Susan Butt, VHS 1955 Tennis, Psychology, and The Psychology of Sport
By King Lee, VHS 1958
One would think that being ranked No. 1 tennis player in Canada three years in the ‘60s, playing Wimbledon twice, (once on centre court), and being named captain of Canada’s Federation Cup team would shine a singular spotlight on Susan Butt of the Victoria High School graduating class of 1955. But this was the spectacular Vic High Class of ’55 and Susan shares that spotlight with numerous other accomplished classmates.** (Read below about just a few 1955 alumni.)
Susan’s interest in the sport goes back to when she was nine years old. She saw Maureen Connelly, a top United States player, practicing at the Victoria Lawn Tennis and Badminton Club’s grass courts. Located at the time near Fort Street and Foul Bay Road, Susan’s father was an avid tennis player and a member at the Club.
Maureen, nicknamed “Little Mo,” went on to become the first woman to win four Grand Slam titles in the same year (1953) at the Australian, French and U.S. opens as well as Wimbledon. She was the American Female Athlete of the Year for three consecutive years starting in 1953.
Susan began to take the sport seriously as she was becoming a teenager. “My father was my coach,” said Susan, during a recent visit at her North Saanich home. With Little Mo as inspiration and her father’s coaching and encouragement, Susan learned quickly and went on to win the Victoria singles and doubles titles at just 17.
Susan was initially enrolled at St. Margaret’s School, a girls’ private school founded in Victoria in 1908. But she left after one year because the school wouldn’t allow her to miss their mandatory after-school games program for her one-hour daily tennis practice. St. Margaret’s loss was Vic High’s gain, as Susan quickly immersed herself in many aspects of school life there. Field hockey, badminton, table tennis, and of course, tennis, under the watchful eye of teacher Gordon Hartley, himself an accomplished tennis player.
“I think it was an excellent education,” Susan said of Vic High. She particularly remembered English literature teacher (and principal after Harry Smith’s retirement) Harry Dee, biology teacher (and another future Victoria High School principal) Duncan Lorimer, and her homeroom and social studies teacher Miss Sargent.
Asked who her best friend was at Vic High, she simply replied, “My best friend was tennis.”
Along the way to Wimbledon, Susan racked up seven Stanley Park singles and doubles titles in Vancouver. About age 19, she even found time to work during the summers as a junior columnist for the Victoria Daily Times under women’s editor Bessie Forbes. Susan wrote about her tennis adventures while at the paper.
Susan played against tennis greats Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson and Marie Bueno of Brazil. But her pinnacle came in 1961 when she played at Wimbledon’s centre court in the third round of Wimbledon, but was defeated by No. 1 seed Sandra Reynolds of South Africa. Sandra had lost the final the year before to Brazilian Bueno.
In 1967, Susan regained her No. 1 status in Canadian women’s tennis and played at Wimbledon again. “It was a privilege to get to play Wimbledon again,” Susan said.
Susan is in the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame, B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame of the Pacific Northwest, and is soon-to-be-inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. She was ranked No. 1 in Canada in 1960, 1961 and 1967.
But tennis was just the beginning for Susan. She obtained her PhD in Psychology in Chicago (also winning two city tennis titles in the process), and went on to teach psychology at UBC for 36 years, specializing – of course – in sports psychology. Her theory, that aggressive training procedures don’t necessarily produce the superior results obtained through a co-operative training atmosphere, are outlined in her 1976 book, The Psychology of Sport. Cuba has the highest per capita winning percentage for gold medals partially , Susan maintains, because their training methods jive with the philosophy outlined in her book.
Tennis is off the table now. She’s almost recovered from one knee operation and is awaiting another. She’s vital, witty, and very accomplished with definite opinions about women’s role in society, she’s a grateful Vic High grad, and she can look back on her outstanding tennis and teaching careers with great pride.
** Just a few of the very accomplished VHS 1955 alumni:
David Anderson won gold and silver in the men’s four rowing at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and silver in the men’s eights in 1960 in Rome. He eventually held four separate federal cabinet positions as a Member of Parliament. Black & Gold Roll of Honour Inductee video.
Stew Smith, renowned physicist and Dean of Physics at Princeton University from 1990 to 1998, won the Mann Cup, emblematic of the senior men’s Canadian lacrosse championship in 1961 playing with the Vancouver Carlings team. In his graduating year at Vic High, Stew received the Governor General’s medal for being the province’s top student. Black & Gold Roll of Honour Inductee video.
Jim Taylor, a Canadian sports humorist and columnist for 30 years with both Vancouver daily newspapers, where he wrote about 7,500 columns, and was nationally syndicated for six years with a Calgary-based sports publication. He was inducted into the Canadian Football and Greater Victoria sports halls of fame as a writer before he died in 2019. Black & Gold Roll of Honour Inductee video.
And last, but not least, Fenwick Lansdowne, a self-taught, accomplished bird painter despite contracting polio at a young age and whose work has been displayed across Canada and beyond.