Orme and Gordie, friends for life.


(Troop Sgt. Major Gordon Bannermann, left, and Sgt. Orme Payne, shortly after 73 days in action without relief.)

For the first time in forever, World War II veteran Orme Payne did not go down to the Legion to mark Remembrance Day. He’s had a rough patch this year. After a long spell in hospital, he’s lost weight and is weaker than when I last saw him a year ago. “I’m too damned tottering on my feet,” the feisty 94-year old vet told me over the phone when I called to check on him, his voice still strong. “I’ve lost 20 pounds. I put on my blazer and it weighed a ton.” His life-long friend and fellow vet Gordon Bannerman is in tough, too, having suffered a grievous personal loss just last week.

The two have been through so much. Boyhood friends in Saskatchewan, they fought beside each other all the way through the bloody campaigns of Italy and Holland, survived some close calls, and remain, today, after more than 70 years, the very best of friends. “We still talk pretty nearly every other night,” said Orme. Of those not claimed on the battlefield, time has claimed all but a handful of wartime enlistees in the prairies’ 60th Battery of Royal Canadian Artillery. “Yep, the ranks are thinning out, all right,” said Orme, mystified that two of the few survivors are himself and his closest pal in all the world. “It’s kind of a dream in way.” As we rang off, Orme said I could call him whenever I wanted. “Anytime you want to hear a lie…”

A year ago, I wrote about their remarkable lives and friendship for the Globe and Mail. I offer it here, with immense pleasure that they are with us, still.


(With Bannerman and Payne. John Lehmann photo.)


Lest we forget.




(Ottawa Citizen)

Amid all the wonderful crazy sports stuff going on, there was a very sombre anniversary. Seventy years ago this past weekend, the last, bloody gasp of World War Two came to end, with the surrender of Japan, after years of unimaginable killing. Canada was involved in the war at the very outset, when this country dispatched about 2,000 raw recruits in a hopeless move to buttress British forces in Hong Kong shortly before Pearl Harbour. A month later, the Japanese invaded. After a relatively-brief, murderous skirmish that lasted perhaps a week, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese. More than 550 Canadians were killed in the fighting or died later as starved, over-worked prisoners of war, their bodies reduced to little more than flesh and bone.

Those who survived had spent nearly four years in a hell that can scarcely be imagined today, and yet, when they returned home, they were basically ignored by the Canadian government and most Canadians. There were no glory parades or medals for them. Nor did they receive compensation for their years of forced labour until 1998, when survivors received a paltry cheque of $24,000. Today, few remain to bear witness.

If you’re in the mood to look back and reflect, I offer some stuff I wrote earlier on, plus two interesting, and conflicting, pieces on the decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the horrendous loss of civilian life and agony that tens of thousands of “survivors” endured, I’m not sure anyone involved in the War against Japan, let alone those near death in POW camps in the jungle and Japan, questioned it. To a man, they believed that, without Hiroshima, they might well have never seen home again.

Ten years ago, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, I wrote this for the Globe and Mail.


UnknownThe Globe also included this vivid remembrance by Hong Kong vet Bob “Flash” Clayton, as told to me, on the vicious Battle for Hong Kong and his harrowing experience afterwards as a prisoner of war. His account is one of 20 oral histories by World War Two veterans in my book, Rare Courage. Such a time.


Flash Clayton, one of my heroes, managed to survive until Feb. 2015. Ed Shayler whose experience is detailed in my Globe article, died in 2011. Their obits are here:

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thestar/obituary.aspx? pid=174091362



Robert “Flash” Clayton (1921-2015), forever Rest in Peace.

And here are those opposing articles on whether the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could, in any sense, be justified.

First, from The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/why-the-us-really-bombed-hiroshima/

And then, these judicious thoughts by well-knonw war historian, Max Hastings.




