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.

 

 

 

 

35 thoughts on “FUN TIMES AT THE PRINCE GEORGE CITIZEN

  1. Thanks Rod, lovely reminiscence.

  2. Super look-back, Rod. Those really were Golden Days in our profession. A pleasure and a privilege to have been one of those ink-stained wretches with you and the rest of our gang.

    • indeed….as i like to say now: Little did we know as we whined and complained, we were living through a golden age of journalism…and thanks for your help on the blog…..really added to it! yahoo

      • Then there was the morning Dave Looy and I bumped into the Citzen publisher in the parking lot. He looked at Dave’s Corvette and my Mustang and shook his head sadly. “I think we’re paying you too much,” he muttered as he strode through the door.

  3. Good Prince George blog, Rod. Love the early photos of you.

  4. Pre-nostalgia remains the gold standard, as you know, but this piece of basic nostalgia was terrific. Tnx man.

    • indeed….not sure if i should start on the Varsity….haha….oh Ampersand, Oh Ampersand, thy name is very strange to us……and you try to tell the young people today….

  5. Enjoyed this…

    Did you watch that debate? The worst in history, I thought.

    • thanks, Lorne….yes, i did my best to watch it….appalling….for so many reasons…..this campaign may also be the worst in history, too….Liberals are doomed, I think….no enthusiasm….lots of previous supporters may stay home…

  6. Great piece, Rod! Very sad to see the Citizen mutating into a weekly giveaway. I worked there as a staff reporter and columnist from 1972-4, when it was still a lot of fun to be in the newspaper business.

  7. Priceless- your writing, in a good way, and now the cost of the Citizen, in a not so good way. The 10cent Newmarket Era is now a free distribution advertising vehicle

  8. Great piece; brought back some good memories. I was an ink-stained wretch there from 1977 to 1983 and there were still some remnants of those newsroom hijinks. Different publisher; same editor. Ever hear the story of the publisher’s wife’s chili?

  9. Thanks for sharing all of this Roger. I was on the sales side and worked at Southam’s head office starting in 1986. I remember every year doing a “market tour” so we could better represent Prince George to our major chain retailers, such as Kmart, Woolco, Sears, Eatons – they too have disappeared over the past number of decades. I’ll always remember the smell of the ink as I entered the press room, how it tickled my nose. Back then newspapers were the dominant media and I enjoyed every moment. How many manufacturers distribute a brand new product every single day?

    • Nicely said, Shannon….you’re quite right….i remember one of the Vancouer Sun veterans loudly proclaiming one night at the Press Club that a newspaper was far and way the best bargain around….all that for less than the price of a “stale doughnut”…..

  10. Hey Rod, thanks for the memories. I remember you back in about 1966, good young reporter, going places. I too was saddened by what happened to the Citizen, I did more than 30 years there on my second go-round in the newsroom. There were many unforgettable characters and solid citizens in my years at the Citizen, sometimes I wish I could go back for one more day. You took me there with this piece.

    • Hi Doug….i remember you as sports editor, and you let me fill in for a few days…..however, in the interests of Duncan Cumming accuracy, I will point out it was 1970, not 1966…i’m old but not THAT old…haha….yes, what a nice thought: to go back for one more day…..sorta like Our Town…and thanks!

  11. a right rivetin’ read – small town papers going the way of small towns and full employment (which we had into the 1960s).

  12. We’re you reporting during the time when NHL BAllplayer Brian Spencer’s dad was so ::) or and killed by RCMP in Prince George? I was also a sports reporter and environmental/forestry feature writer at the Citizen in 1989-1992.

    • I was reporting in Prince George on that December night in 1970 when the two RCMP constables shot and killed Roy Spencer. I was working at CJCI Radio then. Spencer had driven in from Fort St. James, with a loaded pistol and two rifles, to shut down CKPG at gunpoint because it wasn’t telecasting the Toronto-Chicago game in which his son, Spinner, was making his NHL debut. “If I can’t watch my son playing hockey tonight, nobody gets to watch hockey tonight,” said Spencer as he forced the staff to shut down the station. When the police arrived, Spencer fired the first two shots. They returned fire and hit him in the chest with three bullets. CKPG’s news anchor, Tom Haertel, gave me a full account of what happened, over drinks later that night at the Inn of the North. My story led every newscast the following day.

      • that’s quite the dramatic story, Brian….i had left the Citizen not that long before, and remember so well hearing about that incredible night…..and thinking how close i felt to it all….meaning, knowing the reporters and media who would be covering the story, not to mention CKPG….man oh man….one of those events you never forget….top PG story ever? (sawmill explosion maybe up there, too…)

  13. Nice vignette of more carefree time, Rod.
    A refugee from the closure of the Winnipeg Trib, I arrived at The Citizen in January 1981 and first thought I had entered a movie set for F Troop, dealing with the likes of Wenzel, Morberg, Miller, Martin and others.
    It took no time to appreciate that irreverence and professionalism can co-habitate.
    I became editor a year or so later, mightily enjoyed the 12-year stint, survived three publishers and finally cashed in before the Hollinger boys clenched their grasp on the operation.
    Still run into some of the Citizen crew here in PG; Dave Milne and I, looking at hi-def TVs in a store the other day and wondering if they would help our aging eyes.
    Roy Nagel

    • Hey Roy, that almost sounds like you miss me. Justa minute I gotta sit down. Okay, apology accepted.

    • ah, the legendary Jan-Udo, who also worked briefly at the Sun…i remember him gorging himself on french fries draped in ketchup….no cutlery….haha….was that Pete Miller…? and yes, Dave Milne…he was there when i was there….good guy….say hi if you run into him again….

      • Dave Milne is organizing a reunion of old Citizen hands in PG for next June 13. I suggested he post a message here when he has all the info. I’ll post it anyhow when I know more.

  14. Re Don Morberg’s reference to the publisher’s wife’s spaghetti:

    I’ve struggled for days now over whether I should tell this story. Just call me weak, but I can’t resist.

    It was the Sudbury Star newsroom, 1959. The place was empty except for three sports guys wrapping up their evening coverage. The door opens and in comes Betty Meakes, the women’s editor and wife of publisher J.R. Meakes. It’s “Hello boys” as she walks through the room, leaving a large white container on a desk and exiting into another room. One sports guy walks over, removes the lid of the container and, using a pencil, digs a hole into the spaghetti. He puts the container on the floor and, oh no, I can’t go on. I don’t mind saying I froze. There goes my job as sports editor, my future. What do I do?

    The smell! The smell!

    Betty returns, picks up the container, which is back on the desk, with the lid on. She leaves the building “Bye, boys.” I never heard another word about it.

    The nightmares have ended but sometimes, late at night, I think I can smell it a little again. And, occasionally, in my dreams, with this story told, I can picture old J,R, turning to Betty and saying “see, I told you that wasn’t a meatball in my spaghetti.”

    You’ll notice I didn’t give the name of the, er, I don’t want to say hero, of this piece. He did go on to long successful career in newspapers, even rising to some authority.

    With thanks to Dave Paulson, my buddy and former editor at the Citizen, for reminding me of Morberg’s comment and the spaghetti story.

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