Tuesday, November 25, 2014

DON HUNT, FIDEL CASTRO AND ME


WE HAD A LOT OF FUN

Wish Don Hunt, the inscrutable but genial giant, had told me about playing catch with Fidel Castro. I would have told him about getting drunk with Fidel while smoking Cohibas as we stood and teetered  on a couch at the Canadian Embassy.
But Don's gone now, along with 85 years of living, including all those decades of newspapering at the Telegram and Sun and a couple of American papers when it was a lot more fun.
And his stories are gone too. which is a pity, because it was a grand life when he was the solid but quieter foundation for the grand schemes of Doug and Peter.
At the celebration - which is what we call a wake these days - at St. George's Golf Club the other night, midst the crying and reminiscences about dad and grandpa and the squirming kids who didn't  understand how the family order had been shaken to its Etobicoke roots, I caught hints of anecdotes that will never be fleshed out.
Like the mistress of George the 41st.  And what Reagan said to him upstairs at the White House confessing to Iran-Contra. Like all journalists with a life as rich as a good Christmas cake,  Hunt had many stories, which he didn't always share.
As a collector and spinner of yarns, I was envious. Much to the alarm of one editor, my son Mark once wrote in the Sun that the family didn't mind me continually telling stories about the business because they wanted to see how they turned out this time.
 Hunt's Castro story came in the old pre-Jays days when the Toronto Maple Leafs, a good Triple-A club, were in spring training and went calling on Cuba in the  pre-Batista days. Hunt, then a sports reporter, fancied himself a basketball player and golfer so he was not bashful about fooling around with some Cubans hanging around the national team and tossed a few balls with some bearded chap.
Before his revolution, Fidel was the son of a wealthy plantation owner and had failed at his first revolt but was known in his country, a great nursery for good ballplayers, as a pitcher who was considered a good prospect by major league scouts if he only learned how to throw a curve.
He never did, except in communist propaganda, so he turned to other pursuits and threw out Fulgencia Batista and his Mob supporters, claiming as a murderous dictator that he was more moral than the murderous despot he replaced.
In several encounters with Fidel, I only played catch with him in a verbal sense. As we teetered on that couch, for example, I was grilling him on his country's military adventures in Africa while he pretended his soldiers had never crossed the ocean.
Hunt had many stories which he shared occasionally with the family. I wish he had written a book, his version of his founding of the Sun with Doug Creighton and Peter Worthington. There has never been a stranger mix of personalities in journalism.
I tried to describe the birth to the wake but it's a futile task unless the audience really understands what a wacky business newspapering really is especially when it involved our 62 Day Oners on Nov. 1, 1971.
We had sold out the initial press run of 60,000. The city was amazed and we pretended not to be surprised and grateful.
The first edition included our first of countless promotions. Come to the Sun with a balloon with a coupon inside and you won a trip. I have no idea as to where, and since most of us had a hard time finding our new home on the battered fourth floor of the Eclipse building, I couldn't figure out how a prize winner would even find our office that was a day old.
I was at City Hall trying to persuade Harry Rogers, the city property commissioner, to give us an office or desk or something there since the Globe reporters had stolen the Telegram office and refused to give me the key to theirs.
Rogers stonewalled me, even though we both laughed at the fact that the Globe reporters were so dumb they didn't know the ceiling in the old Tely office had leaked for six years.
So I talked myself by the receptionist and told Mayor William Dennison to order Rogers to give us the office. He stalled, but I hung in long enough for him to remember that he had been a trustee on the school board when my father was chairman (that used to be important.)
I phoned the Sun from this first satellite office to have Hunt inform me that instead of just joking about the balloon contest, I had to run it. I looked down into the square and there was Bert Petlock, a demon Tely police reporter now doing PR, blowing up balloons from a  cylinder of helium and sticking them under a tattered net. Obviously Bert had a new client who made balloons.
Hunt said find someone important to launch the balloons so Norm Betts can get a picture for Tuesday.
So I talked myself by that receptionist again and told the major he had to launch some balloons. This time he really resisted but I reminded him that I used to let him curl in the Tely house league.
Down we went to a cold nearly empty square. Just Petlock and me inflatingp balloons, surrounded by a dozen kids on bikes like vultures watching a kill. I pointed out they should be in school.  Dennison stood as a lonely figure to one side.
"What do I say," he asked me? "I'll make up something fine for the paper," I told him, "don't worry about it."
So he grabbed one end of the net, muttered something about launching these balloons for some cause that he didn't quite understand, and pulled it off.
The balloons just sat there. The kids pounced. About half of them grabbed balloons off the stone squares while I screamed they had to let them fly first and started peddling madly south looking for an Eclipse building.
I phoned Hunt, the general manager, promotion director, head accountant and president of our syndicate. (All of us had several jobs.) He took the news rather calmly that I hadn't thought to bellow out rules first. We decided that the trip prize would be given out an hour or so later and not to any urchins on a bike.
Those days were so busy and zany that I never did find out if we gave out the trip because I had a lot more to do. I headed up to Queen's Park to search for an office or a desk there which I only got by pretending that I would enlist the help of the new premier, Bill Davis (whom I had never met.)
And then I wrote my second column.
The Sun became famous for its promotions which flowered under Hunt's early direction  We would take over SkyDome or Woodbine for the day. Mary and I often would go with 50 trip winners to various tropical islands. Great fun! It almost made me forget the disaster for Hunt and me on the first day the Sun shone out of the Eclipse building.

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