E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

As regular readers know by now, I remain a big fan of newspapers, despite their ever-diminishing state. Why, just this weekend, I found all sorts of goodies distributed among their varied pages. The treasures are still there. You just have to look a bit harder and be a bit more patient these days. This being both the end of B.C. Day and the end of the full moons, I thought I would share a few. rnewspapersok1. I hadn’t quite realized before that the state most affected by climate change is not media-saturated, rain-starved California, but, of course, Alaska. So far, this summer, wildfires have burned through more than 20,000 square kilometres of Alaskan forestry, a swath larger than all of Connecticut. Other bad stuff, too. An excellent story from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, written by the Washington Post’s environment reporter, Chris Mooney. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/07/26/alaskas-terrifying-wildfire-season-and-what-it-says-about-climate-change/ 2. The legendary Mark Starowicz, former editor of the McGill Daily and part of so many great things at CBC (As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal, Canada: A People’s History) reflects on the Mother Corp’s decision to kill its in-house documentary unit: “There’s a sadness that comes form the realization that the institution has been totally starved. Starved. The price is extraordinary in what’s not being produced.” 3. In his newly-published autobiography, NDP leader Tom Mulcair says it took him a while to learn that “not every shot has to be a hardball to the head.” 4. North Korea has hopes of becoming an international surfing destination. 5. It’s possible to write about Nantucket without a rhyming couplet in sight. 6. Photography doesn’t get any better or more imaginative than this. Amazing series of photos by the Globe and Mail’s John Lehmann, featuring artists from B.C. Ballet in locations and poses you won’t believe. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/in-photos-bc-day/article25806490/ 7. The per-night price of a room at the storied Hotel Vancouver this weekend was $849. 280715-MATT-WEB_3389347b 8. Lord Sewel’s favourite bra is orange. 9. Stephen Harper once wondered out loud: “Why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?” 10. In the week before Sunday’s election call, the Conservative government announced nearly $4 billion worth of government projects across the country. 11. PostMedia columnist Stephen Maher reminded us that when Stephen Harper was head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, he challenged election spending limits imposed on so-called third parties all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, that same Steve guy is justifying his early election call to give his party the chance to drown the country in their own ads, over fears of alleged big bucks being spent by those once-lauded third parties that might sway voters, too. images-2 copy 4Only these third parties are “big unions and corporations…staffed by former Liberal and NDP operations,” the Conservative Party warned its members last week. 12. It has taken Russell Brown less than three years to rise from law school professor to a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada. Apparently it didn’t hurt to have blogged in 2008 that he hopes Stephen Harper wins a majority, and that the Liberals “just fade away” by electing a leader who is “unspeakably awful”. 13. The word “terrorism” is now being used openly by Israeli authorities, including Benjamin Netanyahu, to describe recent attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on unarmed Palestinians. 14. The Bay Area (San Francisco et al) has two dozen transit agencies, each with its own system, funding sources and fare structure. And we complain about TransLink…. 15. Surrey’s Adam Lowen is close to a first in baseball history: going from pitcher to hitter and back to a pitcher, all in the major leagues. Story here: http://www.theprovince.com/sports/Ewen+league+pitcher+Check+Outfielder+Check+Pitcher+again+Could+happen/11261040/story.html 16. On Aug. 1, 1959, Premier W.A.C. Bennett fired a flaming arrow at a raft piled high with voided government bonds from a distance of five feet. He missed. Luckily, a well-prepared Mountie, hidden at the back of the raft, managed to light the paper bonfire, and lo, one of the province’s most outlandish political stunts, dubbed by Paul St. Pierre “the biggest thing” since the cremation of Sam McGee, became part of B.C. lore. (Thanks to John Mackie.) 17. Premier Christy Clark orders a crackdown on gun violence in B.C. That should be easy….

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

18. Get this. According to an independent review: When a large, toxic fuel spill began fouling English Bay last April, Canadian Coast Guard staff were unsure of their roles. What????? Then, when Port of Vancouver said they couldn’t see the spill and were taking water samples, the private sector response team thought the Port meant they were “standing down”, passed that on to the Coast Guard, who then de-escalated their alert. Further delay resulted from cellphone and computer problems. Oh yes, and once they finally did figure out what to do, there were not enough Coast Guard staff around, since a bunch of them had been busy doing something else in “Granville Channel”, wherever that is. As a result of this Comedy of Errors, which would have done Shakespeare proud, review author John Butler concluded: “The response was delayed by one hour and 49 minutes due to confusion of roles and responsibilities, miscommunications and technology issues.” This is what federal cabinet minister James Moore at the time called a “world class” response. 19. Sally Forth continues to be unfunny, and Rex Morgan, alas, unreadable. 20. Baseball in Toronto is fun again. Oh, and i’m still working my way through the Sunday New York Times. j-seward-johnsons-statue-of-newspaper-reader-at-princeton-uni-garden


statements_524456 Social media reaction to the unexpected death this month of Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, who so memorably played Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables, came almost entirely from the distaff side. Not too many guys were fans of the movie, I guess. Well, I’m a fan. A big one.

