Saturday, May 16, 2020

DAVID PRESCOTT DID EVERYTHING WELL


RENAISSANCE MAN IS AN APT DESCRIPTION

On a recent Sunday, sons Michael and Neil rented an ambulance and took their frail father to sit beside lock 25 on the Otonabee where he had fished so often. David sipped his favourite drink, an extra dry martini - to hell with all the medication - gazed with contentment over the river that flows through the heart of Peterborough, and tried to forget the hospital where his wife had died weeks before in the room they shared.
And then he returned from his last birthday party to that hospital to die a few days later. Fortunately Michael and Neil were with him, thanks to some compassionate nurses.
The pandemic robs us all of peaceful passings when even loved ones can't visit or are hampered at the end by the emergency rules, when David was blocked from moving to gentler surroundings by a decree announced even as the transfer stretcher was in the hall.
I wrote in blog.johndowning.ca when his Margaret died, the gentle matriarch of Plewesville, about how families at such artificial times, when virtual reality services of knots of mourners strain to replace funerals, when we deal with doctors by email and telephone and hope and frustration, that we all must share the love woven through our nostalgia.
When the world stumbles along this path to the unknown, we must spend more time savouring the past before the shroud drops on the future.
There is much to discuss about men like David Prescott who did everything so well that those around him, whether at CIBC or the golf club, recognized his graceful skill. So he would be bank manager and then assistant general manager for the country, or a steward ready to defend the rules during the Canadian Open.
You and I might decide to catch carp one morning but David had the special rods and knowledge and knew about web sites and shops that dealt only with carp. No trout or pickerel was safe when David scanned the water with an expert's eye.
He loved wood turning and became so good that he gave his bowls as gifts (thank heavens) and sold them at shows and became president of the Peterborough wood turners. He drove hours to buy special woods, but was great at scavenging. We were driving a country road and he shouted stop. He went to the farmhouse and asked if he could have the twisted stump he had spotted in a woodpile. The surprised response was yes.
I could barely see the woodpile, let alone the lovely gnarled knot, but he had a keen hunter's eye. He would identify the hawk swooping above the point when I could only see a dot, but he loved to label birds and fish and trees and wild flowers and when I challenged him with a guide book, he was right.
He had an affair with Mother Nature because he understood her right down to the roots.
The list is endless of what he enjoyed doing. And he was good at it, from bluffing with two deuces to dropping the fly just behind the rock where the trout had hunkered against the current.
 Most of us are content in retirement to take it easy many evenings, but David was always on the go, from theatre to lacrosse to all music, especially opera and choirs, so of course he was a leader in the choral activities of his adopted city.
He was willing to play cards until the cows came up for milking. He would search endlessly in the markets for the right tomato or sausage. He would ....but let's just leave it at that. Name some activity, whether urban culture or hunting, and David had done it with finesse and passion.
He was a man to be envied because he had come from a humble background and education to milk the joy out of life and then to sip it like that extra dry martini that Sunday afternoon with his beloved boys around him.





