Thursday, June 27, 2019

ANNE JOHNSTON: THE DEATH OF A REAL TROUPER


A CONSCIENTIOUS PAIN IN THE ASS

Not everyone would agree. A few thought Anne Johnston, who has just died at the full age of 86, was just cantankerous. Yet she was an alderman who made Toronto council better just by walking into the horseshoe of desks.
She would hiss at a colleague for a stupid vote, shout an insult to the press gallery, and settle down  for another day of wheeling and squealing over the issues dear to her heart like helping the disabled.
We were original members of the board of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame which is still chaired by David Crombie who along with David Smith and Anne were uncomfortable partners in the politics of a northend which was used to getting its own way.
I miss her at the meetings because of her rugged approach which was forged in her early life as an occupational therapist with disturbed patients.
She almost was the first woman mayor of Toronto. When Crombie was the giant killer who defeated in a 1978  by-election a Liberal being groomed to be PM ( John Evans of U of T) council deadlocked 11 to 11 on a mayoral replacement.
No one was willing to budge. So Roy Henderson, the city clerk, found an old box that had contained envelopes, put in two pieces of paper with the names and pulled out the one for Fred Beavis, a plain east end politician who had the nickname of The Honest Roofer.
A key draw in  the city's life which John Tory just got wrong by saying it was from a hat. It made Beavis the first Roman Catholic mayor of Toronto since it was incorporated in 1834. And Toronto had to wait another two decades to elect its first female mayor.
It was significant, however, that the champion of the old guard had to win by luck over a feisty newcomer with only six years of experience. Then Anne went on to become one of council's longevity champs until her ward rebelled and advertised for an opponent who went on to defeat her.
The 1970s were a grand decade in municipal politics with the reformers sweeping the cobwebs from bylaws and it was common for the 23 councillors and a few journalists to party together and travel together and fight together and generally enjoy urban politics.
I remember writing about Anne with affection, detailing her attributes in one of my daily columns on Page 4 of the Sun. Then I chastised her towards the end.
She sued! I couldn't believe it. No one could. I got a puzzled call from Alan Shanoff, the newspaper's lawyer, saying he couldn't figure out how she could prove libel since the column basically was filled with praise.
So I phoned Anne. She chatted pleasantly about how she really wasn't mad at me but a lawyer in the ward who owed her a favour said he could get a lot of money out of the Sun and it really wouldn't affect me.
I explained that I had never been successfully sued and that newspapers didn't keep Editors who cost them money in libel suits.
So Anne called off the suit.
After all, she had often  "used" me in the normal City Hall way of  planting ideas, but she had even "used" me as an enforcer.
Council used to go to the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities in a happy mob and work like mad all day and party hard all night.
I was minding my own business, and that of a few suburban aldermen at my table at the main evening event in Halifax, when Anne appeared from the dance floor, dragging a Newfoundland mayor from some town with a longer name than he was.
She pulled him up to me, told me to stand and explained to the mayor that I was her husband and when she told me he had been feeling her bottom in an enthusiastic way while dancing, I would beat him up.
The mayor sprinted to safety, Anne and the table roared, and I said I had to go write a column which didn't involve punching people.
That was Anne, always in the centre of things, whether she was promoting a Welsh choir - her roots in her birthplace included the family knowing Dylan Thomas -   crusading for people locked in wheelchairs, or just having a grand time keeping the contractors at City Hall more honest than they were used to.
You know, the good old days that we talk about often weren't that great. But they were in City Hall when we had councillors like Anne around. She accomplished without an army of paid aides to staff the office or go to meetings for her.
I'm sure that right now she is complaining to St. Peter that there is too much density near the Golden Gates and Welsh choirs should be featured more in hymn sings. And, damn it, the disabled sign for her chariot hasn't arrived yet because even the blasted civil servants in heaven can screw things up, just like they do back at Nathan Phillips Square.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

