Sunday, December 26, 2010



The Toronto Telegram died in 1971 but its memories live on with a shrinking band of survivors from the final wonderful and wacky decade.
We just lost another one when Kenny Robertson died at 87. He wasn't famous. The tales of the newspaper war of Star vs. Tely in the 1960s seldom mention his name. The histories of the Sun skip by this Day Oner.
But anyone who has ever been an editor or laboured in the trenches, when deadlines harass and the damned opposition probably has the pickup pictures or the key quotes, know that it is the Kenny Robertsons of journalism who form the spine of your paper, not the bosses or the stars.
When they're agreeable as well as dependable, when they don't grumble as they ignore food or sleep until they get the story, then you have the bonus that was Kenny Robertson, two-way man.
It's a shame that long after he left journalism we found out that he could write as he produced a nice book with a wonderful title "Windcharm: a dream delayed." Kenny liked being a photographer, and was a good one, but his stories were more workhorse. Until he could write for himself, not the damned editors. Then he could reminisce about his war and his many jobs and his Windcharm, the home he built near Coldwater on 88 acres, which a buddy who kept dropping in and staying called Piano Acres.
The Tely had a City Room filled with characters and some of the best journalists in the land who had had great scoops, like the first into Hitler's Bunker and the first at the Chubb Crater. Two guys who started an enormous media empire. Many National Newspaper Awards. The chap who ran our court bureau had been a Toronto mayor. One of the mother hens started the incredible Today's Child of adoption fame. One chap who only wrote cutlines for us later wrote 20 books. The list of accomplishments is endless.
Kenny was a member of the Tely's Pony Express, the stringers driving from fatal fire to bus accident to council meetings, covering hundreds of miles whether it was icy or they hadn't slept. No cell phones or faxes or computers to help them, but Kenny occasionally beat the Star using his beloved hobby of ham operator (no children, not hog butchers but amateur radio operators who could reach most nooks.)
I worked with him for years and then was his boss, sort of, as Suburban Editor. There were 13 reporter-photographers who covered, believe it or not, all the major news in courts and city halls outside of the downtown city all the way out to Hamilton, Barrie and Oshawa. No paper matches that today. They didn't have an office. They were paid worse and worked longer hours than the city staffers. And they worked like hell because they wanted to climb the pecking order to be on the city staff too.
After midnight, after they had printed their pictures and pounded out their stories at a borrowed desk, they would drink, play poker and trade stories. And daydream. The dreams came true for many. One became an Esquire editor and wrote Flashdance, a huge movie hit. Another wrote TV scripts for the Voice of Doom, Lorne Greene. One was the stepson of the inventor of radar, Sir Robert-Watt. One was mayor of the Toronto suburb of Mimico. Then there was a future CFTO news anchor, Star managing editor, and other editors.
And Kenny became, by popular choice, the second City Editor of the Sun. The reporters loved him, but he could be tough too. He fired one photographer for quitting at the end of his shift because the story wasn't finished. Yet short-staffed newspapers can grind you down.
Lorrie Goldstein, the Sun associate editor, recalls the day when he had been called in for the morning meeting as the City Editor where several superiors gave him lists of stories to be followed. "I will now go out and assign my one reporter," Lorrie said and left.
Kenny became the roving PR guy for the natural resources ministry in middle and northern Ontario because ministry officials hated to leave comfortable offices. He did a great job as a parks and fishing evangelist. As he generally did, and not just in his anecdotes. He loved to yarn.
He could be a dangerous friend. He was a great sailor and I almost bought a boat because of him, which might have ended my marriage. He had at least one race horse, and hasn't every writer who has spent some time at the track dreamed of buying a claimer which then wins the Queen's Plate.
Kenny used to wear a tie pin with his ham call sign on it, which was, I trust, VE3 ERS. I'm sure if that is wrong, he will call me from his new Windcharm. I never greeted him by name but always by his call sign when I called with his assignments. He never grumbled even if it was a miserable drive.
In the old days, we ended by writing 30, so the linotype operators and editors knew we were finished. Kenny always left us saying "tally ho."But let me end with the radio I learned in the RCAF. I would like to be able to say "over," but unfortunately it has to be "out."