Sunday, May 3, 2020

MEMORIES OF PLEWESVILLE


TREASURE THE FAMILY STORIES

And so another of the family dies without dear ones close.
It is a time then to treasure the past, to remember the joys and gaffes of growing up and flying away from the urban nest that was Weston before it was ruined by progress.
A time to cling to tidbits of nostalgia to comfort us in the sterile artificiality of a virtual world that tries to substitute even for our funerals.
In the day when Hollywood was still golden, there were popular movies like Cheaper By The Dozen that cast a romantic humour over large families. Magazines like Reader's Digest dominated the media. It loved big families and boasted a regular feature on the most unforgettable character the writer had ever met.
I think often these days of the decades after the second world war to end all wars because more of those familiar faces around the big table at mealtime long ago are gone now or cloaked with age.
Plewesville is located in dozens of memories and was a modest home on Weston Rd. in the south of what was a pleasant old mill town.
It used to burst with people. There were Aunt Jennie and Uncle Dave, my guardians after my grandmother decided an orphan boy was too much trouble. And my uncle's mother (and perhaps for a time her boyfriend.) And 11 Plewes children.
Then came the additions and subtractions of life.
The oldest girl, Verna, died in a car crash from the head injuries when she bent over to protect the baby on her lap. So the family adopted Margy because the father was a scoundrel.
Then I came along from Chesley, the sleepy furniture factory town of 1,800 near Owen Sound, to the city just stretching its muscles.
It was not that big of a house. Four of us lived in the attic which may not have had height but at least there were stairs. There was only one bathroom but the tub was in the basement. We managed because no one tarried. Once when Margaret did with some chums, Uncle Dave quietly removed the bathroom door to teach her a lesson and looked in with horror at strange girls.
Margaret just died after a long fight. Because of the pandemic we haven't been able to gather and remember stories like that about the warm lady who became the matriarch.
And now Robert with his wry smile has gone too, suddenly, without even a corporal's guard.  And I wonder if his sons know about the Saturday night we were playing hide-go-seek at twilight and he found the perfect hideyhole behind the water heater. Unfortunately he stuck there and then started to scorch and we were trying to dismantle the heater when we pulled him out, removing some skin.
It was only possible because it was one of those rare occasions when Aunt Jennie had fled for some peace.
On another occasion when the fiery and wiry lady who dominated the home was away, Paul who sat on my left for meals got into a heated argument with Dave who sat on my right and they started wrestling. When Paul decided to stab Dave with a table knife, I appealed to Bill to help me break it up and Bill refused, observing that it looked like a very dull knife.
Bill has been dead for years. The charismatic imp who was the student president at Weston Collegiate and art college who tapped the phone to listen to sisters talk to their boyfriends and squeezed .22 bullets in a vise just to watch them ricochet off the walls.
Oh yes, there was an element of danger running through the agreeable chaos of Plewesville. And innovation too because Uncle Dave was a brilliant engineer who designed unique machines and the boys learned his ingenuity when they weren't crashing on ramps in the driveway.
Uncle Dave had grown in London where the Lombardo family lived just behind. Chicken thieves, he called them, even after Guy became one of the most famous band leaders in the world and employed his brothers, one of whom had a crooked nose that my uncle had broken.
Uncle Dave acted every day like he was auditioning for that unforgettable Digest section. He broke every rule of family, society and indeed life as he drank too much and flummoxed his family by starting construction on bits of the house and never finishing. He bought food and milk by the case and had to bargain to do it because stores were baffled by his demands.
We figured his oldest son, naturally named after him, would follow him to the engineering firm he ran in what is now Liberty Village but David rebelled at the natural fit despite his talent around machines.
David died a few years ago, so we no longer remember when he, Bill and I owned a 1930 Model A Ford. Like the evening we put a set of rear end gears in the wrong way and ended up with three speeds in reverse. So we drove it late at night in the summer quiet of Weston Rd. to see how fast we could go in reverse.
The annual family picnic will be missing more faces when we are finally allowed to have one in a Lindsay park. It has been shrinking from a hundred or so as many of us have passed the Biblical promise of three score years and ten.
With Margaret and Bob, there are now five deaths from the core, since Margy died a few years ago in the Maritimes where she worked teaching deaf/blind children. They made a movie when Helen Keller did it but Margy laboured for decades in anonymity except for grateful parents.
Big families aren't fashionable now, and some of my cousins, who are like brothers and sisters, remember when they dared to gossip about us in Weston (but not to our face.)
Before the huge advances in medicine that ended childbirth and childhood being more of a gauntlet to  endure than a celebration of life, it was common to have big families. You needed spares.
Like when this family began in 1899 when a 22-year-old distillers' hand, Willem Hoogstad, married 23-year-old Cornelia Creteer, daughter of a distillers' hand, in a suburb of Rotterdam.
Grandpa got religion and decided booze was not God's way. No work for him then. So the Salvation Army helped him come to Canada in 1905. There were nine daughters, four of whom died.
There were tough years in Chesley, but the five survivors learned to endure even as passions ran deep.  Four of them put the youngest, who always tattled, upside down in a full rain barrel and she only survived drowning because my grandfather accidentally discovered her. One became a missionary in Nigeria, my mother married a doctor more than twice her age, and Jennie and the other two went on to have large families that spawned farmers, teachers, ministers and nurses.
The girls didn't talk that often in their final years after an exhausting life. No gabbing across the distances between Weston, East York and Chesley. There is a lesson there for all of us as we try to ride out a pandemic, to escape an ending where we slip away in isolation, and our anecdotes, our "remember whens," fall to silent linoleum because there is no one there that has the time to listen.
Don't let the warm times, the magic moments, the embarrassments, dribble into black holes when you still have the opportunity to chat with friends and folks about the family tales of yesteryear.











