Saturday, March 9, 2024


They knew how to work the phones. That was a theme in the flood of nostalgia after the death of Brian Mulroney, which was a nice repetition of what was said after John Turner. There was also nostalgia about the many kind things they did outside the spotlight of publicity.

I love both things about those giants. Now I have reached my anecdotage, to the chagrin of the family, I like stories about such history more than the formal accomplishment facts. I also confess that facts grow dimmer which is a curse to me who lasted through my cub days as a dumb reporter because I could remember exactly the trivia of history when it was only seconds to deadline.

There are those who grumble about the famous names that I can pepper in a blog but then there were four decades when I was trying to figure just wot-in-hell was going on in the stout silos of politics, business and sports while I worked for two great newspapers and dabbled in other media which treated me like a rube. But then that was life when work could be a premier's delusion or an actress that maybe would later date an Oscar winner or a fender bender on a back concession.. You covered whatever you were told to cover, and life could explode out of tedium in the next minute.

I did get to see the jerk side of famous people. And the flashes of decency.

I was confirmed as Editor of the Toronto Sun in 1985 with a headline that almost made me forget the months of doing the work in tedious addition to being a daily columnist. One thing I will never forget is the telephone call I got from Brian Mulroney to congratulate me. Sure I knew that he had probably been jogged into action by staff but when my secretary Rosemary Little said calmly that the prime minister was on the phone, I first went to the office door to make sure there was no gag going on in the newsroom. (Any denizen of a feisty newsroom will know that I mean.)

It was nice to have the butterscotch tones of the top politician in the country wash over me. Wouldn't you like it if the PM called to wish you well in a big promotion? It certainly knocked my cynicism about politicians for a loop.

If you read about Mulroney you know that he could use a personal phone call like he was granting you a Nobel. Read a great biography by Steve Paikin called John Turner: An Intimate Biography and you can see how Turner also weaponized Bell. There is something about a call from a famous man that makes you remember more good than bad. I must confess as a Tory I was inclined to like the Conservative ones more than the Liberal ones but then Mulroney to me was a gentle thoughtful man in his private musings and Turner wasn't. 

It may have been that time at the Shaw Festival that his wife Geills complained loudly that Mary and I had better seats than they did, or at Roy Thomson Hall when Turner and I got front row seats at a John McDermott concert because John announced above us that the former PM had helped his success and that I as an old friend had written the liner notes for his album of war songs.

Turner ignored me sitting beside him and I smelled the reason was not my columns but that he was soused. Drinking had been a problem for both PMs (but I won't throw insults as a rum-and-coke media survivor. And Mulroney became such an avid counsellor for abstention that he would have fit right in with the old Sherlock TV series.)

The relationship between political leaders and old columnists has always wandered in a mine field. I wrote thousands of columns realizing that what I said was also being read by the target with whom I could share an elevator the next morning. And of course there were also those occasions when the pol would retaliate from his dais perch.

My introduction to the danger of public criticism came when John Diefenbaker asked my publisher to fire me, the same Dief who had been introduced years before around Ottawa by my father, a Toronto Tory power, as not a struggling prairie lawyer but a future Conservative leader.

I have had many encounters with the greats of Canadian politics but I will spare you, from the weird like singing a duet of "Oh yes I'm the great pretender," that hit by The Platters, with Kim Campbell when we were discussing puberty songs at an editorial board, to being ignored by PET when he and I were the only ones touring a medical lab in Mexico.

I am playing it safe by staying away from lengthy discussion about the wives. After all, the female of the species is more dangerous than the male. I was once driven from the front door of a new premier  by the shouting wife attired only (I think) in a slip. It was just another evening in a Venezuela luxury hotel lobby before I came across Margaret Trudeau verbally lambasting an aide for some alleged error. I liked the aide and came to his defence to divert her. She cursed me. I was in no mood for that, having just battled to get my column sent from South America to a city the locals had never heard of. So I cursed back. She and I got quite inventive which startled many tourists. After she was retrieved by an embarrassed official, she faced the wall in the receiving line for an official banquet and gave a Nazi salute.

Naturally it made the news. The famous are aways under a cruel microscope which we must remember when we judge. So we should treasure those like Brian Mulroney who survive with honour.