Bono said...

What a brilliant piece. I did not know Kenny very well, and therefore have scant memories. But I knew his reputation, and now I know more.
All the best,

cecee59 said...

What a wonderful tribute, Mr. Downing!
My dad was a colleague and friend of Ken's from their days at the Tely, and later at the Sun, but I'd never met him.
Ken sent me his book, Windcharm, after hearing from my dad that I was recovering from being hit by a car, a little over two years ago. The lovely note enclosed said that he hoped that I'd enjoy reading his tales as I healed.
And, what wonderful tales they were! I wrote to tell him so and to thank him.
And, we became pen pals.
He was kind and funny and talented and devoted to the people he loved.(Oh, and to Missy, herself, too!)
Words came easily to him. But, I will miss him more than words could ever say.

jack hutton said...

Hello John
Jack Hutton here,a voice from the past (Tely, 1958-1969)who wants to thank you for that beautiful tribute to Ken. He was indeed a fine writer, with a style reminiscent of our old friend, Paul Rimstead. He was only two chapters away from finishing his second book (Windcharm II), another series of homespun essays about his writer's hideaway outside Coldwater. We overlapped at the Tely, but I really didn't get to know Ken well until we re-connected at Jack Judges's funeral in Bala more than a decade ago. We stayed in close contact via e-mail and he came up from time to time to my ragtime concerts at the Gravenhurst Opera House. Last week I spent two hours with him in his Orillia hospital room where Ken was in a morphine-induced coma. With the permission of his immediate family and friends around us, I slowly repeated Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) for Ken while holding his hand. I told Ken that the psalm was written about 3,000 years ago by another fine wordsmith who lived somewhere that must have been very similar to Windcharm. Several in the room said later they were sure that Ken heard every word. He died just a few hours later. We shall indeed miss him. As Ken would say, Tally ho. (Jack Hutton in a Bala snowbank)

Unknown said...

Lynn Tymczyszyn said:
Ken Robertson was my Dad. Thank you all for your comments. I am sitting here reading them with tears in my eyes. Dad recovered from cancer surgery Nov. 2009 but the cancer came back. He was not feeling well for the past few months but kept going. He wanted to finish his book. He had 2 chapters to go. Jack Hutton suggested his news buddies send me stories about my Dad and we will include them in the book. I think that is a fantastic idea. Dad would love it. Dad also asked me to write about his new Great Grandson "Charlie" who he loved so much. He said something about this baby made everything perfect. My Dad asked me to publish the book so I will try. I will welcome any stories you can send to me. I have many memories but some of my favorite times with Dad were sailing on "Shadow" across Lake Ontario. I would phone him every day asking if we could go. I miss him so much.
We are planning a Celebration of his Life, I think at Windcharm in the spring. I hope all of his friends will come. Thank you.

mike said...

Thank Mr. Downing for the tribute to Ken. I had the privilege to know Ken as my boss in his MNR years, The best boss I have ever had; kind, patient, exacting, and inspiring. Over the years Ken became a mentor to me. I spent all too short a time with Ken but the memories are grand, like moving some of his mom's stuff from her cottage and getting a history lesson on old Yonge street as Ken pieced together the old route in his Ford Pick-up. Then there was the time we spent a hilarious afternoon straightening the most twisted 2X4's available from the lumber yard for his chicken coup. There was no better sanctuary than the deep leather chair at Windcharm, wrapped in the warmth of Ken's endless tales that expressed his joy of life. The first day Ken took me to the Press Club (then on Wellesley St. in Toronto and 30 years ago now) we could not go more than 10 feet out of our office and along the street without someone sharing a greeting with Ken or calling to him from across the street.

The street is a little wider now but the greetings are the same.

Tally ho Ken.

anonymous said...

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