Forestry magnate and UBC benefactor Leon Joseph Koerner has been recognized by the federal government as a Person of National Historic Significance.
The May 14 ceremony took place in the penthouse of the Thea Koerner House — Leon’s former home and one of the many campus buildings and scholarships to bear the family’s name. The event was attended by UBC community members, Koerner Foundation former and present executives, members of the Koerner family and Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray.
A Czech Jew, Leon arrived to Canada in 1939 after fleeing Nazi expansion the year before. A successful forestry executive in his home country, he recognized the potential of British Columbia’s timber reserves during a visit here.
He was particularly taken with hemlock — a tree that North American loggers had ignored because it was difficult to treat, but which Leon made usable through European drying techniques.
Rebranding it as “Alaska Pine”, Leon started a company with his brothers Theodor, Otto and Walter. He quickly became one of the province’s most successful entrepreneurs, distinguishing himself for ethical environmental and labour practices that went beyond the standard of the time.
“Leon ensured that no part of a tree was wasted,” said Murray, who herself founded a reforestation company in the 1970s. “The heritage that Leon brought … has been a core underpinning of why we have a biodiverse planting culture on our crown lands today.”
While Leon was sometimes taken aback by the manners of his Canadian employees — “he did not find Canadians are too polite,” joked Murray — he was an advocate for their rights. He promoted safety training on logging sites, created indoor restrooms and dining halls for workers and paid fair wages to his nearly 5,000 staff.
A UBC family
Leon today is perhaps known best for the multiple buildings and scholarships that bear his family name — but his story and contributions to UBC run deeper than architecture.
Schooled at the London School of Economics and la Sorbonne, Leon was a keen supporter of education and the arts. In 1955, he and his wife Thea created the foundation that bears their names with a $1 million endowment, which they called a “just a small repayment of our debt” to Canada.
A good deal of that initial endowment went towards building the Faculty Club — which has since become the Leon & Thea Koerner University Centre — and the Thea Koerner House. Both buildings that still stand today.
When the Thea Koerner House was completed in 1960, Leon moved into its penthouse, making him one of the first people to call UBC home.
Susan Porter, graduate school dean and vice-provost, noted that the building was called “the greatest stimulus to graduate work since the creation of the faculty.”
“Leon Koerner’s vision for the space here was something very important for higher education, as it is now,” said Porter. “He know that education must entail more than studying, classes, research that intellectual and social community were important to the development of the whole person.”
“He recognized that graduate students were an important community on campus,” said Graduate Student Society President John Ebe. “He understood they required a dedicated space.”