FISHING WITH KING GEORGE


 WONDERFUL ENTREPRENEUR EVEN WHEN FISH FIBBING

I was not yet 3 but I do have faint memories of the King touring Riverdale Park on a warm May day in 1939.  Walter Oster was just a few days old but he remembered too. After all, he ended up with the King's name.
Those in Walter's circle know the story but most readers would be baffled when his obit appeared listing his first names as King George Walter.  It was just one of the ways Walter was unique.
His mother Pauline and his father Michael had dithered over the name for days. Finally his mother appealed to a nurse she liked about what she should call the baby. And the nurse without thinking long said why didn't she call him after the King who was making headlines throughout the country with his royal tour.
So she did. But Walter never used it all, although he could act like a king in an argument and my, could he ever be stubborn when he thought you were full of .....
I met Walter and his gracious Mary on a trip to China in 1985 organized by that grand Grit, David Smith, and his friend and law partner, Jeff Lyons, who I always liked even as he descended into being one of Ontario's political pariahs.
Mary announced during the trip that I really wasn't the jerk she had thought, which was good enough for Walter who took me for decades on great adventures even when we got skunked.
Walter ran the Sportsmen's Show, of course, and the fishing derby on Lake Ontario, and fine seafood restaurants. It had all started, he said, when as a kid, he had been thrilled to catch a sunfish in Grenadier Pond.
Many years later, Walter and I organized a city fishing derby at the pond. The Sun rented out simple fishing rods - we actually gave them away to the kids - and Walter and I caught some fish in advance, tagged them with the names of Sun personalities, and released them in the famous pond. The tags were worth prizes of a few dollars each but one was for $50.
(Oh yes, the fish with the Downing tag was not caught but was found floating belly up. I always thought that Tiny Bennett, our fishing expert who didn't like me intruding into his area, was responsible.)
One high point of my work years was to come back on opening day of the fishing derby to Pier 4 and walk through the pointing Saturday crowd carrying our catch. And then to the round table on the second floor of the vanished restaurant - done in by the stupid Harbourfront bureaucrats who should have treasured Walter rather than given him a hard time.
We would dine with the guest of the day, who may have been a cardinal or premier, and wish that the day, and the food, would never end.
I can remember being part of a double-header, what we called it when the boat had two salmon on, and while manoeuvring to a deck corner to get anchored to land a 27-pound chinook. I was slammed by Toronto  chief Julian Fantino, who was also playing a fish. He said mischievously later that he really hadn't intended to bodycheck me that hard.
Walter had great relations with the police, the Church, politicians and celebrities who flocked to fish with him. It didn't come easily either. He had to work at climbing out of his neighbourhood of Cabbagetown (some still grew cabbages on their tiny lots) through drafting blueprints to construction to owning restaurants, golf courses and even a hotel.
I often wondered during his long volunteer career as board chair of the giant convention centre whether his directors knew about his flamboyant bursts.
For example, he raced cars on a Canadian circuit until he was 44 - which just happened to be his final car number.
He bought a special anniversary Rolls Royce and one day on a jaunt to Montreal, with a friend at the wheel who Walter sponsored in racing, was roaring down 401 at over 160 km/h. They were pulled over by an OPP constable who said he just wanted to look at the legendary car. (Fantino would not have approved even though Walter was a buddy.) Walter pointed proudly to the plaque on the dash where the company said how special this car was, and no ticket was issued.
Walter each year took a group on great fishing in remote spots ranging from Costa Rica to the territories. One January, fourteen of us fished for peacock bass on the Rio Negro, the tributary of the Amazon a long plane ride from civilization.
We lived on a river boat and each day paired up with guides in small boats and spent 10 hours fishing for the bass and cursing the piranha when they chomped our bait. It was jungle furnace hot and you dripped with sweat. Sadistically, I returned to a topic that often bugged Walter because I observed, as a good swimmer and with sons who were lifeguards and SCUBA divers too, that I thought it astounding he couldn't swim.
Here was a man who was one of the faces of fishing in Ontario, if not the country. He had spent much of his lifetime on water, and not just when playing golf. Yet he couldn't swim.
 I stopped the kidding when Walter started negotiating with the guide about how much it would cost to get him to throw me into the biggest blackwater river in the world and let me make my way back to the mother ship through waters that featured caimans bigger than the ones that one daredevil on the crew wrestled one night while we held the lights.
Ironically, for a man who had presided over the best seafood restaurants in the city, with a loyal staff who spent their lifetimes working for him, Walter had a thing for fish and chips. Now his food was superb. He made sure his staff bought the finest giant shrimp. He paid extra for his fries which were coated, I think, with egg whites. He could have those shrimps or fries or tender lobsters whenever he wanted, but he and I regularly searched for good fish and chip restaurants in humble corners of his city.
In my case, I suspect it was nostalgia because of the little fish and chip shop just south of Gerrard and Greenwood that had been there for decades. The Downings often went there just along the lane from our big doctor's house in those faded years to bring back the treat, back when royal tours were huge news and King George Walter was born.
Back when fish and chips came wrapped in the big sheets of old newspapers and were priced as a bargain meal for the many who didn't have the money to eat out.
When Walter presided genially at Pier 4, with much of Toronto ambling below in the weekend sun, he let everyone order from the menu but me. The waiter would bring me two succulent pieces of fish in their heart-stopping jackets of deep-fried batter, or even, if Walter decided I hadn't been too much of a pain in the ass and my catch had been smaller than his, three pieces ... and mountains of fries.
And then we would all eat like a king!