Mayor, goalie, pilot,innovator

Donald Summerville was Toronto mayor for an urban twinkling. But generations are happy because of his response to a rookie reporter. Yet his name has vanished while contemporaries are remembered. Civic history is as strange as its myths

It was hot and sweaty in 1961 when it began. The urchin looked longingly over the fence at the pool in the brick yard that had been transformed to Greenwood Park. If only he had the admittance.  Then he spotted empty pop bottles behind a house bordering the park. He grabbed them for the deposit money but the tenant unseen by the fence grabbed him.

Ordinarily there just would have been shaking and curses but the summer had been grinding so the man grumbled to police and they were short tempered too and so was the magistrate when the boy was dragged before him. It may have been trivial crime but not for the reporter looking for cute to get out of  punishment in the court bureau of the old city hall.

The bureau was presided over by a Telegram editor who had seen greatness as a decorated war hero who the Orange Order had made Toronto mayor. Major Bert Wemp ran a rare and strict co-operation of Star and Tely fringe reporters and the papers shared stories that were sent via two pneumatic tubes six blocks under Bay St. to the newsrooms.

It was different across the hall in a cluttered room beside the council chamber shared by all the press who were not yet called media. The same tubes were used for political copy but the stories were guarded like gold as the papers competed fiercely through four editions. Every morning Star and Tely reporters combed politics with calls, goading the premier, mayor, councillors and MPPs with hints of their names in the home edition.

 I  noticed the story of the poor boy who stole empties just so he could swim. I was a cub Tely reporter living just up the hill from the pool in a house my father had built as a family doctor and stalwart in local politics. And I knew just who to milk for a story, the new champ of the east end.  Donald Summerville was the son of a former alderman and MPP. He was elected alderman in 1955 but moved quickly to controller in 1959. Toronto and other Canadian cities had adopted an American reform where a Board of Control of four members was elected city wide along with the mayor to form an executive to control finances better. 

Don was a strutting banty rooster in a hurry because he sensed his time was short. Stories swirled around him. He had been a goalie in 1940 with Kirkland Lake when the Blue Devils won the Allan Cup, a major trophy, and it was rumoured he had put on the pads for Maple Leaf practices. He had been a pilot in the war where he had accidentally bombed the CNE. He and his brother owned two movie theatres and it was said he kept rowdies down by patrolling with a club of a long flashlight fat with batteries.

 Don erupted when I called about the boy who stole empties. Right there on Page One, he said the real crime was admittance to the pool when parents had already paid for pools with their taxes. No one dared argue against him, not in a hot summer. City changes usually take a year or two to percolate through reports but council freed all pools in weeks.

It launched Don on a tsunami questioning charges on city property. It was almost an anticlimax when he had free swimming extended to free skating on city rinks. The 18 part-time aldermen already were in thrall to the controllers who each got dreamy assistance in limousine, office, secretary and the clout that saw Maple Leaf Gardens give each of them two good tickets to every Leaf game. No wonder the board had become a breeding ground for power. Most mayors became controllers first. Then insiders had their way, and the media dropped its guard. Toronto and its 12 suburbs slimmed in several stages to amalgamation and one big city where full time councillors and their staffs fiddled with traffic and renaming the past and obsessed with woke trivia while the city limped to a costly clogged future.

There was no stopping Donald Dean Summerville after his triumphs for the kiddies. He lived the good life in 1963 when he became chief magistrate. When council ran late, it would break for a nice meal at Lichee Gardens tucked in behind the old stone pile. Then off to Central Y where he would get a massage and then the Gardens and a good seat near the Leaf bench. His wife Alice, later a councillor, didn't like hockey so I tagged along. Most evenings there were suites in downtown hotels where a floating group of promoters, prospectors and wise guys gambled and drank and yarned into the wee hours.

 One night he said he had to leave to be goalie in a charity hockey game at George Bell Arena (named after a parks commissioner) and we tried to talk him out of it because of the nitro pills he took. Don laughed, shrugged and left. He died in goal near the end of the first period. Then a screw up with the ambulance which led to all of the emergency services being amalgamated into one. 

 Toronto's 53rd mayor laid in state in the old council chamber even though at 45 he had served for only 11 months. That had been done only once before. There we filed past, hour after hour, all shapes and ages mixed in with Don's colleagues whose names we remember on squares and roads, like Nathan Phillips, William Allen and Fred Gardiner. You have to go to his east end to where it all began to find his name. It's on a pool. Don would like that.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Fitting Home

 They are honouring David Onley at the Withrow Common Gallery at the CNE for championing employment for the disabled. There  could not have been a better place or subject.