Like many of my gender, it seems, I was originally pretty dismissive of the whole Anne of Green Gables thing. Who cares about the adventures of some spunky 11-year old orphan girl in turn-of-the-20th century Prince Edward Island? She hates her red hair. Boo hoo. Bring on Anna Karenina.

But my mind was changed when I went to what I had hoped would be a party at a friend’s house, only to discover all the women heading into the TV room to watch Anne of Green Gables. Thinking they couldn’t possibly be serious, I tried cracking a few jokes. They told me to be quiet. So I reluctantly sat down to watch, too. Of course, much to my surprise, once I parked my prejudices by the door, I was charmed. No violence, except for Anne smashing her slate over poor Gilbert’s head, no sex, no deafening sound effects. Just a tender, perfectly made movie, with a superb cast.

Could anyone have been better than Megan Follows as Anne Shirley, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and Richard Farnsworth as dear Matthew, the loveliest man on the face of the earth? Then, there was Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert Blythe, the sweet-natured soul tortured by his love for the spirited but flinty Anne. Opinion was divided. He didn’t fit everyone’s idea of Gilbert from the book, and at times, he did appear a bit awkward on screen, a tad too old for the part (18 when the movie was filmed). Others found him perfect. Over time, however, since this is a movie that effortlessly absorbs repeated viewings, even those of us who were at first reluctant have grown to cherish him, too, along with everything else about this fine Canadian film. Anne-07 There’s much to be said for a movie that tells a good story, that’s well-acted and gently escapist enough to let you forget about that increasingly bad old world outside. It’s also unapologetically Canadian, in the good sense of that fine word. So, if you’re like I used to be and still dismissive of Anne of Green Gables, now’s the time to give it a whirl, surrender to its charm, and mourn Jonathan Crombie. He was 48, but forever young as Gilbert Blythe.

Here is a full length obituary of Crombie from Saturday’s Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/dreamy-gilbert-blythe-actor-jonathan-crombie-loved-the-stage/article24124077/

And this is an excellent piece from the Guardian that praises the character Gilbert Blythe as superior to many other rejected mail suitors in literature : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/24/jonathan-crombie-dead-gilbert-blythe-novel-anne-of-green-gables

P.S. A sequel, Anne of Avonlea, was pretty fair, as sequels go, but the less said about Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story the better. Anne and Gilbert don’t belong on the battlefields of World War One.

A further personal postscript. My aunt loved Anne of Green Gables and Canada’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, her entire life. She read all the Anne and Avonlea books. Having grown up on a farm in the Fraser Valley, the bucolic splendor of Montgomery’s PEI gave her nothing but pleasure. As noted above, I kind of sniffed at this “defect” in my beloved Auntie Gret with that knowing smugness of someone pleased with himself for being into “serious” literature. Don’t need no stinkin’ girlie stuff! But was won over by the movie.

UnknownMy mother, a high school English teacher, was slow to warm to Anne of Green Gables, too. But my aunt’s view had prevailed  by the time she compiled her pioneering textbook in 1973 with the pulsating title, Canadian Literature, Two Centuries in Prose. Believe it or not, this was the first book designed to introduce high school and college students to our own country’s literature in one distinct volume. And she did not hesitate to include an excerpt from Anne of Green Gables, defending it as far more than a “children’s classic”, with its universal Cinderella theme (Jane Eyre, Pygmalion) and particularly Canadian motif of nostalgia for a world of peace and protection.

Later, we all shared the joys of the long-running, spin-off CBC series, Road to Avonlea, that introduced us to the remarkable Sarah Polley. The series also featured fine Canadian actors R.H. Thompson, Cedric Smith, Lally Cadeau, and of course, the late Jackie Burroughs as the indomitable Aunt Hetty. Sure, it wasn’t The Sopranos or The X-Files, or anything like that, but it was well-made, entertainment that everyone in our diverse family could enjoy. We were in China, my brother’s family was in Thunder Bay, Auntie Gret was in Burnaby, and my mom and sister were in good old Newmarket. Watching it made us all feel together, despite our vast separations. There’s a lot to be said for that. (My brother’s step-daughter loved Sarah Polley in the series. When she heard that young Sarah lived with her father in Aurora, just south of Newmarket, she and my sister ferretted out her address to say ‘hi’, but no one was home.)


