A Life's Story
October 07, 2023
Treasured character inside a crusty exterior
Former military intelligence operator became much-respected leader in Winnipeg’s hobby, fandom community
By: Tyler Searle
Intelligent, thoughtful and direct, Sgt. (Ret.) John Thomas Mansfield was a passionate man with a gruff exterior. It earned him the respect of his peers, the admiration of his friends and the love of his family.
Mansfield, who died April 19 at the age of 78, was a former military intelligence operator and longstanding figure in Manitoba’s hobbyist and gaming community. A fan of all things science fiction, he made a name for himself as a purveyor of niche goods capable of finding the rarest books, comics and figurines.
“You couldn’t ignore John,” said his wife, Linda Mansfield. “He was always interested in what people had to say — what their hobbies were and what they did for a living — he liked to encourage the people around him.”
The couple opened Pendragon Games & Hobbies, in Winnipeg in 1982. The store operated from several downtown locations until the pair retired in 2015.
Over the decades, Mansfield became known as the godfather of Winnipeg’s modern “fandom” community.
The word, a term of endearment, refers to people with exceptional interest in specific subjects, games or hobbies.
“If it wasn’t for John, there would probably be nowhere near the level of fandom we have in the city,” said Michael Paille, owner of Cobra Collectibles at 555 Sargent Ave.
“He was rough around the edges, but once you got to know him, that was just him. It was his personality.”
Mansfield supported Paille in bringing the first Central Canada Comic Con to Winnipeg.
The event grew into one of the largest gatherings of its kind in the nation, attracting an estimated 70,000 people to the RBC Convention Centre during its final year in 2018, according to news reports at the time.
Paille, who was running small trade shows in the 1990s, had been toying with the idea of expanding his events for years. He envisioned a large-scale gathering with celebrity appearances, comparable to fan conventions elsewhere in the world.
When he brought it up to others in Winnipeg’s fandom community, people said it would never work.
But not Mansfield.
“John piped up and he said, ‘Well, we won’t know until you try,’” Paille said.
By that time, Mansfield had created several of his own local conventions and participated in dozens elsewhere in the world. He was a wealth of knowledge, unabashedly dedicating his time and effort to support Paille’s dream.
In 2016, William Shatner — famous for his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk in the science fiction series Star Trek — appeared as a guest speaker at the convention.
“John was there and he came up to me and said, ‘I just saw Shatner at the table…. You proved everybody wrong,’” Paille said.
The comment, delivered in Mansfield’s brusque manner, was high praise.
“To get that from somebody like John Mansfield, it meant a lot. Yeah, it felt good,” he said. “He was probably one of the best people I know. If he gave his word, it happened. He was honourable, respectful — you don’t find a lot of people like that in the world.”
Cobra Collectibles employee Kailyn Gregorash agreed.
“He was one of the most influential people in our lives for gaming and fandom, in general,” she said. “John was just a sweetheart… He was one of those people who just had endless stories all the time.”
Paille credits Mansfield for impacting potentially thousands of lives, saying he has visited conventions in Chicago and Dallas where people have asked about him and shared stories.
Garth Bowman, owner of Maxx Collectibles at 835 Cavalier Dr., knew Mansfield for decades, first as a customer and then as a competitor, when he opened his store in 2000. While the men were more associates than friends, he respected him deeply.
Speaking by phone, Bowman laughed as he recalled a conversation the pair had more than 20 years before.
“He was giving me grief once, saying there were too many (collectibles) stores in town. I just cut him off and said, ‘You know, when I was a kid, I spent all my money in your store… You’re probably more responsible for me being in this business than anyone else.’ We kind of became friends after that.”
Like others, Bowman came to understand Mansfield’s gruff demeanour.
Interviews with staff from many of Winnipeg’s collectibles stores resulted in similar stories, with numerous people crediting him for inspiring their interests and hobbies.
Before operating Pendragon, Mansfield served 26 years with the Canadian military.
He joined the Forces in the mid-1960s, serving with an artillery group in Nova Scotia before becoming a member of the Security and Intelligence Branch around 1968.
According to military records, Mansfield saw postings in Calgary, Ottawa, Gagetown, N.B., Winnipeg and Germany between 1970 and 1990, before retiring at the rank of sergeant. In his role as an intelligence operator, he studied and provided advice on foreign entities, history, economics, military capability and tactics.
“He was very well respected for his understanding of army tactics… not only in the Canadian Forces, but amongst several of our NATO allies, as well,” said Lt.-Col. (Ret.) Robert Nash, president of the Canadian Military Intelligence Association Winnipeg chapter.
Mansfield excelled at war games, a specialized form of strategy games that realistically simulate warfare. His abilities earned him renown among his military peers, Nash said.
The men first met in 2015, but Nash, who also worked in military intelligence, had heard Mansfield’s name dating back as far as the 1970s. Even then, Mansfield was organizing war gaming conventions while stationed overseas, he said.
“John was a polarizing figure,” Nash said. “He had lots of stories and he wasn’t afraid to share them. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he spoke bluntly.”
Among Mansfield’s proudest achievements was founding KeyCon in 1983. The convention began as a celebration of science-fiction literature and was a first of its kind in Winnipeg, said Alex Stornel, the event’s current co-chair.
Stornel met Mansfield through a cadets program at the Minto Armoury. She worked at Pendragon as a teen, and travelled with him and others to countless conventions through the years.
He provided safety and shelter for Stornel in her youth, and the feeling resonates today, she said.
Stornel recalled a special screening of the 1997 film Star Ship Troopers, for which Mansfield secured tickets for an assortment of his friends who were science-fiction fans, along with some from the military world.
Stornel was part of the crowd, looking down on Mansfield’s buddies from the upper tier of the Garrick Theatre in its previous cinema incarnation.
“Seeing it in that atmosphere, where John had brought the two parts of his life… together in the theatre. That made a really amazing environment that I will always remember. John did stuff like that,” she said.
“I will miss him very much. He is part of my family, and, in a melancholy way, I am looking forward to running into the sights, sounds and smells that remind me of him.”
Mansfield’s legacy will live on through KeyCon, which was cancelled this year, but will return in 2024, Stornel said.
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