Friday, April 10, 2020

BOB WEBBER'S VIMY RIDGE


HOW THOMAS RICHARD HENRY SAW IT

Every anniversary of the bloody birth of our nation in the horrors of Vimy Ridge, Bob Webber sat at the battered Underwood in the ancient building known as the Old Lady of Melinda Street and wrote in his sparse style about life in the trenches there from April 9 to April 12, 1917.
He survived as a sapper, sort of a battlefield engineer dealing with everything from the construction  of bridges to the menace of mines, and started at the Evening Telegram in a precarious probationary position covering the sleepy suburbs.
His boss had been in the same war but far above as a flying ace.  Bert Wemp never got around to telling Webber the job was his permanently because the major was busy doing politics on the side, finally becoming the Toronto mayor.
Eventually Webber became financial page editor and started a column that strayed from business news into chatty observations on life around him. The editors tried different titles but it was decided that since Webber was "Everyman" in his views, what could be more natural than name it "How Thomas Richard Henry Sees It" and move it to the editorial page.
When I started as a kid reporter near the end of his 42 years at the beloved Tely, it had to be explained that TRH was really Bob Webber and that the name derived from a expression common in the day about every Tom Dick and Harry.
The newsroom was filled with legendary journalists who had survived World War Two and the battles against the Star which often seemed as tense. Such as Phyllis Griffths, who was in the first Sports Hall of Fame as a championship basketball player, sports columnist starting in 1928, and a woman who pioneered in jobs once done by men.
Griffiths and the stalwarts loved the quiet but genial TRH who otherwise would have been eclipsed by their formidable presence. She called him a "gentleman" whether you used one or two words.
TRH didn't give you a column on one subject or a strident lecture but gentle views in paragraphs. Often readers sent in donations telling him to pick the charity. He raised $2,000, then a huge sum, for a farmer who had lost a foot rescuing a child from a buzz saw. Later she wrote that she had bought a foot and would it be OK if she spent the rest on some cows.
As an awed rookie, I didn't know quite what to make of his chatty items but found later that readers loved it when you gave them several commentaries in one column and didn't always blow fire.
This was back long before you could compose a newspaper on computers and columns pontificated for an eternity. TRH thrived when scissors and copy spikes and pots of glue cluttered the big curved copy desk and fleshy profane men wearing eye shades and cynicism hacked at newspapers and copy paper before stories were sent down pneumatic tubes from the fourth floor to the hot metal world of the typesetters.
One day TRH decided he needed new scissors to deal with the pile of clippings and notes from which he built his column. He probably bought the scissors himself, since the editor who presided over such things often demanded to see the stub before he gave you a new pencil.
And then, because shiny scissors would disappear within seconds from your desk, he went to the engraving room and etched his name with acid on scissors which sit beside me as I write this.
I have no idea how I acquired them since the Old Lady vanished under Bay St. redevelopment in the 1960s and its replacement is gone too after being used by the Globe. But any veteran journalist  accumulates and I have done my share. (I still have unused Telegram envelopes and it died in 1971.)
They're eight inches long (20 cm) with just a few flecks of the black paint that disappeared decades ago. One tip is broken. They tend to mangle rather than cut but I really don't give a damn because it is my humble link back to a vanished time in journalism and to one of the great battles in our history.
It was, as any Canadian should know, the first time the Canadians fought as one army. The four divisions came together of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, all 100,000 Canadians from cities and towns like the Paris where Bob Webber decided to go to war rather than school one morning back in 1915.
All the dictatorships of superior British officers bossing around the colonials were swept aside and Canada emerged with the respect of  the mother countries and also the world.
Just battered scissors, hardly a golden torch to be held high, whether we are talking about the immortal words of In Flanders Fields, or a gentle man who for decades remembered folksy anecdotes for newspaper readers of what daily life was like those terrible days on Vimy Ridge when a country bled its way into military fame.
On those four days on a muddy hill in France, 3,598 Canadians died and 7,000 were wounded. Yet our country fought united. Something to cherish as we pull apart a century later!