Yet the author who created all this enchantment, Lucy Maud Montgomery, had such a sad personal life, herself. She made an unfortunate, late marriage to a minister who suffered from deteriorating mental health. Despite the world-wide fame of Anne of Green Gables, such were the times that Montgomery loyally followed her husband to his modest church posting in Uxbridge, not that far from Newmarket. Their two children disappointed her. Acutely lonely and battling her own depression, she tried to escape by churning out more and more Anne-style books set in Prince Edward Island. They sold well, but there was only one Anne of Green Gables.

Years after she died in 1942, her personal journals were published. They sold well, attracting many new readers with her Unknownfrank, adult descriptions of her struggles with life and the hardships of being a woman, long before feminism. My mother and my aunt read every word. When Auntie Gret came east for a visit, she and her sister went prowling around the wilds of Kettleby and mighty Zephyr, looking for the manse where Lucy Maud lived with her difficult husband. Sort of like us younger folk searching out Dylan landmarks in Hibbing.

When my aunt was forced to move into an assisted-care facility, she took only one book with her. It was, of course, her life-long companion, Anne of Green Gables.



As if the announced departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show and the death of veteran CBS correspondent Bob Simon in a New York car crash weren’t enough this week, we in the biz are now having to mourn the sudden passing of David Carr. It’s a big, big loss. When news broke last night that Carr had been struck down in the newsroom (where else?) of the New York Times, there was a collective outpouring of grief on social media from journalists, most of whom had probably never met the man. But we felt as if we had. A friend of mine went to bed, then got up and returned to Twitter “in hope that I’ve imagined events this evening”. Later, she tweeted me: “I am just so sad, I cannot go to bed.” I knew how she felt. David Carr was special.

In addition to all his talent, passion and ability to express himself with such remarkable clarity, he was someone who gave us hope in these dark days of declining real media impact, particularly in the newspaper world.

Despite his embrace of and fascination with social media (470,000 followers on Twitter!), David Carr remained, at heart, a newspaper guy. Whenever his home-delivered New York Times didn’t make it to the doorstep, Carr felt out of sorts for the rest of the day. He read two or three newspapers every morning, before heading in to work. For this 58-year old veteran of the trade, the Internet was an adjunct, not a replacement for newspapers. I loved what he told the Globe and Mail’s media reporter James Bradshaw last year, about surfing the ‘Net during a rare day at home: “All I did was lily-pad from one thing to another. And just vast reaches of my day disappeared. Did I work? I guess I did. At the end of the day, I felt a little bit like I had been looking at porn all day.”

Amid all the yellers, instant analysts and short attention span merchants, who are increasingly dominating this new age of information, he reminded us of the value of dogged, daily reporting and good, clear stories,

David Carr was old-school. He handled his unexpected fame with aplomb, enjoying the attention that came his way from his prominent role in the fine Page One documentary on the Times, but not letting it get in the way of doing what he loved, reporting and writing. He continued to come into work every day, ask smart people questions and satisfy that great friend of a good reporter, curiosity, by getting to the bottom of story after story. There was much more to Carr, but that pretty much formed the foundation for everything else.


As the NYT’s longtime media reporter and columnist, he dominated a field that seemed to change with every phase of the moon. While the first to proclaim that no one, including himself, could predict the future media landscape with any certainty, his insights were always valuable. One of the newspaper industry’s vanishing breed of beat reporters, he brought smart, common-sense perspective to events in the strange media world of today that one could rely on. He was a must read. That’s what happens when you are left to cover something for a long period of time. You get to know what’s going on, rather than just marshaling facts for a next-day story, becoming an instant expert, and then moving on to the next assignment. Those stories are necessary, but that’s not what David Carr did, although I’m sure he excelled when he had to do that, too.

