra Tavistock and high school in New Hamburg. Inspired by his father’s work in bridge building, he decided to become an engineer. In preparation for university, he took the train in to Berlin Collegiate Institute (now Kitchener) for his final year of high school.

In 1911 he was accepted into the School of Practical Science at University of Toronto in the civil engineering program. Throughout his university years “James A” continued working on bridge construction with the family business. The untimely death of his father in 1914 brought his formal education to an end. He dropped out of school to take over the family business, although he was able to graduate with his class. This also kept him from serving in World War I.

In 1918 he married Rowena (Allison) and returned to Oxford County to begin 63 years of happy marriage. Their only child, Alberta Jean, was born there in 1919.

Career

Construction

“James A.” took over his father’s business, James A. Vance Construction, and continued to work on bridge construction, expanding to include industrial buildings and other structures as the years went on. During World War I
he erected many large scale bridges in Ontario. Some of the more notable ones include: a 150-ft bridge over the Nith River in Blenheim and the Wharncliffe Rd. bridge over the Thames in London. During the ’20s and ’30s he moved into more industrial buildings, several of which are still in use today. The construction company was sold in 1961 and continues to operate as James A. Vance Construction. “James A.” was also a founding partner in “Vance Needles, Bergendolf and Smith,” Consulting Engineers.

During World War II, “James A” took on a number of community responsibilities in addition to his construction business. He was responsible for two major building wartime projects in Woodstock. The Advanced Driving and Maintenance Military School was built on the fairgrounds in Woodstock. This project employed over 600 people and was completed very quickly to accommodate the growing need for military training sites during the war. As a result of the depression and wartime shortages, housing became a major issue. In 1941, he was asked to chair Federal Wartime Housing Ltd., which “was responsible for providing suitable accommodation at the lowest cost.” Thirty-five homes were built to meet the needs in Woodstock. He chaired the Victory loan campaigns, raising funds for the war effort for nine years.

Farming

Farming was an interest he retained from his early days in Oxford County. He bought farms to use as collateral for the construction business, including dairy (sold during the difficult years of the depression) and beef.

Telephone Companies

He was intrigued by the technology of the telephone and its benefit for society. In 1933, as executor of an estate holding a large number of shares in the company, “James A.” began his association with the Princeton and Drumbo Telephone Company. They struggled through the depression and war years to provide quality telephone service to the local area. In 1946 this company joined with four other small local companies to form the Oxford Telephone Co. Ltd. Also in this year he purchased an interest in the Thedford, Arkona and East Lambton Telephone Co. Ltd and worked to reorganize and equip the company to provide reliable service. His family is still involved in the running of this business.

Shortly after World War II, “James A.” was a founder of the Canadian Industrial Preparedness Association “formed to encourage active participation in industrial preparedness for the common defense of Canada.” As a member of this association he toured military installations in Canada and the United States from the Arctic bases in Alaska and Goose Bay to the NORAD headquarters in Colorado and many places in between. He considered it an “interesting and rewarding experience.” As a result of his work with this association he was asked to go as a delegate to the 1959 NATO conference in London, England.

The latter years of Dr. Vance’s career were marked by travel to conferences and projects around the world. As a noted engineer, he was asked to participate in a number of provincial, national and international organizations. These included:

  • Engineering Institute of Canada, President 1951;
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, honorary member;
  • Alternate Warden, Corporation of Seven Wardens 1952 to 1979;
  • Warden, Camp 11, Corporation of Seven Wardens 1958 to 1979;
  • Pan American Association of Engineering Societies (UPADI), Founding Director 1951-69;
  • National Academy of Science of Buenos Aries, foreign member;
  • Cansult Limited, founding director and president;
  • Canadian Water Resources Association, director 1969-81;
  • Canadian Forestry Association, President;
  • Ontario Forestry Association, founding President 1952-58;
  • Ontario Water Resources Commission, Chair 1964-69;
  • NATO Conference Canadian delegate, 1959;
  • Canadian Independent Telephone Association, director 1953; and
  • Canadian Chamber of Commerce, director 1953.

Community Activities

Business was not “James A’s” only interest. As a prominent member of the Woodstock community, he became involved in many community associations and charitable activities. In addition to those mentioned previously he was also involved in the following organizations:

  • Rotary Club, President 1929;
  • Board of Trade, President 1936-45;
  • London Health Association “Beck Memorial Sanatorium,” director:
  • Oxford T.B. Association, 1930s;
  • Canadian Industrial Preparedness Association;
  • Woodstock Relief Committee, Chair;
  • Oxford County National War Finance Committee, Chair;
  • War Charities Committee, Chair; and
  • Woodstock General Hospital, Board 1945-1978, Chair 1955-1969.

Dr. Vance’s many years of service have been acknowledged through many honours, most notably an honorary Doctor of Laws from UWO, the Kennedy Medal from the Engineering Institute of Canada, the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Rotary Club Paul Harris Fellow and the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Medal.

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