Saturday, March 28, 2020

WHEN QUARANTINES WERE A COUGH AWAY


 EPIDEMICS AND EVEN PLAGUES LAID IN WAITING

Ironically, the elderly said to be the main worry in this pandemic are survivors of a time when quarantines were as common as flu in January.
In the day, you worried about many threats. I am one of the growing demographic of old farts who remember the gauntlet of pestilences that could lay you low (sometimes six feet down) before the wonders of antibiotics and such miracles as transplants soothed the world 60 or 70 years ago and made more of us live past the Biblical three score years and ten.
Before Salk vaccine ended the parents' dilemma of whether Johnny should go to the municipal pool in case polio lurked there to put him in an iron lung
Before people thought twice about going to the doctor, and suffered, because there was no OHIP.
Before inoculations and vaccinations and idiots who attacked the simple flu shot.
As Steven Pinker documents in stunning detail in his bestseller Enlightenment Now, the world has improved tremendously in every possible way in the last decades. Our history is filled with mass death, whether it is the Asia of the terra cotta warriors, the grim verses of the Old Testament, or the dark centuries when we're not too sure just who died of what.
The good old days basically weren't. Then along comes this pandemic which is a savage echo of the past.
Margaret Atwood in an article in Saturday's Globe recalls her girlhood when warning posters were carried in that black bag by every family doctor to be tacked to the front door of the latest victim of a  host of diseases that would quarantine you for 14 days at least, from varieties of measles and poxes to scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps, diphtheria etc.
If you were lucky, it was just tonsillitis.
Atwood is several years younger than me and she didn't spend all that time in Toronto but what she described would be familiar to many of us who were around when Toronto staggered out of war.
My father had a huge medical practice around our big home near Gerrard and Greenwood which like most GPs' homes in those days had a waiting room and office and a sign that lit up with the street lights. Quarantine signs were stuffed in his bag beside a cornucopia of cures, some of them mixed himself.
Dad drove a big car, usually with an assortment of neighbourhood kids in the back who went along gleefully for the adventure of the ride and the candies he also had in the bag. He didn't worry about more minor stuff spreading because he believed in getting all that over ASAP. He moved my two sisters and me into the same bedroom to make sure we all got the mumps before it would be really serious.
Dad died the March before the Second World War, exhausted from a flu outbreak, the normal burst of late winter sickness, and his work as chairman of the Toronto school board. It was then an important position, so all the schools got the afternoon off for his funeral.
My uncle kept the practise going so there was a Dr. Downing in the area that once was called Toronto East for more than 50 years.  He regarded the flu as a deadly enemy. My father had put him through medical school at Western but Lou headed first to Saskatchewan. He was the only doctor in Lanigan where a street is named after him. He was also the only dentist, pharmacist and coroner for the area. Of course the Spanish flu almost killed him because he could never rest. It took him six months in Vancouver to end his exhaustion and recover his health.
After I was orphaned, I ended in Chesley with grandparents who avoided the two doctors in town because they couldn't afford visits. (I remember spending summer nights with a feverish head pressed to cool linoleum to endure an ear infection which cost me the upper range.) I suspect that Dr. Morgan wouldn't have charged them because he, like my father and uncle, were used to not being paid. And in the 1930s and 1940s, even in Toronto, some payment came only in chickens, sausages and gratitude.
The middle decades of the last century were a magic time in medicine even for those of us flummoxed by the huge changes. Yet doomsday fears persisted, some times verging on hysteria, about polio and even blood transfusion since the great curses of health were so hard to cure.
For example, the western world doesn't think much about tuberculosis these days, even though it is said that TB killed 10 million in the world in 2018 and every immigrant still has to pass the test, but 60 years ago mass X-rays for TB were common.
 In the first year of what became Ryerson University, every student went through the preliminary testing by the Gage Institute on the campus. Suspicious results meant that you went for a larger X-ray and physical exam at the Institute itself.
To my surprise, I had TB and the Gage recommended to my family doctor that I go to the enormous complex which has been converted to the West Park rehab centre since the need for sanitariums has ended that brought thousands of patients to Toronto and Hamilton and other cities from every nook in the country.
Fortunately my uncle was that doctor and decided my being a patient for months in a sanitarium was not necessary because I was in great shape, even playing on a championship football team. So I dodged that bullet but for years carried a special card with my Gage number, like many other pensioners.
There is one health menace from the past that is still around us, possibly in the ravine in which you like to walk. We don't talk much about rabies now, even though it is said to have killed 59,000 people just last year, but then it did that in far off  places, like Africa.
We used to have epidemics among our wild life, which was front-page news because if you were bitten by a rabid fox or skunk, you had to have 14 painful shots in the abdomen even before the test on the brain of the dead animal was finished because no one wanted to take a chance on what could be a fatal bite.
I was the rabies expert as a kid reporter for the lamented Toronto Telegram, possibly because I brought a passion to the writing. On the way to the streetcar one morning on a downtown street, I was attacked by a squirrel. I suppose it was a funny sight, me jumping in the air, the squirrel snapping at my ankles, then me running over to the curb and bringing up because I had had a fermented evening. But it was as deadly serious as stepping on a rusty nail before tetanus shots.
So there it is, rabies, not something we talk about in Canadian urban centres (fortunately the treatment is now much easier) but last year it killed more than double the number of victims claimed by this pandemic by March 28.
I was an enormous reader as a boy and the accounts of the great plagues over the centuries always fascinated me. I had the occasional nightmare where the chant would be "bring out your dead." The idea of bodies rotting in the streets because no one would collect them horrified me. Yet Black Death killed nearly 50% of Europe and devastated China. There were villages in Quebec during the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919 where no one survived to do the burying. One estimate said it killed 10% of the world.
Thank heavens, I thought in my boyish naiveness, those days have passed. But have they?
I had a cousin working at what was then called the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. He got sick while treating a horse in distress. It is hard to know real details because what were said to be the authorities ordered him buried the day he died before his family could even gather.
Such a thing couldn't happen in Ontario, I said, as I tried to find out what really happened. But it did, and the whisper was that it was the plague, which they say still sticks a skeletal fist around a few throats from time to time.
But, you say, that's just a horror story with a rural twist. It couldn't happen in a big city. But it did, to a stalwart woman who worked with me and was one of those fun-filled good reporters who are an asset to any newspaper. Her boyfriend was a lawyer who worked with one of the famous families. She died, like my cousin, suddenly, and was ordered buried within hours because, it was hinted, she was killed by the plague.
No, no, you say, this is the stuff of a bad horror movie. The plague really doesn't exist, does it? According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there are seven cases of plague death each and every year, and apparently I worked with one and had another victim as a cousin.
So bats hanging in undiscovered caves are now the sword of Damocles hanging by a hair over our heads and world health. No wonder I have the same feeling about pandemics as I do about that Biblical language about war and the rumours of war always being with us.
 Now it's pandemics and the rumours of pandemics.
 And all we can do is to try to reduce them to epidemics.











