RELENTLESS, CANTANKEROUS, EXASPERATING
Each December, the courteous phone call came from Eric Dowd, inviting me to the Queen's Park Press Gallery Christmas party. Now the calls will come no more, but no one who has ever spent time with Eric will forget him.
Boy, he could bug you. And then charm with a gentle observation. Tough but fair. And with an inner strength that had him write about his adopted province right up to the final days of his battle with cancer that took him at 79 on Christmas Day.
I remember Paul Godfrey, then the Sun publisher, returning an obituary I had written on Bill Allen, who had been a tricky Metro chairman before Paul. He wanted it more positive and told me not to dwell on the negatives. He didn't think obituaries should have any bad memories.
Paul was right, sort of, but I think when we remember our friends we also remember the not so good, if they really were our friends.
And Dowd, a wonderful, kind, helpful, competitive observer of provincial politics and friend of young reporters and humble civil servants, could be a pain in the ass when he argued, especially if you were a politician or, worse, his editor. It was like trying to deal with a water torture of words.
I was trying to escape one Friday when I made the mistake as the Tely City Editor to phone Eric to discuss his overtime. The argument lasted about 45 minutes, then he appeared in the office to continue it. I knew then how premiers felt. Eric may have got some of those many scoops just because the premier's office wanted a truce.
There was a marvelous incident one September morning in 1974 when Premier William Davis was trying to seduce the Italian-Canadian vote away from the Liberals by touring Italy. He and his wife Kathy were at the Trevi Fountain posing for pictures by Norm Betts, who had taken leave from the Sun to work for the Tories. A pompous carabinieri strutted up and demanded the premier produce the pass needed for photography at the fountain. When Davis couldn't figure out what he was talking about, he started to hustle them off.
I have done some dumb things, and this time, stupidly, I decided to protect the premier. The much better story would have been Davis in jail. But I grabbed the cop by his inflated chest and started sticking him with my pen, demanding his number. He turned his wrath on me and I yelled at the Davises to beat it, which they did.
Eric was the first of the reporters to join me. He demanded to know what was going on. His attitude seemed to be that I was cutting him out of an important story. I told him to shut up and start yelling at the cop too. So Eric did, with enthusiasm. Then the reinforcements arrived, giant David Allen, little Allan Dickie, bird-like Pat Crowe...
Some Italian media joined in with bellows. And the Canadian contingent escaped to the leased bus in a lane, and the carabinieri ended up arresting only the Italians. Of course our headlines were:"A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum."
Eric had an encyclopedic knowledge of Legislature affairs and was the person I sought out in the budget lockup when the media are locked in rooms before the budget is delivered officially and demonstrate that their arithmetic may be as faulty as their spelling. What better judge could there be of rampant government spending than a man so careful with his money, because he had a family of five, that he commuted by bike. No matter what hour I was poking around the Leg, hungry for a column, Eric was there pounding on his old Underwood. And we would talk about our kids, which, of course, are far more important than Ontario politics.
He wrote some freelance stuff for the Sun when we began and longed to be on staff but for budget reasons wasn't hired. Then the Sun hired Paul Palango, now the writer of crime books, and then, Claire Hoy, a meteor shooting through the guts of all editors.
Eric would have been a better bet. After all, he lasted half-a-century covering Queen's Park on the site of the old insane asylum, and he knew where all the bodies of failure were buried. Too bad his readership dwindled through circumstance from the days when he was such a giant at the Park, he seemed to know more about what the premier was doing than some ministers.
I'm sure he's chatting up St. Peter to find out what's the latest on his new beat.