FUN TIMES AT THE PRINCE GEORGE CITIZEN

I wish I could say it was a surprise. But the disheartening news that the Prince George Citizen was halting more than 60 years of daily publication to become a free, weekly giveaway was hardly a bolt from the blue. It’s yet another telling sign of the media’s frightening decline that a city the size of Prince George can no longer support a paid, daily newspaper. As advertisers shift online and the patience to read a newspaper seems increasingly rare in this age of short attention spans and partisan social media, there are undoubtedly more disappearances and downgrades to come. And my newspaper heart takes a hit every time.

Yet there was more to my general mourning than that. The Citizen was also the paper where I first cut my teeth as a young news reporter. Though I was there for only three months, before being lured away by the mighty Vernon News, they proved pivotal in “my brilliant career”. Cut free from my initial sinecure of writing about sports, I showed that I could function as a news reporter, too. Luckily, the Citizen was a good paper, part of the long-lamented Southam newspaper chain, which believed in quality over maximizing profits. How quaint.

The smallish daily had a solid newsroom. In addition to a handful of reporters, there was a photographer or two, sports editor, wire and front page editor, city editor, Home and Family editor (the wonderful Bev Christensen), editor Tony Skae, and publisher Lou Griffith, who showed up occasionally to glower at all us young people who somehow managed to find employment at his newspaper.

(Yep, that’s me!)

It was fun. With three pulp mills, several sawmill, plus other offshoot industries, Prince George was bustling. In the humming downtown, a young guy could dine on a beef dip or a hot turkey sandwich at the busy lunch counter of the Hudson Bay department store, or choose a steak at Mr. Jake’s for $1.49. On Friday nights, the place to be was the cavernous watering hole of the Inn of the North, reputed to be the largest pub in British Columbia. It was always packed. One night a guy rode around on a bicycle. Few bothered to give him a second glance.

And there was all this newspaper lore, the kind you get from a combination of young reporters and a community 500 miles north of Vancouver that still had a lot of frontier about it. At one point, the Citizen seemed to be a farm team for the big league Vancouver Sun. Scott Honeyman, Marian Bruce and Larry Emrick were among those who went directly there from the Citizen. When I eventually joined the Sun, I kept hearing about all the wild parties they had, topped by Emrick riding his motorcycle up the steps, through the house, and out the back door. Why not? The theme of the beer fest was Easy Rider.

On “funny hat” days at the Citizen, reporters wore outlandish headgear as they went about their duties. One day the humourless publisher came in and saw several reporters with army helmets on their heads. Outraged at this affront to “his” serious newspaper, he stormed into the office of editor Harry Boyle to complain. There was Boyle typing away, wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

Boyle was a legendary character who had come to the Citizen from the Whitehorse Star. He was forever doing chin ups on the door jam of his office, his feet swinging out towards the newsroom. Sadly he left the Citizen before I arrived, to make a lot more money as a lawyer. He eventually wound up on the BC Supreme Court, where some of his judgments remain renowned for their wit and empathy for the hard up. He is still with us, at 93. (https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/ian-mulgrew-former-judges-lively-letters-evidence-he-wouldnt-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down)

In the late 1960’s, before I arrived, Prince George had two papers: the daily Citizen and a weekly publication called the Progress, owned by the city’s wealthy, off-the-wall industrialist and brewery mogul, Ben Ginter. But in a city like Prince George, those on both papers were friendly, despite the competition. Over lunch, grousing at having to cover a routine plaque unveiling by Mayor Garvin Dezell, photog Dave Looy of the Citizen and Pete Duffy from the Progress concocted a prank to produce a better picture. When Dezell pulled the string, , what should he see but a Playboy centerfold affixed to the plaque. Duffy was quickly identified as the culprit. The photo of Dezell gaping in astonishment went around the world, including Manchester, where Duffy, quickly identified as the culprit, was from. His mother let him know she was not amused. Nor was the mayor. Duffy was fired, only to be hired immediately by the ever-impish Harry Boyle, perhaps to atone for succumbing to Dezell’s outrage by not running the photo in the Citizen.

Looy, whose role in the centerfold caper went unpunished, was another of those guys living on in media lore. Totally addicted to his police scanner, which he had on ‘round the clock, ‘the Batman” was known for driving at frightening speeds in his “Batmobile” to any potential police story. At night, some inner sense would rouse him from the deepest of sleeps at the least crackle of an incident over the scanner. Within minutes he would be off, often arriving before the police, his clothes having been laid out before hand. It was said that he delayed his honeymoon to dash to the scene of a car crash. Once, with a terrified reporter in the front seat, Looy roared at breakneck speed out to Ben Ginter’s rural estate, where a gunman was holed up. Ignoring police lines, Looy inched so close, he and the reporter were overcome by tear gas used to flush the gunman and missed the takedown. Police complained. Nothing changed after Looy moved to the Lower Mainland. (“He’s helping fight the fire,” said the assigned reporter, as he requested the dispatch of another photographer…). But that’s another story, or nine…

(Dave Looy, in a rare down moment. Photo by Vladimir Keremidschieff)

As for me, I had ended my seven-month gig as sports editor of the Penticton Herald, bundled a few boxes of my meagre belongings onto a Greyound bus and headed north to Prince George. I found cheap digs on Ingledew Avenue and took up the cudgels of news reporting. I learned how to write a lead from the wire/front page editor Duncan Cumming. The loveliest of Scots, he told me: no matter how dull the assignment, look for some personal angle or good quote to jazz it up, rather than just string together a few boring facts. It was good advice.

The city editor, forever chewing on a pencil, was the frenetic Joe Cunningham. One day, on deadline, he got so excited whirling around in his chair that he fell off it onto the floor with a loud “thump”. He looked up at us with a big grin on his face.

Competition added to the mix. Ben Ginter, whose burly bearded mug decorated every bottle of his popular Uncle Ben’s beer, had folded his weekly Progress, not long after firing editor Mel Rothenburger for running a photo showing someone with a brewskie that was not Uncle Ben’s. Bizarrely, he then decided to challenge the Citizen directly with a rival daily newspaper called the North Star. I relished going head to head, trying to beat the other guy during working hours, then going for beers after work to laugh and swap “war” stories. But I was crushed when my first big story, the burning down of the old McDonald Hotel, was overshadowed by the North Star. As the Citizen’s fire reporter, I got an early morning call that the landmark structure was going up in flames. I did a terrific job, if I do say so myself, interviewing anyone I could find at the scene, including a heroic waitress who had rushed upstairs, pounding on doors and hollering “Fire!”.

I hustled my dramatic yarn into the paper, pleased as punch I had killed the North Star reporter. Alas, when one of the hotel walls collapsed, the Citizen photog was off shooting freelance for BC-TV. The North Star’s Pete Duffy, he of centerfold pinup fame, was right on the spot. He got a tremendous photo of the great burst of flames and billowing smoke, which the paper splashed all over its front page. Hardly anyone noticed my rip-roaring story, proving once again that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Sniff.

When the sports editor took some time off, I even got to cover sports again (“…you could have boiled an egg on the blazing pitching arm of Pat Pratt….”). And there were other stories, like being rejected as a blood donor, interviewing a dog, and cheekily quoting the city’s “tourist of the week” complaining about the stench of the pulp mills. “I’d recognize that boiled cabbage smell anywhere.”

Being young and fancy-free, however, the bright lights of Prince George couldn’t hold me. There were jobs everywhere in those days. Why stick around? The Vernon News offered me the city editor’s job, and I accepted. I loaded up my boxes again, and rode the bus to Vernon. Another town, another challenge. How I loved it all.