Saturday, February 29, 2020

DAVID SMITH, THE HAPPY GRIT


BROTHER SMITH LOVED THE LAW, THE LIBERALS AND GOSSIP

If you are truly blessed, you have a friend like David Paul Smith.
Even when you don't much like his party.
Everyone called him Smitty as he moved as a gregarious insider from the political and legal circles of Toronto and Canada to travel the world as one of the great tourists.
But there were "brothers" inside his incredible circles of friends and admirers, and not just his two real brothers who in the family tradition are ministers. It started with his Pentecostal roots so when he called with some of the richest gossip in the Americas, he would say Brother Downing and I would say Brother Smith and then would come a tale that could topple a tower but he trusted you to be discreet.
He was small in stature when he died last week at 78. Yet he left huge monuments behind for his city and country, from famous buildings where he had been the shepherding lawyer from planning stages on to putting God in the Charter of 1982 that is Canada's legal cornerstone.
As the Liberal caucus debated the wording of the Charter that would be presented to the House and the Queen for passage, the PM made it plain there would be no mention of God. He quipped that he didn't think God gave a damn whether he was mentioned or not.
But David, the MP from the city where Pierre Trudeau was never quite comfortable, sat in every caucus meeting where he would watch the PM like a hawk and speak about all the Christians in the country. Trudeau got a little bored with the repetition but liked David because of his photographic memory with which he could wow the PM with little known facts.
One day Trudeau listened to David's usual speech but this one reinforced with figures about the high enrolment in Christian institutions like bible colleges, thought about winning elections, then stood and said that God would be in the preamble to the Charter.
It became controversial and some say not that important because it wasn't in the Charter itself but David's monument lies within "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the superiority of God and the rule of law..."
It is actually a miracle of Biblical proportions that Brother David was around to become a major city and federal politician because he almost died in the head-on car crash near Peterbough that killed his father, a leading Pentecostal minister, and slashed his throat.
Paramedics taking a smoke break witnessed the crash. One held his throat together while they rushed to a Kingston hospital. One of Canada's leading specialists in the necessary operation was visiting in  Emergency because it was New Year's Day and he was kibitzing with a former classmate. He operated but he and the paramedics wondered whether they were just going through the motions because the incredible loss of blood would have starved the brain.
David survived but had no voice. One month later, a brother held a night prayer vigil at his church for his 21-year-old brother who wanted to go into law and politics but now couldn't speak because of a ruined larynx.
The next morning when an aunt brought breakfast to him, he thanked her, the first words he had spoken since the fatal accident.
I wrote perhaps the first account of this in a Sun column which caused a sensation at City Hall and had his beloved mother intervewed on religious TV where everyone proclaimed that David was truly alive because of a series of coincidences that added to a miracle.
It left David with a booming voice hard to modulate and a certain disregard for danger. In cities like New York and Chicago where few whites came near the giant black churches of districts like Harlem, especially when they were surrounded by hundreds on a Sunday, David plunged in with his friends, often dragging his gracious wife, Heather, who has just retired as Chief Justice of Ontario's Superior Court.
David loved gospel music, especially black choirs. We drove by the San Francisco Opera House one afternoon and discovered they were having mass choirs that night, which David interpreted as being giant black choirs from the South.
So back we went in the evening, entering to find we were the only whites among a sea of black faces regarding us with hostility. I wanted to sit in the back but David marched us up to three empty rows at the front and plunked himself down in the middle. Moments later, a mini flood of black ministers and their wives surrounded us, looking at us curiously.
The awkwardness continued while huge choirs thundered and swayed above us. Then a pretty imp came out and sang like Kathleen Battle. "My God, she can sing," I told David. The wife in front of me turned, beamed and said "my daughter." With that, we were in. Three rows of black ministers, and two white Canadians, sang together for the rest of the night.
David took stuff like that for granted because he liked and talked to everyone and he and Heather were natural hosts to a stunning variety of the humble and the great.
