We said farewell late last month to a good man. Part of the great generation that survived the Depression, World War Two, the tinderbox of the Cold War and LIberace, Ron Rose was part of this crazy world for nearly a century, falling just four years short of the big One Zero Zero. But that’s not why so many of us gathered to pay our respects. We were there because Ron Rose, besides being the most gracious and generous of individuals, was a newspaper man. It was a gathering of the clans, a celebration of someone whose working life as a knight of the keyboard stretched back to the Depression. Ron Rose was history. When he started at the Vancouver Sun as a copy boy in 1938, he reported for work in the celebrated Sun Tower, then topped by the paper’s majestic neon sign that rivalled Woodward’s big ‘W’ for night sky prominence. The door handles still bore the VW initials of the tower’s original owners, the Vancouver World, which closed in 1924.
Of course, we were also there because the man, himself, said it was okay to gather in his memory, so long as there were no “vainglorious” speeches, a word only a guy born in 1919 would use. “Just a few friends to share a few stories and a few drinks.” We complied, except for the ‘few’.
Ron Rose belied Nat King Cole’s hit song, Ramblin’ Rose. He never worked anywhere but the Sun, bending elbows with all the greats and unforgettable characters who passed through the paper’s portals during its long run as a carbon copy of the “Front Page”. Pierre Berton, Jack Webster, Simma Holt, Jack Scott, Paul St. Pierre, Tom Ardies, gun-toting crime reporter Gar Macpherson, copy paper swallower Ivers Kelly, “Deadline” Jack Brooks, Fotheringham, Wasserman….Rose knew them all.
To say nothing of the gaggle of long-haired hippies with answers to everything who invaded the Sun newsroom in the 1960’s and 1970s. Ron Rose tolerated us all, calmly going about his business with the same unruffled demeanour that characterized every day he spent on the job. Which didn’t mean he didn’t have bite or edge or views. He was just quiet about it. A strong union supporter, Rose was an early member of The Newspaper Guild, and, nearing 60, he agreed to join a slate dominated by us “young Turks” that successfully took on the Guild’s tired, incumbent leadership.
(Incidentally, the first employee to join the Guild was the paper’s cartoonist/illustrator Fraser Wilson. After Wilson was fired by the Sun for taking a partisan role in the bitter strike at the Vancouver Province in 1946, Wilson was hired to do a huge mural on the wall of the old Marine Workers and Boilermakers Hall on Pender Street. When the hall was demolished, Wilson’s masterpiece, portraying workers in B.C.’s many resource industries, was transferred to the main auditorium of the Maritime Labour Centre, where it remains today. Ron Rose’s memorial was held at the very same labour centre, just across the foyer from Wilson’s mural, a delightful connection between two Sun colleagues and early union members from so long ago.)
(A small part of the Fraser Wilson mural.)
More significantly, Ron Rose was a pioneer in an area that now regularly produces front page news: aboriginal issues. But their concerns were routinely ignored by the mainstream media until the early 1970’s, when Rose became the first reporter in B.C. to cover, more or less full-time, “the Indian beat”. With his non-judgmental approach and striving, as he put it, “to cover aboriginal people as human beings rather than accident statistics”, Rose was widely praised on both sides of the deep divide that existed in those days. His efforts were specifically singled out in Paul Tennant’s landmark study: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989, and they brought Chief Bill Wilson to his memorial.
The blunt, outspoken Wilson became a storied figure in the bourgeoning aboriginal rights movement by going head to head with the first Prime Minister Trudeau and famously telling a group of non-native lawyers: “we should have killed you all”, referring not to the legal profession but early European settlers. Today, Wilson is perhaps better known as the father of Canada’s first aboriginal federal justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould. At the memorial, he saluted the Vancouver Sun and Rose for blazing a trail with their regular airing of aboriginal matters. “Had they not done that, my daughter might not be the Justice Minister,” said Wilson.
Over many a beer, the fiery chief and the placid, pipe-smoking Rose formed an unlikely bond. “He was the only white guy I ever liked,” Wilson said, his strong voice faltering with emotion. “I have to tell you, I loved him. I still love him, and I always will love him. He didn’t make me a story. He didn’t make me a hero. He made me a better man.”
Rose was not the flashy, snap crackle, pop type of reporter who drew wows from the reader. But he was a pro’s pro. He knew how to find the answers that mattered and how to construct a clear, accurate story that informed the reader. Paul Knox, who went on to a stellar career at the Globe and Mail and is currently a professor emeritus at Ryerson’s excellent School of Journalism, began his newspapering days at the Sun in the summer of ’68. He remembers handing in an early assignment about a highway fatal that he had turned into a tortured, convoluted story. The guy filling in on the desk that day was Ron Rose. “Ron came over and calmly explained the secret: get your lede and a paragraph or two of essential facts, then stop trying to rank everything by order of importance. Just tell the story.” Knox said Rose’s simple truism remained with him through all his years of reporting and teaching aspiring journos the ins and outs of writing news stories.
Knox also recalled being in Victoria one time, when Rose was covering talks between the government and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. The two repaired for a drink to the Bengal Room. “We chatted about many things,” said Knox, “but what stuck was Ron telling me that years earlier, he’d been a candidate for city editor, but he didn’t get the job. ‘They told me I didn’t have the killer instinct.’” Given the heartfelt tributes and love from family, friends and ex-colleagues who filled the room at his memorial, it’s fair to say: sometimes, nice guys finish first.
One more thing. As the years advanced, Ron Rose continued to look forward. He embraced technology as best he could. He was active on Facebook, obtained a Twitter handle, , describing himself as “Old newspaperman trying to get with the New Age!”, and a year or two ago, took his first selfie. “It was really bad,” laughed his daughter Hilary. Yet he never lost his love for newspapers, and what they were about. In a note, to be read after he passed into what he termed “the Great Beyond”, Rose said: “I have had a long run, and left reasonably satisfied with my life.” But his final words were a call for us to keep up the good fight. “Like the rest of you, I was saddened at the defeat of newsprint by the digital revolution, and can only ask that you, as critical readers, do what you can to stem the unedited and often unsourced outpourings in the flood of social media. My best wishes, Ron.”
Amen, Brother Rose. May we be worthy of the cause.
(Ron Rose at his 95th birthday celebration.)