In addition to everything else, he loved movies, and wrote for many years about the Oscars. Take a look at his recent superb opinion piece on the Academy Awards’ snub of Selma. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/business/media/why-the-oscars-omission-of-selma-matters.html

In fact, look up any of David Carr’s columns, and you will be struck by just how good they are. Search his byline on the NYT website, as I did Thursday night, and prepare to be both wowed and moved. A bunch are here. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/david_carr/index.html

The best for last. Yes, Carr was a fearless reporter, never backing away from asking the tough questions and taking on those who needed it, even, on occasion, his own newspaper. But that was nothing, compared to the courage he showed in his personal life, coming back from a terrible addiction to crack cocaine that took a toll on everyone around him. At pit bottom, he was visiting crack houses, his young twin daughters left outside, alone. That experience and subsequent day-at-a-time recovery, vividly recounted by Carr in his book The Night of the Gun, surely contributed to the candour with which he accepted life for what it was, determined to make the best of his reprieve from the depths.

In The Night of the Gun’s concluding paragraph, he wrote: “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end anytime soon.” Alas for us all, it did. We are unlikely to see his like again.


It’s been a tough month for those of us who have been around ye olde J-biz in Vancouver for a while. Three journalists many of us knew and admired have passed on to the great typewriter in the sky. Sean Rossiter, dead at 68 from the ravages of Parkinson’s. The incomparable Doug Sagi, taken from us just short of his 80th birthday by complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And most recently, and most heartbreakingly of all, the courageous Alicia Priest, her life cut short at 61 by the truly terrible scourge of ALS.

I mostly knew Alicia from a distance, via occasional phone calls, emails and paths crossing when we were both journos in Vancouver. But as a one-time health policy reporter myself, I was a big fan of her excellence on health policy matters. A former nurse, she knew the field, and her solid, comprehensive articles were always on the side of improving the country’s beleaguered health care system. Many made their way into my bulging clipping files. Alicia cared, and she was smart.

With life partner Ben Parfitt, a master of the thorough, hard-hitting, investigative report, the two eventually abandoned working for bosses, forging a freelance living for themselves in Victoria, while raising their daughter Charlotte.

Then, in 2011 she received the cruel news that the cold numbness in her hand was a symptom of ALS, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was a death sentence. As Alicia told Paul Lukas of The Province: “In the 75 years since Gehrig died, medical science has come up with zilch – no treatment and no cure.”

Alicia faced her fate head on. She chose to regard it as a deadline for a writing project she’d had in her mind for years: the story of her family and her flawed, off-beat father, who masterminded the great Yukon silver heist of the early 1960’s. Of course, it was a deadline no writer or reporter would ever want, but it was a deadline nevertheless, one referred to by Alicia as “the ultimate deadline”. As always, she met it with flying colours. Her book, A Rock Fell on the Moon, was published to glowing reviews last fall. Best of all, although unable to speak and nourished through a tube, Alicia was able to return to the Yukon in October for a very special book launch at the Baked Café in Whitehorse.


A Rock Fell on the Moon is a fine, fascinating read, well-researched and well-told. It relates a saga that seems, itself, to come 1550176722from the moon, accompanied by the heartbreak of growing up in a dysfunctional family. The book has a little bit of everything, including some vintage stuff about life in a remote, Yukon mining town. Recommended — as an unflinching glimpse into a time that has long passed, a family’s intimacies, and larger-than-life characters who might have been pulled from the pages of Elmore Leonard.

This time, life, so often desperately unfair, wavered just long enough to reward her heroic effort to finish the most important story of her career.

Here are two excellent features about Alicia that were written last fall. They serve as vivid reminders of how much spirit and talent were lost with her tragic death.



Just before that, we lost Doug Sagi, one of the best newspaper guys I ever worked with. It wasn’t because of lights-out brilliance or eye-popping prose. He was simply a pro, master of the craft of consistently turning out clear, well-written, often elegant stories for the folks who read newspapers. I don’t think he wrote a clunky sentence in his life. Below is a classic photo of Sagi in 1977 pounding out the last Sun story to be written on a typewriter. In the words of ex-Sun hack Tom Barrett: “That was Doug, hunting and pecking with his sleeves rolled up. I have this mental image of him confronting the typewriter (and later the computer), while rolling up his sleeves like a guy about to chop wood.”


