PETER COMPARELLI, R.I.P.

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It has been a terrible year. Bowie and Prince taken far too early. Leonard Cohen leaving us to mourn and light candles against the dark. Long-time friends battling serious health issues. Fake news, the decline of newspapers and the mainstream media, more necessary than ever to hold governments and politicians to account. An antiquated electoral system, an FBI “announcement coup” against Hillary Clinton and Russian hackers delivering a sniveling, bullying, thin-skinned, shallow-thinking prima-donna with the attention span of a child to the White House, while the most adult of U.S. presidents takes his dignified leave. Terrorism in Europe. Aleppo. And now, to cap off this annus horribilis came news of the passing of Peter Comparelli, as lovely a person as there ever was in the tough, crazy world of journalism.

Beyond being a wonderful fellow and someone to enjoy a beer or five with, Peter had a special place in my heart, as the guy who took over my beloved spot on the labour beat at the Vancouver Sun. He thrived on it. A few years later, when I joined the rival Province as that paper’s labour reporter, thirsting to kick the slats out of the Sun’s coverage, I had a hard time harbouring any ill-will towards my good friend, Comparelli.

In fact, one of the best times either of us ever had on the beat was getting to cover the international convention of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in, where else, Las Vegas. We were both sent because it was a good local story. A band of feisty Vancouver dissidents had managed to get elected as delegates, and they were determined to raise the banner of reform against the organized thuggery of the big, bad, beefy Teamsters. If that embarrassed Vancouver’s own Senator Ed Lawson, the smooth, highly-paid presider over the Canadian section of the union and an international vice-president, all the better.

And they did cause a ruckus, most notably when feisty B.C. truck driver Diana Kilmury stood on the convention floor, braving the intimidating howls of several thousand male, mostly large, delegates, and denounced the Teamsters for all the criminal indictments amassed against their leaders. “I didn’t indict you,” Kilmury shouted into the mike. “But if the FBI has issued that many indictments, you must be up to something!” (In fact, then president Roy Williams was eventually sent to prison for his connections to organized crime. His prominent partner at the head table and successor, Jackie Presser, avoided going to jail only by dying of cancer.) But beyond all the great copy, and the fascination of seeing the Teamsters operate up close, with the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovering over them, it was a delight just to hang out in Vegas with Peter. We coughed up small amounts of money in the casinos (more by Peter, of course… ), bathed in the neon sun that banished night along the strip and spent our expense money. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Comparelli eventually moved on to cover the legislature. Then, to everyone’s surprise, off he went to sample the delights of life and journalism in Hong Kong, never to return. But, as the spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for Peter on the Pacific Press Facebook page attests, he was not forgotten in Vancouver, even after 30 years away.

Apart from his cracker-jack reporting, he was a union shop steward when those positions mattered, an exceptionally able catcher on the Sun’s competitive softball squad, teaming up with ace pitcher Kelly Evans to win so many games, and an embracer of the good times life had to offer, someone you were always glad to see. Former Sun reporter Debbie Wilson, who had decamped to Mexico, noted how grateful she was when Peter suddenly turned up, amid the ruins of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “He was dispatched by the Sun to cover the disaster and also to find me, as I was (unknown to me) MIA.” With an innate ability to love and attract women, he broke some hearts, it must be owned, until finally meeting his match and marrying Idy. At his wedding reception in Vancouver, I had never seen him happier and more assured that he was doing the right thing.

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He worked for Asiaweek in Hong Kong, was their correspondent in Kuala Lampur, became a skilled editor, then bounced around with other publications and jobs, till it became hard to keep track. But it was in Hong Kong where he was most remembered, a regular at the city’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, along with other refugees from the Vancouver Sun who washed up in Hong Kong. Der Hoi-Yin, Jake van der Kamp and the irrepressible Wyng Chow were particularly close. Peter’s last trip back to Hong Kong, from his permanent home in Penang, had been in May. But Wyng Chow had been in touch with him only a few weeks ago. Though a bit less chipper than usual, with his experimental anti-cancer drugs proving difficult to manage, Wyng said Peter talked of returning for yet another reunion. News of his death was a shock. He died, at 63, from lung cancer, surrounded by Idy and his three brothers.

Farewell, Peter. We loved you, man.

