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Compton Vigilance: A Fort McMurray Legend

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Like it or not, names affect perceptions. If you call yourself ‘The Rock’ it may seem as if you are trying to escape your conventionality, but the so-named wrestler was honouring his dad, the ‘70s Canadian wrestler Rocky Johnson. In similar fashion, James Bond conjures thoughts of Berettas, martinis and Aston Martins; the real man of the name was a Jamaican ornithologist, and Fleming chose it for his hero because it was ‘bland’. Clearly that one did not work as planned.

If you had never met Compton Vigilance and judged him only by his name, the image would be somewhat different to the reality. In my head he should have been about seven foot one, guarded, and angry looking. Competent, yet brimming with watchfulness. Vigilant even. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fort McMurray’s favourite coach is just on five and a half feet tall, closer to Muggsy Bogues than Michael Jordan, and probably the most contented person in Fort McMurray. So how did he get this way?

Compton was born at the end of the Second World War in Guyana, number six of what was to become a family of 12. Although his dad always had a job and his mother made the money last from payday to payday, Compton remembers a home with no extras but lots of love. Hand me down clothing was the norm and his Mother made every penny stretch with her skills as a seamstress, baker, and cook. Many of Compton’s favourite dishes from those days were meals designed to spread the groceries as far as possible. Pepperpot, the rich stew that turned meat into magic; Cookup, the spicy black-eyed peas and rice dish that filled their bellies and used up leftovers; and Mettemgee, the traditional Guyanese soup of lick-the-bowl-clean goodness. Hearty nourishing meals that fed a family and still evoke strong memories in Compton today.

The family lived in MacKenzie, a bauxite town owned by the Canadian Aluminum Company. Compton’s dad worked on the mine as a painter in the maintenance shop. Mining for bauxite involves a lot of digging with the resultant wear and tear, so there was always work. By the time the Vigilance family were settled there, the town also supported machine shops for maintaining the big shovels as well as an electrical plant and all the facilities needed to dig, crush, sort and move mined materials to a processing plant. Sounds familiar? Years later when he first saw the oil sands operations, Compton thought he’d come home, the similarities were so striking.

With all this industry around him, it seemed natural to study electrical engineering, first through the City & Guilds of London University at home in Guyana, and later in Canada. He also managed to persuade his childhood sweetheart Carrolle to come with him to the cold north. They are heading towards 50 years of marriage now and still happily in love, with two sons and six grandchildren. Reasons enough for some contentment, but not all. There was also sport.

In a family of 12 you get a lot of free time, as parental observation is spread thin. Compton used this time to indulge himself and sport was his outlet. If pressed, he’ll say that soccer is his first love, or maybe basketball. Then again, he loves volleyball almost as much, (maybe more), and he played table tennis to a very high level, and there was also cricket where he was a useful middle order bat and a fine medium-fast bowler. He has excelled in many sports, especially those he wasn’t really designed for. Remember, he’s five foot six. Basketball and volleyball players, as well as cricket bowlers, all tend to run a little taller.

Case in point. At a college meet one year, Compton competed in the pole vault with a pole he had cut from the jungle, and he made the same height that the national winner made later that year with his proper, flexible pole. He also competed in both the long jump and the high jump. The long jump is for sprinters, people built like Donovan Bailey; the high jump, meanwhile, is for tall, skinny, bouncy people. Compton is neither. In fact, standing on the winner’s place on the podium after the high jump finals, he was still shorter than the silver medallist.

Nobody told Compton he couldn’t succeed, or if they did he wasn’t listening. He played sports well, hard and fair, but that part of his life disappeared almost the moment he arrived here. The people of Fort McMurray and the students at Keyano College actually know Compton best as a coach of almost more sports than this article has space to list. 

Even today, at an age where most people would be eyeing their rocking chair, he’s still out at basketball practice at 6:00 a.m. His son Dwayne is the coach now, roles that have been reversed for some time, and Compton defers graciously. Indeed there is an easy familiarity between father and son on the court and while there’s no doubt who is in charge it’s obvious that Coach Dwayne likes having his dad there.

Compton first coached his son when he was five, and their shared love of sport is evident in the way they talk. They have the coded shorthand of long familiarity, and seem to read each other’s thoughts. On this year’s team, Dwayne is guarded in his opinions. His role is to teach, coach and win. Compton, however, says that this year’s first year players are the best he’s ever seen, and he has high hopes for their second and third years.

I suspect that he thinks that every year, and believes it. One of Compton’s many strengths as a coach is his ability to motivate. He does so quietly, and the players listen, eager to absorb the wealth of knowledge he has. He also does so by believing in his charges; their potential and their talent. There’s a connection that he has with the students. It’s obvious sitting talking to him. We are interrupted frequently by students saying Hi, staff waving, the Director, Wade, coming over to get his opinion. It is a gracious procession of testimony.

It is fitting that he spends so much time down at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre at the Keyano Campus, because it was Syncrude that helped Compton become a coach, kind of. It was 1979. Compton, Carrolle and the family had just moved to Fort McMurray for his new job out at site. One week in, he broke his knee in a pickup soccer game and ended up in a cast from bottom to top.

It would be safe to say that Carrolle was concerned. Here her husband was, in his middle 30s, playing games that got him injured and could get him laid off from work, (labour laws were not as congenial back then). The company, however, kept his job for him and while he was mending he started to think about other ways to remain involved in sport.

It would be easy to say ‘the rest is history’, but that wouldn’t do justice to the uncountable hours, days, weeks, and months that Compton has dedicated to training young sportsmen. And let’s not forget the officiating as well. He still referees basketball, soccer and volleyball when he has the time, and is still out coaching at 6:00 a.m.

The rewards, from a material standpoint, are few. But that’s not why he does it. Naturally, there’s the thrill of competition, the joy in winning, even the building of character that comes from losing. Earlier I mentioned his contentment with his life. I tried out many other words. ‘Satisfied’ implies a level of pride, and Compton is not a pride-filled man; his humility will not allow him to be. ‘Gratified’ presumes an ending, and that is also not part of his philosophy. ‘Happy’ is too brief a description to describe this journey through life that Compton and Carrolle have been on, and it’s a journey that he seems to have succeeded at admirably. “Life is a cycle,” he said to me while we were talking. “There is always one more player to coach, one more hill to climb”.

He is content as he says it, his eyes sparkling with more life and light than a glass of fireflies, but it is not contentment in the sense of settling for his lot in life. Rather he has taken that allotment and turned it into a life worth living. Keyano, Syncrude and Fort McMurray have been lucky to have him. Let’s hope we do so for a lot longer.

Ezra, the youngest grandchild comes running up to his grandfather. They hug, then I am given a solemn high five. Ezra is not yet three. “He kicks a soccer ball with both feet,” says Compton. “That’s rare at his age.” Left unsaid are all the possibilities.

One more hill to climb. 


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.