They will talk about his fine work as an agreeable lieutenant governor and how he made you forget that he was not just a figurehead but had turned his wheelchair into a seat of power and inspiration. Forgotten by too many will be his years at CITY as a workhorse in a struggling TV station where he did everything from the weather to talking about space.

But I go back even further to his research for the provincial Liberals when the latest hot idea in transportation was maglev. It seemed so magical, this European scheme to move urbanites in small cabins running not on wheels but suspended thanks to powerful magnets forcing a gap of air between the car and the track.

There were many unknowns but the stout provincial Tory government calculated that the future lay in cancelling expressways like the Spadina and building a system with Krauss-Maffei that could solve the traffic hassles of Toronto and also produce technology that could be sold to the world. Oh yes, also win elections for Conservatives.

Exhibition Place was selected in 1974 as the location for a test track that the world would watch. And the digging began on construction of the elevated concrete track that would girdle the Ex for more than two miles. Onley was just a fresh U of T grad but he and other researchers for the Liberals leaked me details of what would be more massive and isolating than graceful and unobtrusive. Physics said it needed big supporting pillars, like the later Gardiner, some of which were built and lingered for years after Krauss Maffei cancelled the whole project because the first maglev train in Germany had trouble going around curves in the snow.

The pressure on any critic was enormous as the experiment turned into the Urban Transportation Development Corp before it flamed out.  The wiz-kid boss, Kirk Foley, called on Sun publisher Doug Creighton asking that I be fired - and the chair of our board, a former Tory minister, thought that was a good idea. After the wreckage of crashed transit dreams, the Tories found other uses for UTDC plans, the Liberals offered me a job, and Onley went on to write about space and star on CITY which had just been known for racy movies.

But he also worked tirelessly for the disabled when just surviving an ordinary day could be a challenge. One noon, I bought him lunch at the Underground Railroad and we emerged to find that his car with his special hand controls had been towed from King St. despite the special disabled card in the windshield. I blasted the police chief, yet no effort was made to help him get to the pound. Still, David kept smiling.

I like the location of David being honoured by the Ontario Disability Employment Network because the Withrow Common is a modern celebration of a glorious CNE past when it helped art grow in a young city. The CNE art gallery was torn down because of the Gardiner but for decades before the Ex stimulated the artists of Toronto by buying and promoting their work.

When the gallery was demolished, the CNE gave 340 works of art to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Unfortunately, the AGO treated the donation with the same careless indifference it showed the art it got from the provincial gallery at Ryerson University (which has had that vanilla renaming triggered by woke jerks.) For example, it sold off an A.J. Casson.

 A careless survey years ago for the Ex claimed that several paintings from the Ex ended up in the press gallery of old city hall (a fib because as a reporter there for several years I can testify there was no art at all) and that the mayor's office at the old hall, and the hall itself, got at least 20 paintings (which would be news to the people who worked there.) The Reference Library and Market Gallery also got some art but Group of Seven paintings, like from Frank Carmichael, have wandered in and out of accounts of their fate. Some just vanished into homes.

Now art from the community and not just exotic masters has returned to the Ex with the Withrow Gallery. So that is a plus. And the Common honours good guys. Another plus! Now if only we can promote the CNE past where there were province-wide contests for the essays, hand writing and art from elementary pupils.(I helped judge essays.) I have always had a warm feeling for the Ex my entire life because my Grade 5 charcoal sketch of McLure's millpond in tiny Chesley was displayed there nearly 80 years ago.

Just remembering makes me almost feel 60 again. The long summer afternoons of rafting there like Huckleberry Finn on the Rocky Saugeen with a chum who died years ago. Warm memories in an age where the woke say that Mark Twain and other treasures of the past were racist.

Sunday, January 14, 2024


 My visit to Toronto General Hospital, the marvellous anchor of the University Health Network, was going well.  I felt almost comfortable. TGH may be a giant, but my two sisters once worked there, my parents died there, as a kid reporter I haunted its emergency, I have had procedures and operations there, three of my specialists work there, and I lived for a couple of years a block away.

