Robert Norman “Bob” Forhan — best known as just Bob around town — seemingly excelled at every aspect of his life.
Born in Newmarket in March 1936, Forhan was an athlete, politician, teacher, diplomat and community leader.
My problem is just how you capture the history of a gentleman who was the modern equivalent of a Renaissance man.
A natural athlete, he seemed to love all sports — track and field, tennis, squash, baseball, and golf, along with a passion for our national sport, hockey, at which he would excel.
Forhan would pack up his gear and head out of town at the tender age of 14 to pursue his love of the game. He was a talented right winger who played Jr. A hockey with the Weston Dukes, Guelph Biltmores and Sudbury Wolves, turning pro with the Greensboro Generals of the Eastern Hockey League and the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League while continuing his education at the University of Waterloo.
It is every young person’s dream to make it to the Olympics and he made two trips, in the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley where he would win a silver medal as a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen and the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria where his Canadian team would finish fourth.
It should be noted that particular Canadian team marked the debut of a dedicated national program under the guidance of Father David Bauer and brought together the best amateur players from across the country.
All the while he continued his education at the University of British Columbia, eventually graduating with a bachelor of physical and health education. After graduation, he moved back to Newmarket, his home, teaching at both Pickering College and Thornhill Secondary School.
Forhan also had a real calling for politics, a profession where the ability to stick handle and take advantage of what the opposition gives you to score your points was in alignment with the game of hockey.
He first made his name in politics when he successfully ran for mayor of Newmarket, the 25th in our history, in 1978.
He moved on to become chairman and chief administrative officer of York Region, retiring in 1995 after a career in government that spanned from the 1970s to 1995, including Newmarket town council (as councillor and then mayor from 1971 to 1978), Chair of York Region (1978-1984) and CAO of York Region from 1978 to 1995. His two decades as York Region chairman and CAO were pivotal moments in regional governance.
The town never forget Forhan’s sports exploits, naming him, in 2010, as one of the seven inaugural inductees to the Newmarket Sports Hall of Fame. I am certain that if there had been a hall of fame for public service, he would have been elected to that institution, as well. dThe Olympic-sized rink at the Magna Centre in Newmarket bears his name.
A street was named after him, alongside that of protégé Raymond Twinney, just off Davis Drive southeast of Leslie Street.
There is little doubt that municipal politics was where he left a lasting mark as a leader within Newmarket and the region. York Region Chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson in a statement he released upon Forhan’s passing on June 3, 2018 stated, “Mr. Forhan’s contributions to the York Region community are immeasurable.”
“Beginning with his time as mayor of Newmarket in the early ‘70s, proceeding through his time as Regional Chairman, and serving as the Region’s Chief Administrative Officer, his leadership helped York Region successfully navigate a period of significant growth and change.”
Emmerson went on to say, “His life is an example of what can be achieved when a vision combines with dedication and the love of community.”
Everyone knew that Forhan’s success hinged on an old hockey adage that to be good at what you do, you need to learn how to take what the other team gives you and devise a plan based on your strengths, using the rules to find success.
As mayor, when the province created the regional governance model, displacing York County, Forhan indicated that he was resigned to the fact that new, outside forces would fundamentally change the very nature of the town he loved.
I wrote in my article on the annexation issue of 1971 how Mayor Forhan insisted on a new deal for the town, one allowing it to direct the growth, and benefit from the growth.
Under his plan, which he called the user- pay philosophy, developers were mandated to build and pay for roads, sidewalks, and sewers in their new subdivisions and make cash contributions to the town’s coffers to fund new libraries, recreation facilities, and other services deemed necessary for the new residents of Newmarket.
His plan was eventually adopted by the other towns in the region and while there have been some issues over the years, his vision for growth and how to fund and benefit from it has been one of his many legacies.
Soon after York Region had become a reality and annexation took place, Mayor Forham’s user- pay philosophy was put to the test when the Quaker Hills subdivision, proposed by the Schickendanz Group, was being evaluated by council.
Under mayor Forhan’s plan, the developer would build its own streets and install all the necessary services, all at their own expense. You will remember the developer also built a much needed pool on William Roe Blvd. in 1973.
DelZotto Homes, the developer of a north-end subdivision near the hospital, built the Frank Hollingsworth Arena for the town in 1973 and contributed to other town facilities.
While the developer floodgates seemed to have flown open, the sense was Forhan had everything under control and the town would draw as many benefits as it could from this inevitable growth spurt.
Forhan seemed to know well the rules by which the game was now being played and he instinctively adapted the town’s approach to take advantage of those rules, to the benefit of his town.
My memory of Forhan’s time on our council was one of progress, adapting to changing times and getting on with the business of running a town in the interest of the town and with an eye both to our past and to our incredible future.
When the former politician and Canadian Olympian died at the age of 82, flags flew at half-mast throughout the region to honour the passing of the former Newmarket mayor and member of council, regional chair and CAO, Mr. Robert ‘Bobby’ Forhan.
Forhan enjoyed a remarkable career in two of Canada’s favourite pastimes – hockey and politics and he excelled at both.
Sources: The Newmarket Era; Newmarket – The Heart of York Region by Robert Terrance Carter; Tribute on Roadhouse and Rose Website; Press Release – The Region of York.
NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town’s history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected]