Friday, April 11, 2014



I have reached the years where my friends read the obits in the papers first.
I don't, because if I manage to get  up, I know my name isn't there.
I write about a trio of passings who were honourable hard workers who wore well on the rest of us because they were decent and able and understood BS without flinging it like a Jays pitcher on a bad day..
Back in the mists, I remember a song that became far more famous than the singer, Kitty Kallen, who made it a huge hit. The key line was "little things mean a lot."
And they do for me because they matter more in politics and journalism and life in general than the big set pieces, the big deal performances, whether the budget speech, the huge scoop of a headline, or some grand formality of camaraderie.
It's how you act when the lights are on someone else that are the measure of the man. I have never forgotten that the legendary Johnny Carson, during the two-minute breaks for commercials, ignored totally his guests with whom he chatted with charm when the cameras were live.
Jim Flaherty would probably have been as good a premier and a better prime minister. Willis Blair was appreciated but should have had a bigger platform. Vince Devitt was the sort of tough experienced veteran that any good newspaper needs in its spine.
I remember one agreeable August morning when we were opening the Ex and I found Faherty standing alone and unannounced to one side of the crowd before the ceremonies. We gossiped about how things were going in the quiet days in Ottawa and at Queen's Park, the circuses he had dominated with the ease of the ringmaster.
I said of course he would have to say a few words, and he said that wasn't necessary, but we both knew that with an election coming, no politician of his worth would ignore any crowd larger than a couple.
Turned out, however, that when I raised this with colleagues running the opening, they were opposed because the invited dignitary was a provincial Liberal minister who had given us a grant.
 I said Flaherty may be a Tory but he was also the federal finance minister, the second most important politician in the country, and you just don't ignore such a man. Besides, I said, he was a pro who would give a short graceful speech and not raise partisan hackles.
 Flaherty performed as advertised. And everyone was pleased that someone of such note who had been coming to the Ex his entire life had said a few words without us having to go through the normal hassles of getting a major operator to the fair.
He may not have been big like Blair, a baron of beef in a blue double-breasted suit who had been East York mayor, but you could imagine a scrappy Irishman dominating Princeton hockey back in his scholarship days.
For Blair, baseball was the game and long after  he had left formal politics, we would chat at Jays game because he had been a loyal supporter from the start and very helpful in the bargain $17.8 million conversion of Exhibition Stadium for baseball. (If only all our stadium deals could be so economical and easy on the taxpayers.)
Blair was into curling too and brought the World Junior Curling Championship to East York in 1975. It produced a sports anecdote I will always treasure. As part of a PR stunt to promote the event, Blair had the reigning champs from Switzerland play Don Chrevier and two CBC types, with me as lead. We won 4-0 and enjoyed watching their supercilious smiles at the old farts freeze to frowns.
Blair and I were in the City Hall cafeteria one day when a man shyly came up to his mayor for advice. He volunteered that Blair didn't know him but about a minute later, the guy would  have thought Blair knew the age of his kids and how many dandelions were on his lawn.
If only all our councillors could have the common sense and good humour that Blair had even in the face of some of the stupider votes and rhetoric of the lefties whom he deplored.
The provincial government knew his worth, had him on the OMB, the supervisory planning board,  and had him tackle municipal assessment, always a thorn in the side of everyone associated with the issue. Blair's shrewd report as a commissioner for Premier William Davis stated baldly on the first page that something like 2.1 million properties in Ontario paid no municipal taxes at all.
Just how the hell does that happen, I demanded of Blair. He said it happened "by hook or by crook," an old English expression meaning by any means necessary, whether that meant crooked bureaucrats and assessors, or just properties that had managed to escape detection.
Afterwards, there were a lot more people paying municipal taxes, although Blair in his agreeable  way never boasted about reforms.
With his encyclopedia knowledge of Torontonians and politics, Blair was a stalwart source, one that as a reporter, columnist and editor I relied on to give me the inside on what was going on without malicious overtones. I would imagine Devitt did the same, as a veteran of everything in newspapering who ended up on the inside as a press secretary to Premier Davis.
Devitt and I went through the wars together, and shared many of the same scars, whether the wounds came from provincial and federal elections and leadership contests,  or whatever  the major story was.
At the end, I was the editor and he was the reporter on whom I had to depend to sort Star blarney from Globe fiction.  On several occasions, thousands of dollars in street sales depended on the advice he gave me minutes before the edition.
For example, the Saturday Star had a headline story during the 1970 kidnapping of James Cross, the British diplomat, about FLQ terrorists hidden inside the wall of a house being searched by police. The Mounties had leaked such a story to the Star but Devitt, the Tely's main man on the story, couldn't confirm it. I finally decided, based on Devitt, not to "scalp" or copy the story,  so the second-largest  edition in the country came out that noon without that exciting angle.
Devitt never mentioned it to me again, although my bosses certainly did because of the loss of sales. He expected that the Telegram would do the honest thing for its readers and not repeat a phoney story.
He repaid me in a way weeks later when I was in Montreal to buck up our troops. We all ended up in the lamented Montreal Press Club, a normal gathering after big stories then.
A Boston Globe reporter announced he was about to beat the shit out of me. As I turned to face him, Devitt inserted himself. I was the biggest and youngest in the coming fight but for Devitt - and Flaherty and Blair for that matter -  you always jump in to help your friends.
The Globe reporter warned that we should be careful because he had been the boxing champ of the U.S. Marines. (Strangely enough, that turned out to be true.) Devitt replied: "Screw you, I was a Toronto bartenders.) (Which he had been to get enough money to attend Ryerson Journalism school two years ahead of me.)
And that was that. We didn't even stop drinking. After all, it was only 5 a.m, and these were the glory days of newspapers when work consumed your life.
These are the things you remember when you sift through the obits,  after you are grateful that you haven't yet made it into print, the faces and events that will never fade.

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