A GREAT TALKER BUT EVEN BETTER AT DOING
The stories flowed like the Trent River gushing in spring flood beside the retirement home in Campbellford. I could listen forever.
For the man spinning the tales is Clare Westcott, long a king of the back corridors of power. He's almost blind, and his walking is worse. He's a shrunken 91, but if I was running a government, I would resurrect this oracle of the past as an adviser.
After all, most days the premier demonstrates she needs one.
As the chap at the elbow of Bill Davis when he was one of our best premiers and education ministers, Westcott knows how to sell an idea all the way to reality and make politicians look good in the process. And that's a rare art!
I have watched him operate for 50 years. There have been collusions that would have had me drummed out of the columnists' union if revealed. But my how the man could talk. Even when you knew he was turning a load of BS into a rose garden.
Mary was fascinated. Clare was telling her the flipside to countless Downing stories and columns. Here was a civil servant who turned into an unabashed Robin Hood when he was trying to help people. His solutions were never conventional and could be vaguely improper.
Not only did he know everyone, from bank presidents and celebrities to kid Tories in northern hamlets, he put the arm on everyone when he was out to right a wrong. He connected people like he had invented the Six Degrees of Separation theory.
For several decades, he was involved in every scheme, grand or tiny, coming out of the pink palace. Often in the weirdest ways. And it all started when he dropped out of Grade 10 and tried to join the army but got rejected.
He worked for a decade as a Hydro lineman, but that job ended up a pole one day when a metal splinter flew from his hammer and blinded him in one eye for the first time.
He took a rudimentary night school course in journalism at Ryerson Institute of Technology and talked his way into a job at the Telegram. That stopped 2 1/2 days later when he said he couldn't work the weekend because he had to go home to his beloved Seaforth and see his wife and infant son. So the legendary Doug MacFarlane fired him on the spot (and lived to regret it.)
Nothing much was doing so he worked the edges of the Tory dynasty and established a network of Young Progressive Conservative organizations in every riding, catching the attention of premiers Leslie Frost and John Robarts and hotshot ministers like Robert Macaulay.
It paid off finally with work establishing trade offices in two Italian cities. He was back there with Macaulay who had spoken at the Rome Press Club and was very refreshed afterwards. A call came from Toronto about a project that would turn into the Ontario Science Centre. The idea was that maybe the centre would also have a railway display. So Westcott was asked if the government wanted to buy 11 steam locomotives. Macaulay didn't want to discuss it, just grunted at Clare to buy them.
Clare discovered no one was interested in his engines, not the science centre, not the Ontario Northland, which was using diesels. So he sold them to a Hamilton businessman who has a son named Steve Paikin of TVO fame who called the other day because he is writing a book on Davis and wants to interview the man behind the dais of power.
Clare still talks to Davis most days and says with delight that he thinks the boss is nervous about what he might tell Paikin with his characteristic candour.
After all, Westcott's sharp memories are packed with details about schemes and manipulations that might shock the conventional.
Once he discovered a provincial warehouse stuffed with old school desks which weren't going to be used in Ontario. So he found an American trucking company that would take them to the docks in Florida where Caribbean countries could collect them. The trucker got fined $10,000 by the American authorities because he hadn't charged for the charity run. So Clare phoned the Royal Baak president for money. to pay the fine. The president said he needed a receipt. So Clare persuaded a Catholic mission to give him a receipt to give to the bank.
Clare hoots with delight about Davis putting him on the Ryerson board when he was a high school dropout and various doctors of pedagogy in the education ministry wanted the post. Ryerson was on its way to a university at the time, thanks to Davis, and was involved in a huge building program, also thanks to Davis.
Clare was involved in the secretive negotiations to buy land around Ryerson without causing a real estate price stampede. His story from those days is about him reporting back to the board that thanks to recent purchases, "we at Ryerson now own two whore houses." The first woman on the board, Ruth Frankel, laughed the hardest..
We decided that no one would believe that a Sun columnist would be involved in such an undertaking so I phoned Westcott and asked and he checked with Davis and reported back there was no problem. Since Davis and Westcott later gave Pitman two major appointments, obviously our humble search committee had done a good vetting job for them.
Clare persuaded Davis to cancel the Spadina expressway to demonstrate how receptive he was to citizen power, which was a bad idea, and to hire Buckminster Fuller to design strange buildings for the unused right-of-way, which was also a bad idea.
Then he made Davis the American transit-man-of-the year. They invested in magnetic levitation research, a wheeless train which was supposed to run around the Ex on a test track. The government got out of that business when the train wouldn't go around curves. (In repayment negotiations with Dave Garrick who was running the Ex, Clare offered two trailers that the province had bought because they had cut down 60 trees at the Ex. Garrick used one trailer to house Paul Beeston, the first Blue Jays employee and now the team president.)
Clare hated sexism as much as he loved his family and all the people around him. So he hired Sally Barnes, the first female press officer for a premier, despite old farts worrying how it would look when the premier was travelling.
Clare "used" everyone, no matter your politics. He used me to capture a riding. Phil Givens had been a Liberal MP and then got elected provincially to get away from Pierre Trudeau who didn't like him. He wasn't that happy at Queen's Park either. Clare asked me as a close friend of the former Toronto mayor to find out if he was interested in being appointed as chair of the Toronto police commission.
Since it came with a car and driver as well as a good salary, Phil was interested. So I reported back to Clare and Phil got the job and the Tories finally got a chance to win in York South Weston.
Clare thought it was such a good idea that he got himself appointed as police commission chairman after Davis retired.
He helped start Crime Watchers (with Cal Millar from the early Sun and with Garrick raising money.) The chief then, Jack Marks, didn't want his female constables riding motorcycles or horses. So Clare waited until Marks was out of town and told a deputy to put the best looking female constable on the best looking horse and get the Sun to take a picture. Marks was not pleased but his ban was destroyed.
After Clare got fired by Premier David Peterson from the police board, he served on the federal parole board for a few years, worked in the Toronto office for Michael Wilson as federal finance minister, and was a citizenship judge.
He grumbled on the telephone after I had written about all the jobs that he held because he was fired as a one-eyed lineman by Hydro. An operation had removed the splinter and he had two working eyes to go along with all the different pensions that I kept kidding I'm about.
Now he doesn't. But his memory is 20 20.
What a guy! I liked him even after I discovered that he slipped secret scoops behind a radiator in a second-floor washroom near the premier's office just to buy peace with a rival columnist.
As many found over the decades, it was best to stay on one of his many good sides. Besides, you wanted to hear the new stories.