We were in Beijing in 1985 and our first engagement was tea with the foreign minister because, he told me, he had stayed in only two houses in North America, "the White House and David Smith's house."
Our group of 18 from Toronto, led by David and his controversial partner for a time, Jeff Lyons, were given favours during our visit because David let it be known that a relative had nursed Norman Bethune's family near Georgian Bay, and the doctor was one of the heroes of the revolution.
David could charm a stranger into being an admirer within an hour. He was sitting in a London club and struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who turned out to be one of the few Law Lords of the United Kingdom and took him to a special seat in the Mother of Parliament for one of the major debates of the decade.
One quiet Saturday we were in the Prospect of Whitby, the oldest pub in London. David, of course, started talking to a trio, the only other drinkers, one of whom was a top executive of the InterContinental Hotel chain. By the time David stopped yarning about all the hotels he had been in around the world, the executive asked him to come chat about being a VP. David said his plans included a run for Mayor of Toronto and then there was this large law firm where eventually he became the lead lawyer.
He probably was happiest just driving down a strange road to a new town which had a good restaurant.
He read road maps like they were novels. In 1974, we were part of Toronto's coupling with its first twin city, Amsterdam.  We had a few days after the ceremony so in a borrowed VW van, with me driving, David navigating and Heather and my wife Mary in the back regarding the impromptu road trip through  seven countries with suspicion, we had a grand time.
He delighted in back roads. I was driving in the first snow along the side of a Swiss mountain and wondered why there were no road signs. David said he had been lounging in a tub one day and had seen this little road mentioned in a travel magazine. It certainly wasn't on the main maps. Over the agreeable years, the Smiths and the Downings went on to visit more than 20 countries together, and mysterious roads and secret wonders became routine.
One highlight on that first trip came when David announced he thought there was a Michelin restaurant in the next town. And up it popped. We parked at its front door, climbed to the second floor, had a pleasant chat and then dined on the speciality of this two-star restaurant. Usually the reservation would have taken months but with David and his enormous memory and charm (and luck) it didn't even take an hour.
He loved to eat out. He also loved to cook. He would come home from one of Canada's largest law firms and cook an entire meal from a great roast to a variety of vegetables while charming a living room of guests. The anecdotes during the meal would be almost as good as the food. The chap at the end of the table would confide how Joey Smallwood used to drive him crazy with his idiosyncrasies. Smallwood is legendary as a premier but what I now remember most is that Joey never threw away his razor blades but tossed them on a big rusty heap beside the sink.
You had to be on your toes at these dinners because it wouldn't be unusual for a major judge or former premier or cabinet minister to be holding forth contentedly over a fine port. One night in a stunning display of fantastic memories, Conrad Black remembered all the ships of the Argentine navy and their tonnage, David listed all the teams in United Kingdom football and their divisions and home grounds, and David Crombie recited intricate baseball lore. (And I wondered if there was more rum.)
David's work in the backrooms of politics is celebrated, beginning as aide to famous Grits like Walter Gordon and John Turner and ending as national election chair.
But what he should be remembered for most is his tackfulness, almost a sweet forgiveness, when it came to discussing other politicians and their pet policies. Even when his party was out of power, governments rushed to include David in international delegations because he may have been on the other side but he could be trusted to give a competent speech on a moment's notice that wouldn't embarass anyone. The Conservatives and NDP knew that David thought politics was an honourable business with many pressures and points of views.
And he loved every footnote of politics. It was bred in his bones. I recall his sunny pride when we walked into Westminster Abbey and he paused at the foot of the statue of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, once a prime minister of the U.K. "I am his great great nephew," he said.
We should cherish the past of David Paul Smith and hope that more politicians at City Hall and the "Ledge" and the Commons remember that you can accomplish much and have a great family and career and life if only you treat the other guy with the respect that you think you deserve.