Sunday, March 3, 2019

FALSE STARTS IN ONTARIO'S COMPUTER AGE


TEACHERS FEARED BEING REPLACED BY COMPUTERS

As the scarred survivor of the revolution which took me in journalism from setting type by hand and typing carbon copies to writing columns on a desk gizmo, I remember the frustrating problems with revulsion and hope that driverless cars come to reality without such a history.
At least old computers were only dangerous to your sanity! (But come to think of it, modern computers can be too since my last unexpected computer problem was 10 minutes ago.)
I was reminded of the difficult birth of computers by a note from Clare Westcott, now confined to a seniors' eyrie above the Trent River by problems with eyes and mobility - but not of memory.
My, does he remember the electronic renovation of Ontario.
As I have written in blog.johndowning.ca and in my recent book, Ryerson University - A Unicorn Among Horses, Clare played a key role in education with the community colleges and Ryerson, and in provincial politics, for most of his 95 years. We had then what history has revealed to be a good premier, but Clare was right there behind Bill Davis.
He was there when backroom politics was played with clever force, and variations of the SNC-Lavalin scandal were always threatening unless you played democracy with some competence and a sense of duty that meant screwing the public and wasting millions was just not done.
Clare dropped out after Grade 11 at Seaforth Collegiate but after a variety of minor jobs, which included being blinded in one eye as a Hydro lineman, ended up with the stuffy mandarins of the Ministry of Education in the early 1960s working under Bill Davis.
He recalled the other day that he found that "even the word computer scared the pants off ministry people. Many of them actually believed that it would eventually put teachers out of a job. I don't really think many teachers thought it would happen but the cloistered brass had real paranoia about a machine with a better brain than they had."
Clare remembers that in 1963 and 1964, "a computer person not only had to know all about computing but he had to constantly explain what it was and what it could do, plus he had to be a promoter and used car type salesman because a good chunk of the population feared it like it was black magic. Words like binary and the new math were intimidating to the many of the folks who got a readin 'n' writin education as I did."
Clare's educator about the latest buzz words and guide into the magic acts of the new computer world was Dr. Calvin "Kelly" Gotlieb who has been called by Clare and others the "Father of Computing" in Canada. Kelly founded  the Computer Science department at U of T and as a prolific author and consultant became famous far beyond our borders.
Kelly persuaded Clare to hire a computer wiz working in the U.S. for a soap company. When he asked what he should do, Clare told him just to walk around the ministry for a couple of months talking about computers. "I just want them to see you don't have horns and you're not breathing fire."
Another mentor for Clare in this brave new world was Dr. Fred Minkler, head of the giant North York school board, who was "an innovator who surrounded himself with brainy young doers." As they worked with industry representative, Minkler suggested they form an association of data systems people and became the first president. Then the high school dropout from Seaforth became the second president of the Association of Educational Data Systems.