Yet there was more to Sagi than that. He was a lovely human being, with a finely-tuned sense of humour, a highly-appreciated mentor to young reporters, someone who enjoyed life and tolerated all our bitching with a bemused twinkle in his eye. He took the job of journalism seriously, yet was never shy about laughing over its vagaries, and criticizing its failures. He was a joy to be around.

10906123_10155142213710085_5331332063716782041_nWhen Sagi joined the Vancouver Sun in 1975, after stints with Canadian Magazine and a time as one of the Globe and Mail’s first western correspondents, I thought it was a real coup for the Sun, and a bit of a come-down for the man, himself. But maybe he relished the stability and the extra bucks of a good-paying union job. He may also have liked the chance to write a regular column, and eventually “win” a spot on the desk as a seasoned assignment editor.

When word came of his death, Facebook tributes quickly accumulated, many from reporters counselled over the years by Sagi’s trademark wit and wisdom. I particularly liked this anecdote from Chris Gainor, which, I think, captures the measure of the man. Having covered the legendary John Diefenbaker during his young newspapering days  in Saskatchewan, Sagi was the Sun’s obvious choice to ride and report from the Dief funeral train. Sagi also knew of Gainor’s strong admiration for “the Chief”. So he picked up an extra copy of the official funeral program and gave it to Gainor when he got back. “It remains a valued part of my Diefenbaker collection,” wrote Gainor. Ever classy.

A memorial service for Doug Sagi is scheduled to take place Saturday, Jan. 17, 2 p.m., 1450 MacCallum Road, in Abbotsford. It’s in the amenities room at the Crown Point townhouse complex.

After scrolling down a bit, you can read the many Facebook tributes here:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/421770301289270/611325509000414/?notif_t=group_activity

And this is John Mackie’s well-done tribute from Wednesday’s Sun: http://www.vancouversun.com/Doug%2BSagi%2Bobituary%2Bclassic%2Bschool%2Breporter/10726463/story.html

Finally, there was Sean Rossiter, who died Jan. 5, after a long, tough struggle with Parkinson’s disease. I remember Rossiter more from the old days, during his brief tenure at the Vancouver Sun, when he was Tom Rossiter and the first guyRossiter I ever knew to write about ferns and household plants. Strangely, he was also the papers religion editor. Rossiter soon tired of the Sun, however, and bravely ventured into the world of free-lancing at a time when such a career move was considered ill-advised at best. But he prospered. For 16 years, he wrote a monthly, groundbreaking city hall column for Vancouver Magazine that treated urban affairs as more than just the latest political shenanigans at 12th and Cambie. As someone mentioned during Thursday’s memorial, “Rossiter made urban planning seem interesting.” He also wrote regularly about one of his many passions, the value of old buildings and heritage. But his bread and butter were long, superbly-crafted magazine features and a myriad books on a myriad subjects. Rossiter defined the term “successful free-lancer”.

I was never that close to Rossiter. His early tendency to look down on daily journalism irked me. However, he seemed to mellow on that score as time went by, and I was always glad to run into him. No one could deny his talent and ardent embrace of subjects that mattered to him. His death is a loss for the craft of the written word.

I do have one Rossiter anecdote from those funny days at the Sun, way back when. One Sunday, as he sped to work over the Granville Bridge in his vintage Morgan sports car, he was pulled over by the cops. A quick check revealed a raft of unpaid speeding/parking tickets, and he was tossed in the hoosegow. With his one phone call, he called city desk. Sunday staffing being what it was, a young Lesley Krueger was dispatched to the Main Street lockup to bail him out. There, she discovered that Tom Rossiter was listed on the police docket as Tom Seaport Rossiter, which office wags immediately began using as his real name. Meantime, after being sprung from jail, Rossiter was driven back to the Sun newsroom to finish his shift. It was a normal day.

Here is Charles Campbell’s heartfelt piece on Sean Rossiter.


Alicia Priest, Doug Sagi, Sean Rossiter. May you all rest in peace.


(Photo by Bruce Stotesbury of the Victoria Times-Colonist.)



