Why is UVic’s most prominent building named after Thomas McPherson, a man born in Scotland?
The McPherson Library is a focal point of our campus — located at the head of the quad, it is a building that almost everyone passes coming or going from the bus to their classes. It contains over 2 000 seats and provides access to nearly four million physical and electronic resources. Despite its importance, most of us have no idea who McPherson was and why one of the most prominent buildings on campus is named after him.
Speaking honestly, it seems that not too much can be found about McPherson. Information about him is scant and often contradictory between sources. The information below is mainly from newspapers around his time of death.
With that said, let’s discuss what we do know about him. Starting with the basics, Thomas Shanks McPherson was born closer to Queen Victoria herself than the city of Victoria. He was born in Scotland in 1873 and moved to California to learn pottery at a young age. Following this, he would come to Canada for the first time, becoming a store clerk in Nelson. Then, in 1905, he would come to live in Victoria and enter the real estate business.
He would also become one of the richest people in Victoria and become known as “Victoria’s quietest philanthropist.” Upon his death in 1962, at the age of 89, his philanthropic nature would continue as he donated the majority of his $4 million estate (equivalent to around $40 million today).
In a complicated endeavour, $450 000 was immediately donated to 11 charities and a masonic lodge. Then, over the next five years, the income generated from his $3.3 million estate — in stocks and from two of McPherson’s buildings, the now-called McPherson Playhouse and Central Building — would be given to these organizations as well.
Following this five year period, the stocks and real estate would be donated to the city, which amounted to over $1.3 million. The city would use his contributions to create Centennial Square and modernize downtown Victoria into what we know today.
His biggest donation, however, would be to UVic — or, as it was known then, Victoria College. He left an initial $250 000 to the college for the construction of UVic’s library and, following the five year period, donated $2 million worth of stock and real estate to the university.
When the library opened in 1964, only a year after the college turned into a university and the first students arrived on campus, it was named after him due to his generous donations to its construction, but also because of his long-held vision that turning Victoria College into a university would be a crucial element in the advancement of the CRD.
Despite the significance that the name McPherson carries for students on campus, one would be hard-pressed to find more information about him. Perhaps the lack of information can be attributed to McPherson’s modest nature. It is said that people who met him often did not know about the extent of his wealth as he was very quiet about his philanthropy. His modest nature was so grand that the greatest difficulty emerged when people tried to find a photo of him after his death. If you were to ask McPherson about his achievements, rather than gloating about his wealth, he would likely gloat about getting a hole-in-one on each of the par three holes at the Colwood Golf Club.