And so the computer ship was launched in education in Ontario but the voyage was to take decades. As Clare recalls, it was twenty years later in the early 1980s when Davis as premier and Bette Stephenson as a good education minister announced a school computer program. Both said that within 10 years, every student would have their own computer. (We have made great advances but not quite that far.)
Even today Clare can't resist a poke at these two famous Tory politicians, saying that neither have ever owned or operated a computer.
In the mid-1960s, a revolution in post-secondary education in Ontario was also occurring. Not only did Davis create the CAATs, he sponsored legislative changes that ended with one institute of technology becoming Ryerson University.
Davis also gave that budding university freedom from the constricting ministry with its first board of governors, and to the chagrin of all the egotistical doctorates wandering outside his office, put Clare, the dropout, on the board.
As I outline in my book, Clare played a major role at Ryerson. As one important cog in buying land for the expanding university, he notoriously reported back at one board meeting that he had just bought two whore houses.
This was greeted with shock until the first female member of the board, Ruth Frankel, laughed.
Mrs. Frankel also came to Clare's defense when the other governors ignored his knowledge about the new technology and decided to buy a main computer from Honeywell.
Clare grumbled that the faculty committee was making an "odd" recommendation because IBM had just come out with System 360, a stand alone main frame computer computer system designed to cover a complete range of applications. He knew respected educators like Minkler were lining up to get one.
Clare wrote that it "wasn't an easy sell  because even my friends on the board were winking at each other hinting I was way over my head." But he kept going so finally the exasperated board had the former engineering dean at U of T, Ron McLaughlin, study the matter and report back to his fellow governors. When he did, he backed Westcott, but it became a Pyrrhic victory.
Six weeks later, Davis, still the education minister, phoned Clare to say "I think it would be wise if you resigned from the Ryerson board. I have just been at a cabinet meeting and Premier Robarts is mad as hell at you. Did you do something at Ryerson about the purchase of a new computer?"
Clare said he had because "they were making a big mistake purchasing from Honeywell rather than from IBM."
The future premier finished the call by saying:"Clare, it would be wise for you to resign as  soon as possible. The President of Honeywell is a close friend and supporter of Mr. Robarts and he apparently raised hell with him about what you did." So Clare had to quit his treasured appointment.
(Ironically, in 1974, Toronto's three universities held talks about how stupid financially it was for each of them to buy a main frame computer. U of T, which lorded it over York and Ryerson and handicapped their operations in the first decades of the new universities, refused to share. So York and Ryerson went ahead with a successful joint operation, a co-operation which was noted throughout the country. Oh yes, with an IBM 155.)
And that was how politics was played even back in the heyday between two friends who were key mechanics in what was called the Big Blue Machine. It lasted 42 years,  one of the most successful political dynasties in the country, especially when you consider the unravelling of the Trudeau legend and the party that believes it is entitled to rule by the divine right of The Great Grit God!







