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 from 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.
When 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 guy 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.)