Wednesday, December 4, 2019

FLU SHOT FRUSTRATIONS


JUST ANOTHER HEALTH SCREWUP?

I have been a fan of flu shots even when it has been difficult to get one.
The family history indoctrinated me early. Uncle Lou, who came to help my father, the first John Henry Downing, had been a doctor out west during the flu epidemic that devastated the world in 1919. He almost died from flu and overwork and had to recuperate for six months in a Vancouver hotel before returning to Saskatchewan where a street is named after him in Lanigan.
So the Downing doctors took flu very seriously in their huge family practice around Gerrard and Greenwood. And they taught their kids.
So when flu shots became available, I got one, and moved the motion on a hospital board that any doctor, nurse or worker who didn't get a flu shot would not be allowed to work during flu epidemics, and would not be paid.  I wrote columns and editorials attacking paramedics and other city personnel who refused to get flu shots.
I couldn't have agreed more when Women's College refused to let me see two grandsons in incubators,  each only 40 ounces when they were born, until I could prove I had had flu shots.
Which brings me to the last few years and the great drive by government and drug chains for everyone to get flu shots. Of course! Hallelujah!
Except...
I am in my Shopper's Drugmart at Royal York and Bloor several times a week. When you stand at the back of the store (and remember when it was the headquarters for the world's first pay-TV experiment) you watch all the men and women over 80 who are turned away because the ordinary flu shot is not recommended for them.
Last year elderly people in Etobicoke, and perhaps much of Ontario, were faced with waits of weeks if not months to get the special flu shot if they were over 80. Ironically, or maybe it's tragically, even though I'm one of the Downings who didn't struggle and become a doctor, I would say the elderly are the most vulnerable in our city to damage or death from flu.
Right now the walk-in clinics in the giant suburb of Etobicoke have no special flu shots for those over 80. (Drugstores don't give the shots to the elderly.) The walk-in clinic at Six Points, one of the largest around, may get more shots for the elderly next week while other clinics don't even expect repeat deliveries.
I haven't had the flu for years, even though an encyclopedia of other ailments have struck me. I think the flu shot program is a great PR and smart health move by the provincial health ministry.  But this annual stupidity is just dumb even for a ministry that certainly knows how to screw things up.
As a veteran hospital board member and, damn it, a consumer of health services far more than I want to be, I am baffled that such an important ministry seems to spend more time on reorganizing than actually helping patients get better medical service.
I have known 15 health ministers, mostly on a professional basis but some have been social acquaintances. Generally the ministers have been among the best in cabinet. The current minister, Christine Elliott, is so competent that I have written she should be premier. So I just don't understand why we continue to have huge glitches like this even in a program that everyone supports except for some stupid people who get their wisdom from fish entrails.
Perhaps if they spent less on advertising the need for flu shot and more on actually providing them, more of the elderly would last to spring.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