Saturday, February 2, 2019

GETTING STIFFED BY BILLIONAIRES


I 'M LOUSY AT  BARGAINING


I don't brood about them in my memories but the death of billionaire Ron Joyce did remind me that I have a black hole in my accomplishments. I have a history of the rich ignoring my reasonable requests for donations.
There used to be an expression about living like a prince on a pauper's salary. And journalists knew all about that, although I once used it in front of my friend, Doug Creighton, the founder and soul of the Sun newspapers, and he blew a gasket, to use another old saying.
Yet Doug, bless him, knew what I meant, even though I was never lucky enough to be able to live on my expense account and bank my salary, as Time magazine staffers were reputed to do in the misty past.
Yet if you last in the big leagues of the media, you rub shoulders or bend elbows with many rich and powerful people. They become familiar in your life. Having billionaires as acquaintances or even friends is not that far-fetched, not that it did me much good financially. But then I am lousy when it comes to bargaining or even asking for charities.
I revealed my financial shortcomings early when I took my first big-city newspaper job in 1958 and Jean Burlington, secretary to the formidable managing editor known just by his initials of JDM, asked what I was to get paid. I had no idea. I had just been grateful to get a Telegram job. So she gave me the minimum of $76 weekly. I then spluttered that I did have some experience (editing the Whitehorse Star) but she just smiled.
In the early stretched days of the Toronto Sun, my daily Page 4 column was a major part of the entire Sun's political coverage as I trotted from City Hall to Queen's Park with flights to Ottawa for budgets and big stories.
I was sagging from fatigue when I got a phone call from Dic Doyle at the Globe (a major journalism figure who became a senator) offering me the new post of columnist on the editorial page.
I was stunned and phoned Creighton. He cleverly said we had to have one final blowout before I departed. During the dinner and many, many, many drinks, he made it plain that he thought the Globe was more interested in hurting the Sun than gaining a columnist. Not exactly morale boosting!
It was about 3 a.m. when I was swimming lengths in the Creighton pool, not sure whether I was upside down or not, that I decided to stay with my newspaper family. Doug smiled in triumph, then phoned the next day to announce that I was the world's worst negotiator because I hadn't even asked for more money. (So he gave me a thousand and stock.)
Creighton was a great charmer, but there could be an steely edge over the years when I reported new job offers. He laughed when I said I had the Tory nomination to run federally. When I was offered the job of running the O'Keefe Centre, as it was then called, he announced it was the "stupidest idea I've ever heard of" and dared me to take it and crash and burn.
I didn't really need that insult. My dream of theatre impresario was ruined by the realization that I would be lousy negotiating with the super stars.
After all, to get back to Ron Joyce as an example, I couldn't even get money out of him when it would only have been petty cash.
Both of us were directors of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, which was floundering at the Ex. MPs from the Ottawa area were trying to entice the Hall to the capital city, arguing that Toronto already was overflowing with tourist attractions.
The Hall was offered federal money and two empty buildings there, both now converted to grand federal uses, but then came interference from Sheila Copps and even Jean Chretien.
At one crucial meeting about the future, I said as CNE president that the Ex would continue to cover the Hall utilities but we really couldn't expand our help. The board chair, Trevor Eyton, a rich Tory senator, called for other emergency suggestions. I looked at Joyce who didn't say one word. I then ventured that I would call Paul Godfrey, at that point the Blue Jay president, and ask for a few thousand or even a loan. Joyce still was mum. The silence, as they say, was deafening.
 Godfrey, to whom I had reported as Sun Editor, came through with some help. But that was it.
The Hall moved to Calgary (though its administrators still hanker after Toronto by running events here) and the old Hall building vanished under the north end of BMO Stadium.
So you will pardon me if I read about Joyce's philanthropy without enthusiasm.
About the same time as I was on the sinking ship known as the Toronto version of the Sports Hall of Fame, I was fund-raising chair for Runnymede Healthcare Centre.
I certainly played a major role in getting provincial approval for the tens of millions for the new 200-bed building which replaced a century-old public school. But I was a dud in adding to the hospital's share of the construction costs.
I missed major bullseyes when I went after a billionaire I knew, a few millionaires, and a famous doctor who controlled tens of millions in private money.  Gee, I really knew these guys. I even made a fund-raising video with me walking through the old hospital desperately trying to remember my lines. I don't know whether  they watched the video but I got only $5,000 from the billionaire and the doctor told me I had to lose weight.
If Joyce in his past had to depend on guys like me for sales, he would never have reached the financial stratosphere.  I'm not much for coffee shops as a tea drinker. I have only been in two Starbucks (one in California and one in Shanghai, and I drank hot chocolate) and I knew more about Tim Horton as an incredibly strong and weak-eyed Leaf defenseman than the coffee shops that bear his name.
I used to go to all Leaf games and was there the night he hit a Boston player so hard, he flew over the boards. And I remember grisly details of his death in a car crash in which he was so mangled, a dental surgeon told me privately that he had to be called in to identify Horton from his teeth.
Unfortunately, I have to spend too much time these days trundling around to the wait-and-fume clinics of hospitals. As I go into another medical pavilion named after some nice Toronto philanthropists, I am filled with envy. What lucky fund-raiser didn't get turned down when he made his pitch. I sure would like to know what they said.