If you hadn’t been paying attention during those early days of Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the U.S. presidency, you could have been excused for thinking: this is one tough, black American, forged in the racial cauldron of Chicago. Indeed, the Windy City is where he did cut his teeth as a social organizer in low-income, black neighbourhoods and the metropolis where he established his political base. So no doubt it came as a surprise to many when they first learned that, except for a few years in Indonesia, Obama was actually born and raised in, of all places, Honolulu, as far from Chicago’s hardscrabble grit as can be imagined.

His Honolulu upbringing is a fascinating tale, well told in Obama’s own absorbing memoir, Dreams From My Father. I got a brief taste of it in February, 2008, when the Globe and Mail sent me on a quickie assignment to flesh out Obama’s “roots” in Hawaii. I didn’t get that much on such short notice, but I did talk to a few of his former classmates, stroll the lush campus of the private Punahou School that Obama attended on scholarship from Grade 5 through high school, and best of all, I exchanged a few words with his grandmother, the strait-laced Kansas native and ex-bank executive, Madelyn Dunham.

During high school, Obama lived with his white Dunham grandparents in their modest apartment not far from Punahou, while his mother went off to Indonesia. Madelyn Dunham had made it plain to reporters from the start that she would not talk about her increasingly prominent grandson. But I thought, what the heck. She was listed in the phone book (Daddy, what’s a phone book?), so I called her up. She answered right away, and explained, very politely, that she didn’t grant interviews. I said I understood. Just before hanging up, I observed: “You must be very proud of your grandson.” She replied, softly: “He’s done very well, hasn’t he?” It was a lovely moment. And I got a quote!

Later, I sought out the apartment building, a classic, mundane high-rise from the mid-60’s at 1617 S. Beretania Street, in the heart of the unadorned enclave of Makiki. I looked at the ordinary elevator and thought: “Just think, that’s the same one “Barry” Obama used every day.” (I’m nothing, if not deep…). I had a nice long chat with the building manager, who told me of reporters trying all sorts of stunts to gain access to Madelyn’s 10th floor apartment (a code or security card was necessary to get above the first floor.) One was caught shinnying up a drain pipe. Another claimed to be “a very good friend” of the family. The manager said Obama dutifully visited his grandmother every Christmas, usually bringing a Christmas tree with him. “A very nice guy. Very easy to talk to.” Sadly, Madelyn Dunham died two days before her grandson was elected president.

Back in Honolulu recently, I decided to revisit Obama’s old ‘hood. I was reminded once more how totally unremarkable it was, including the now-well known apartment building. To think a president of the United States emerged from this environment….


A few things had changed. There was now a security fence around the front of the building, and signs reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing”, intended, no doubt, to deter souvenir seekers and lobby “selfies”. There was also an “Apartment for Rent” notice.

I was struck, too, by the many diverse churches and other religious gathering places close by. Across the street is the massive Central Union Church. Next door sits the funky Japanese Shinshu Kyokai Buddhist Temple. Around the corner is a Korean gospel church and within a block or two are churches for the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Baptists and Episcopalians. My personal favourite is tucked away directly behind the Dunhams’ apartment building: The True Jesus Mission Church of the Latter Rain. Who knew? It’s hard not to conclude that such diversity, plus the “rainbow” ethnic mix of Honolulu, itself, must have played a part in Obama’s own tolerance and approach to life.

I then did an “Obama stroll” along the five blocks he would have walked every day to and from Punahou School. Beautiful old trees lining the street. Shriners Hospital and Maryknoll High School on the left. Rundown apartments on the right, but also the Kapiolani Medical Centre for Women and Children, where the future president was born on the day my boyhood hero Harmon Killebrew smashed a 3-run homer against the evil Yankees. I embraced history in my own way, posing briefly as a patient in the hospital’s emergency waiting room so I could use the washroom.

It was raining by the time I reached the campus of Punahou School. A scheduled ball game was on hold, and the outdoor basketball courts, much loved by the future president, were deserted. It’s a beautiful acreage, with immaculate vegetation, tall, stately trees and many nice old stone buildings. It radiates ‘privilege’. The parking lots and narrow roads were full of parents in cars, waiting to drive their kids back to their posh homes. “Barry” Obama must have been one of the few students to actually walk to school.


Okay, I think this has gone on long enough. However, if you ever have a spare afternoon in Honolulu, I recommend poking around Makiki, particularly 1617 S. Beretania Street. Against all odds, this epitome of ordinary produced a president. It’s a funny old world.