Then I looked closely at my specialist and said our talk could have been done by phone. She shrugged and said the ministry demanded the patient be present in person at least once every two years no matter how well the phone calls were working and the absence of problems. So it was convenient for her and the system but not for me. Now I had only waited half an hour past the appointment time in a sprawling hospital flooded with patients. But just getting to TGH is running a gauntlet when you have a city council caring more about cyclists than cars and most major streets are plugged more than the arteries in a 100-year-old man.

The hospital zone might as well be an extension of the zoo. When you are an 87-year-old deaf diabetic in a wheelchair, the streets around TGH are as congested as the compassion in a council plotting a 10% hike in taxes with a woke agenda that would make a Palestinian terrorist blush.

Surely it is in everyone's interest, especially a swamped hospital and a patient whose trip is arduous to avoid any trips that aren't necessary but can be taken care of by phone and computer. It makes you wonder about the thinking in a ministry headed by a minister, Sylvia Jones, who is also the deputy premier. Her hometown of Orangeville is just an urban burp so the idea of forcing old farts to navigate downtown Toronto streets is a nightmare her locals don't have to endure.

Just another day in sand in the cog in a costly health care system that could have been avoided. My expedition from pleasant Etobicoke consumed half a day for me and my stalwart son. The cost does jump considerably when you consider that minor fact that some experts say is really major and is handicapping medicare, the price of hospital parking when you actually finish the marathon.

For just over two hours at TGH, after Mark pushed and shoved me through a construction maze to actually get inside, we paid $25.50 for TGH parking. I have lived and worked and played for many years in the heart of the city, which right now is having a heart attack, and I have never paid that much for a twinkling of time. 

I would hope the premier would get off his chubby ass and suggest to his health minister that in 2024 when the world has come to accept virtual meetings that it is long overdue to have more virtual consultations when our hospitals are overflowing with more patients than excuses.

I have served on hospital boards, even as the chair raising money for new facilities. I have a taste for the problems for many years. I still hate the health bureaucracy for its indifference to simple solutions when a short phone call could have saved a specialist and an old geezer money and a huge slice of a day.

Surely specialists and sensible patients can make a decision on whether swamped hospitals can avoid visits better than health bureaucrats. And Ontario would save a lot of money and irritation.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

O Little Town Of Chesley

 Climb aboard the magic carpet of nostalgia and fly eight decades in time back to the town near Owen Sound which grew like so many where mills marked fords in the rivers that crisscrossed Ontario before the province staggered from depression into war. If there wasn't a mill, there was a CNR station all located where the locomotives needed to refuel. 

A vanished time because the factories are gone along with the station. And the school burned down. The classes ended up all over town, Grade 8 in the council chamber with three pupils to each picnic table.

I was orphaned as a tot in the Big Smoke and came to the little house near the tracks heated by the wood stove (used for cooking all the bread) except on special occasions when a little round coal stove heated the parlour. The outhouse in the back kitchen was decorated with GE pictures of Niagara Falls generators. Some times the frost coated the inside of windows. It was not unusual for no plumbing or furnace in town and they were high faluting too expensive on the mixed use 100 acre farms on the circling concessions. We never did get a furnace before the house burned down. Fire was the big enemy The volunteer fire engine was kept behind the town office which also housed one cell. There was one policeman who had little to do with 1,800 residents who thought shop lifting was a major crime.

Life revolved around several furniture factories where time was marked by whistles and heat was provided by burning sawdust carted by a team of horses that plodded all day by our house from a sawmill on the Rocky Saugeen where I taught myself to swim.

The social life was dominated by the Protestant churches, although the Catholics had been allowed a small one. The farmers came to church by sleigh and left their steaming teams in big driving sheds. Evil was the little pool hall and the few men who snuck to drink in a hamlet. You knew about the little that was going on by reading the weekly and listening twice a day to Toronto newscaster Jim Hunter on the big mantel radio (which was only on for an hour of soap operas.) Most war news came from the Sun Times out of Owen Sound, which is where you went for major shopping if the item wasn't in the thick Eaton's catalogue which we used when they grew tattered for pads for the endless games of street hockey.

There was no milk delivery and you kept meat not in the ice box but at the dairy in rented boxes of mainly chicken wire. The dairy sold buttermilk, a nickel a pail. The little movie theatre was busiest on the Saturday afternoon matinee which was always a Western. Churches had a big picnic, which featured egg salad sandwiches, the ingredients for which came from the gardens that many had, along with chickens in back yard pens. Pigeon coops were common. Every church also had a Christmas concert, with a few faltering solos and girls in dyed cheese cloth swooping in coloured lights from an old projector.

