Former York administrator dies at 89

Leonard Birchall, chief executive and administrative officer of the Faculty of Administrative Studies (now the Schulich School of Business) from 1967 to 1982, died Sept. 10 in Kingston, Ont. He was 89.


Left: Leonard J. Birchall

Known to many Canadians as a war hero, long-serving member of the Royal Canadian Air Force and commandant of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Birchall brought his considerable talents for administration to York after retiring from active service. Originally recruited to work for the Executive Development program, Birchall was soon asked to take over the faculty’s administration by James Gillies, then dean of the fledgling businss school and now professor emeritus at Schulich. Gillies remembers Birchall as “a fascinating person to work with. He was someone with an extremely high standard of performance who expected the same of others…. He was a disciplined, demanding person… but with a wonderful sense of humour.”

The two men became close friends and Birchall helped Gillies with his 1972 federal election campaign. Recalling one of several episodes, Gillies said Birchall, then in his 60s, once came upon two young thieves leaving a campus building, obviously up to no good. “They were around 18 but Len chased one down and tackled him, holding him until the police came.”

Roger Heeler, marketing professor at Schulich, said Birchall’s talents as an administrator were legendary. “I remember Len as absolutely the most efficient and effective administrator I have ever seen in action,” said Heeler. “As one person in the dean’s office, he easily managed multiple tasks. He always had all the facts, and a determined opinion. The latter would lead to frequent differences of opinion with the many with whom he interacted. Len usually won the resultant debates. But it was when he lost that his true character was revealed. He would be instantly 100 per cent behind what had been decided, with no grudge.”

Heeler said he inadvertently provided another test of Birchall’s character. “As the first PhD director at Schulich, I started looking for good international students to diversify the PhD class. A Japanese student soon joined the program. I learned, indirectly, that this student was of the age and build to remind Len of the horrors that [he] had endured from Japanese soldiers [during the Second World War]. But Len…cheerfully helped the student negotiate the various bureaucracies and difficulties of life in a strange land.”

pilot birchall

Right: Len Birchall, air force pilot

Prior to his years at York, Birchall distinguished himself as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). During the Second World War, while a squadron leader stationed in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Birchall and his crew spotted a Japanese fleet on its way to a surprise attack. They were able to send a signal before being shot down. The message gave the Allies time to prepare, allowing the entire Royal Navy South East Asian Fleet to avoid destruction and the island to defend itself. The battle caused the Japanese to cancel invasion plans and, as a result of his action, Birchall was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After being shot down, Birchall and the surviving members of his crew were picked up by Japanese forces and placed in prisoner-of-war camps. While in the camps, Birchall suffered torture and beatings. As the most senior officer in the camp he was nearly executed several times for defending other prisoners. His conduct resulted, upon his release, in being awarded the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry. After the war, Birchall rose steadily to the upper levels of the RCAF and by 1963 was air commodore and chief of air operations. His last position was commandant of the Royal Military College in Kingston. Detailed stories on Birchall’s war experiences are available at Web sites of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps and the Sri Lanka Virtual Library.

In 1967, he retired from the permanent force and joined York University. In 1996, Air Commodore Birchall had completed 62 years of service in the forces, including honorary posts, and was the first member of the forces to ever receive the fifth bar to the Canadian Forces Decoration, which was presented to him in 1997. At the same time, he received the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service. Upon his retirement from York in 1982, Birchall received an honorary doctor of laws honoris causa from the University.

Predeceased by two wives, Birchall is survived by his third wife Kathleen, a large extended family that includes two daughters and a son, a stepdaughter, stepson, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral for Birchall was held in Kingston’s Chalmers United Church Sept. 13. His coffin was covered by the Air Force flag, on top of which lay his cap, his medals laid out on the Air Force tartan and a sword.

The church was filled to capacity and the speakers included air force veterans and the Sri Lankan high commissioner to Canada, Geetha De Silva, who said Birchall’s contribution to her country would not be forgotten. A private family burial was held last week.

In an obituary published Sept. 18, The Globe & Mail said Birchall was “the longest-serving officer in the history of the Royal Canadian Air Force. For all that, it is the title given him by [Winston] Churchill that shines brightest. Len Birchall will always be remembered as the ‘Saviour of Ceylon’.”