THE BIRTH OF JAZZ.FM91


MORE OPENINGS THAN LISTENERS

CJRT is celebrating its 70th anniversary this Halloween although the scramble at the birth of both the station and the university that launched it actually produced two openings.
The first words on the ceremonial opening broadcast on Nov. 1 were nothing fancy, just student Bob Leitch saying “this is your educational system CJRT broadcasting from studios in the Ryerson Institute of Technology, 50 Gould St., Toronto.”
After H.H. Kerr, Ryerson's founding principal, spoke cautiously, novice instructor John Barnes broke from the straight and stuffy to become almost lyrical at 7 p.m.
“Today is Nov. 1, known in the church calendar as All Saint’s Day. And so last night was Halloween. You were no doubt visited by certain ghosts who introduced themselves to your home in spectral fashion. Tonight we bring up a new ghost, using radio waves to knock upon your door and enter your home. Like last night's visitors, this one is also useful and the first of its kind in Canada. That infant ghost is Station CJRT, Canada's first education broadcasting station, a new venture in this country...We are licensed to program a wide variety of broadcasts with the only exception of nothing commercial.”
It was a humble start, symbolized by the oddity that the first staff member was a teacher of English who was insisting he return to teaching his subject. The station would stay at Ryerson for half a century and then become the popular non-profit jazz station in Liberty Village which was then just an expanse of factories.  It leaned on music at the start, too, but mostly classical. It was the cheapest format for radio, first 30 minutes of recorded music as a dinner concert, then when it finished at 7 p.m. a 15-minute documentary on broadcasting and CJRT’s history. For the next 45 minutes until sign-off came recordings by little-known composers. You didn't get to hear the big hits of the year like Blue Moon or Baby, It's Cold Outside.
Everyone at Ryerson was proud of the station even if they didn’t really know what FM was. The institute listed it on its official letterhead (CJRT-FM 88.3 meg Education's Own Radio Station) because after all it was a first even if it was unknown.
It was the early FM days and no one then predicted that eventually FM listeners would dwarf those of the AM giants like CFRB. There were few home receivers because legendary media entrepreneurs like Roy Thomson in Timmins and Ted Rogers in Toronto had not yet hit on the strategy to sell FM receivers at cost and gain more listeners. Still, it was rare for a school to operate an AM station for even a few hours, so there had to be an official opening.
Or two!
The bureaucracies of education and politics fiddled the calendar for the public ribbon cutting and finally decided on Nov. 22. Premier Leslie Frost and Education Minister Dana Porter agreed on that date just to get it out of the way because it really wasn't important. Yet Frost did have more than a casual interest since he owned the radio station in his lair of Lindsay.
It all began at the CJBC station just up Jarvis St. and then moved to the historic but uncomfortable gem of an auditorium in the main building surrounded by military prefabs that had been used by the Normal School and even Egerton Ryerson for almost a century. There the equipment that supposedly put the station on the air was activated, although insiders knew the station had really been operating for three weeks.
Then the modest festivities moved to the primitive plywood studio for the station that had been fashioned out of a weird room built originally to train fighter pilots. Mini documentaries and canned dramas were broadcast to show how it would operate.
Kerr didn't want to pick fights with the big Toronto radio stations so he emphasized to anyone who would listen that CJRT was aimed at supplementing existing radio fare by offering a distinctive  service for listeners who were not being served, either because of small numbers or minority tastes.
The station had limped into an early life before Ryerson evolved to an institute of technology after its rehab days for veterans returning from World War Two. A few vets, coached by local radio personalities, ran what was really a major ham radio operation. Then Kerr and his key assistant, Eric Palin, who had laboured to keep the station going after the rehab days that ended the previous year, went before the governing board in Ottawa and were granted a licence because there really wasn't any competition.
Kerr told me for my book Ryerson University A Unicorn Among Horses that Ryerson perhaps wasn't the first in Canadian education to get a broadcasting licence."I think Queen's may have had one for AM and there were one or two out west but we were FM and the first to run a station on a completely professional basis."
The broadcasting industry had big hopes for the station because it worried about what organization would do the training if the expected boom happened. As proof, A. Davidson Dunton, a famous broadcasting name as chairman of the CBC's board of governors, came to the bureaucratic opening. No need to give him one of those rare FM tuners but Ryerson presented one to the premier and one to the minister because it was important to keep them happy. After all, the premier was in the business even though he generally was baffled by anything that Ryerson did, and Porter was the local MPP.
It would be years before FM radios were common even in cars. On some nights, the rookie announcers from the Radio and Television Arts course were heard mainly over the loudspeakers hung in the battered halls outside the studio. Now they are remembered in the CJRT call letters that stand for Journalism, Radio, Technology.
There are many grads in Canada from CJRT/RTA, including some working at the station today. One famous one is Glen Woodcock whose Sunday Big Band show is one of the oldest radio programs in the known world. It goes back so far that Glen claims that Eve was the first Big Band singer.
The Ryerson of today has few traces, other than the facade of the famous building from Egerton's day and pioneer names on buildings, of the historic jumble of buildings and courses  that the early grads like me survived.
Yet it has climbed rung by broken rung to become a major university, and its radio station that started because there was some left-over equipment after a war has climbed even higher to broadcast from the top of the CN Tower and earn an international reputation.
Happy Birthday, CJRT,  let me buy Woodcock and other stars there many beers at Steele's. Oh darn it, it's gone, isn't it, under the Ryerson footprint, and the days have vanished into nostalgia when Lightfoot and Hawkins romped there with Sam the Record Man promoting next door. Lucky days for me when I still had enough money to drink there or at the Edison.
At least I have 91.1 to keep me happy as I contemplate the mists before Ryerson became famous and everyone had several FM radios.