Not a big sale of Christmas cards, not with the price of stamps and you had to rent a little windowed box at the post office because there was no delivery. Not many Christmas decorations either, and using the short form of Xmas was frowned on. Eaton's was said to have a magic Toyland on the fifth floor up rickety wooden escalators and Simpsons just across Queen St. had a carol sing for staff and customers every morning which was carried live on radio. Every class in the public school lined up in their smelly cloakrooms and sang along with a few big radios placed strategically in the hall. Then it was back inside to an atmosphere which would cause a woke agitator to suicide, and being sent to have the Grade Eight teacher, a mean tempered principal, strap your hands with a big leather belt was as common as the daily drills on grammar.

Winter was a problem. They dropped yeast by plane for the humble bakery when a big storm marooned the town when the big railway plow couldn't clear the track. The highways were growing like varicose veins but car trips were arduous. Living into your 70s was a big deal and if you did die in the town with no hospital they would wait to spring to bury you because the ground was too hard under the snow drifts.

Ah yes, all those years ago, all those decades that I have survived, even though I no longer send cards because I don't know who of my friends, relatives and colleagues did too. I still enjoy everything about Christmas even if TV seems to be endless crap about the jerk known as Trump and the joy of a rum eggnog at a party is blighted  by the noise of people enjoying themselves who aren't deaf and in a wheelchair. I read the newspapers and curse their slimness and accounts of anti-Semitism and savour the legend of Santa and the literature of Dickens.

We have never known more about the world. We have just got to ignore the alleged populists among our pols and endure the feeling that we are going to hell in a hand basket. It is hard to do so considering the Trudeau Grits and woke infestations in our schools and councils and institutions. But after all these decades I have come to the belief that 2024 can't be worse although 2023 certainly tried. 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Wonderful life on Elsfield

I had lived in 16 different houses, apartments, rooms, and rooming houses, and had at least 16 part-time jobs and two reporting ones, before I ended at 92 Elsfield Rd. and my work as a writer.

Somehow I had always drifted west even though I had been born in the east end where streetcars ground past my father's house on Gerrard. He died there, overworked as a family doctor and school trustee, launching me on a dizzy round of relatives, homes and empty holidays.

When I came to Sunnylea nearly 60 years ago, where once there had been an orchard with an underground creek reeking havoc with construction near Glenroy, it was a decent haven of solid families. I knew it would be when the alderman-realtor talked me into buying the house of the TD bank manager just up on Bloor St. Changes came, of course, and not just humble ones. One of three supermarkets became the world's first adventure in cable TV where we paid to watch first-run movies by putting coins into a gizmo on top of the TV.

I covered politics. So I gathered there would be a subway line and station at the big corner. And three Metro Toronto giants lived just blocks away, with the works commissioner to the north, the planing commissioner to the west and the parks commissioner to the south. Famous for innovations like Tommy Thompson with his sign Please Walk On The Grass. 

Sunnylea was anchored by a school, and not just an ordinary one but one famous in architecture as the model for new elementary schools in the country with doors leading outside from every class. The architect, John Parkin, was a bit of a bon vivant who owned two big houses across from Royal York United Church and later designed unique buildings like the new city hall which was so different that the mayor gulped when the model was unveiled. The school had advancement classes where the brightest in the borough were bussed in but the rest of the kids walked while the parents worried about the lack of sidewalks.

The more ambitious parents played volleyball one evening a week at the school. Their children joined a legendary Scout pack that Audrey Jolley ran strictly in the church basement and fathers were dragooned into helping one weekend camp each fall. Once a year I would buy mounds of fireworks and fire them off in an orgy at the school yard, and the watchers would rate the rockets for a story I would write in the Tely. All the Sunnylea kids sang carols one noon at the church and there was a grand costume parade in the school yard every Halloween.

There are always blind spots when you slip into your anecdotage. Just what was the name of the minister at the church who became the moderator of the United Church? How many wives glazed  creche figures at the church? Who was the woman who edited the major astronomy magazine? What number was the house of the sister of the director of education?

Some evenings when the street lights bounce off the wet pavement and the kids are long gone from their zig zag splash through the puddles, I listen to the mutter of the city beyond the Humber and am grateful that decades ago I had enough sense to buy into this bit of peace.