By Clancy Waite (’15)
Warren Sutton (’63) was 21 in 1960 when he came to Canada for the first time, traveling in a car with legendary Acadia basketball coach Stu Aberdeen to suit up for the Axemen.
A star player, Sutton had started his basketball career three years earlier at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. While there, he had a relationship with the school treasurer’s daughter. Unhappy about it, the treasurer put pressure on school officials to have Sutton, an African American, end the relationship or face expulsion. Unwilling to do so, Sutton withdrew and moved to New York City.
While he was in New York City, his coach, Pete Smith, put Sutton on Aberdeen’s radar. Smith, who was working with Aberdeen at a basketball All-America camp, told Aberdeen about Sutton and that prompted a conversation between Sutton and Aberdeen. Sutton says, “he knew I wanted to continue my education and spoke to me about coming to Acadia. Come September, Stu packed me up with his wife and newborn and we were off to Nova Scotia.”
Although Wolfville is about the same size as Alfred, the move was an adjustment for Sutton. “I had been living in New York City for nine months, so it was a bit of a culture shock, but I was able to adjust,” he says. The atmosphere, though, was completely and refreshingly different. “The people were wide open and welcoming. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been out of the country, and I didn’t know much about Canada, but was prepared to try a new adventure and continue my education.”
Sutton describes his Acadia experience as one of the best of his life, partially because of the way people regarded him. “When I went to Alfred, my image of myself was as a basketball player and that’s how I thought people saw me and related to me,” he says. “When I came to Acadia, I found that my friends accepted me for me. It wasn’t so much a basketball thing. It made a whole different environment for me because they saw me as a person.”
A stand-out in his first year, Sutton helped the Axemen win the Maritime Championship for the first time in over two decades. “We had a good nucleus for the team. It was an awesome experience, all the guys got along. It was really fun,” he says.
Unfortunately, an eligibility issue cut short his second season and “I didn’t hang out with the team a lot after that. It was too hard,” he says. “But as far as the campus and the guys I knew on campus, it was the same thing. They were relating to Warren the person, not Warren the basketball player.”
After Acadia, Sutton chose to remain in Canada instead of returning to the United States. He worked as a business systems analyst and project manager until he retired, coaching basketball in his free time. “Coaching was always a hobby, but I worked in the computer field since the early ’60s. That's what paid the bills,” Sutton says. He coached university women’s basketball and club league, where he led teams to multiple championships.
Sutton was inducted into Acadia’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 as an individual and a member of the 1960-61 basketball team, which he considers quite an honour. “I only had one season there, so I must have made an impact or impression to get in with just one season. And our whole team was inducted, so that was like a double bonus,” he says.
Sutton has also been inducted into several other sport halls of fame for his playing and coaching abilities. He tries to return to Acadia as often as he can, calling it his second home. “I come back frequently. Last time was in November 2016 when they renamed the gym the Stu Aberdeen Court.”
Nearly 60 years after his controversial relationship drove him from Alfred, Sutton has nothing but kind words for the university. “I perceived it quite differently from a lot of other people. They saw me as a victim. I never put this on the university; I always saw this as one or two or three individuals who were involved in the process,” he says.
On May 13, 2017, Sutton was awarded an honorary degree from Alfred University. In a press release dated Feb. 24, 2017, Alfred University President Mark Zupan said, “awarding an honorary degree to Warren Sutton helps heal a wound suffered in 1959 by one of its greatest all-time student-athletes.” The release also notes that “Alfred University honors him in 2017 not for his extraordinary basketball skills, but for his character and his history.”
“I received a written apology from the president last July,” Sutton says. “He hadn’t even been inaugurated when he contacted me. A few days later I got a phone call from the chair of the board of trustees and he indicated that Alfred wanted to present me with an honorary degree. The apology was a total surprise and I didn’t expect it. It was welcome, though. The times were different back then, but at least they wanted to make amends.”
While the apology and award were nice, the support he received from his peers was overwhelming. “I got loads of support from across the country from some of my former classmates and teammates, and some of them traveled pretty far to come to the convocation and support me. That was the amazing part; people I hadn’t seen in 40 or 50 years came to support me,” he says.
Drawing from his experiences, Sutton has some advice for young students today. “You have to pursue your own goals and objectives. You shouldn’t be influenced by your peers or what people are saying. Sometimes you just have to go against the grain and follow your beliefs. Whether it’s social, business, whatever, you just have to take the step yourself. If it works, great, and if it doesn’t, you still tried.”