Saturday, March 9, 2024

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.

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