His Vancouver Sun obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=peter-comparelli&pid=183190212

And this affecting tribute from Tim Noonan of the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/sport/other-sport/article/2057942/editors-office-baseball-field-peter-comparelli-was-man-all-seasons

(photos courtesy of Wyng Chow and Der Hoi-Yin)

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LARRY STILL, THE BEST COURT REPORTER IN ALL THE LAND

11391416_1399793827016260_3900624691454878330_n-1 We’ve lost another of those legendary reporters from what, in retrospect, was a golden age of journalism at the Vancouver Sun. You know, the days when newspapers told you everything you needed to know about your community, your country and the world at large, and more.

For 30 years at the Sun, Larry Still was perhaps the best court reporter in the land, undoubtedly the best in B.C. by a country mile. His immaculately-worded coverage of Vancouver’s many long, gripping, often grisly, trials in the last three decades of the twentieth century stand as a tribute to the craft – clear, concise, comprehensive and oh, so readable. As dramatic testimony and give-and-take from the city’s best lawyers played out in the courtroom, he put you right there.

Yet it says something about Larry Still that word of his June 25 death in Oak Bay (from an overdose of painkillers) did not trickle out until earlier this week. Outside work, he tended to be a bit of a loner, when he wasn’t at the Press Club across the street from Pacific Press. Still used to be a fixture at the Club, positioned in a corner of the bar in a haze of cigarette smoke, relieving the tension of the day’s work with what Pat Nagle liked to call “the grape”. He was never at the centre of glad-happy journos, yukking it up. Mostly, he drank alone, occasionally, when angered by some remark that he considered inconsequential, spitting out that he used to work “on Fleet Street”. He might then puff out his chest in a belligerent manner and boast, if the reporter was particularly beneath his notice at the time, that he could “write rings around” him. Much as I admired his work, I was always somewhat intimidated by him. He was, shall we say, not one to suffer fools gladly, and his definition of “fools” often depended on how much he had had to drink.

I never heard many details of his life before the Sun, other than his English background, time “on Fleet Street”, and an indeterminate tenure as a correspondent for Time Magazine. How and why he washed up at the Sun in Vancouver is a mystery, at least to me.

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From Larry’s Facebook page.

(Larry, his mother, and his brother Mike, as they were evacuated to the countryside during WW II)

As I drifted away from Vancouver, Pacific Press and “the Club”, I lost track of people and events. I heard that Larry mellowed in later years, lessened his drinking and became more convivial. I also heard that he had a son back in England, with whom there had been some sort of reconciliation. I hope all these things are true.

Certainly, some of the Facebook postings attest to his helpfulness as a colleague, without forgetting his acerbic reputation. Quipped Craig Ferry: “I can’t think of a single person I’d rather be insulted by.” Andrea Maitland wrote: “When I started at the Sun, he was very helpful. Crabby and always right.” Salim Jiwa recalled the pleasures of covering the extradition hearing of Air India bombing conspirator, Inderjit Singh Reyat, with Still in his old stomping grounds of London. Scott Honeyman summed him up: “An unforgettable character.”

In an e-mail, former Sun Business Editor George Froehlich said he often had Still over for dinner. “He was charming, witty and vey insightful….Larry, believe it or not, was quite an accomplished cook,” George elaborated. “He was often quite moody, especially when editors at the Sun did not give his court stories the prominence they deserved….He used to say: what can you expect from people who have never been anywhere, a reference to the fact he had travelled all over the world for Time.”

The last time I saw Larry Still was at the huge wake for Patrick Nagle (sigh) in 2006. He was in fine form, tearing a strip off long-time colleague Wyng Chow, in a jocular way, of course, for managing to be fired by the Sun. “You could piss all over the assistant city editor and not be fired. And yet you, Wyng Chow, you managed to be fired!” Wyng, now comfortably ensconced in Hong Kong and a friend of Larry’s till the end, took it in stride.

Still leaves an impressive legacy. In those days, there was space in the paper for long stories. If a trial was important enough, he was given copious room for his riveting stories on what went on in the courtroom the previous day. One of the last reporters with superb shorthand, he was able to quote sharp exchanges and compelling testimony verbatim. Still was also smart in the ways of the court, justly celebrated by the legal fraternity for his insight and knowledge. I heard once that his book The Limits of Sanity was regularly used as a key teaching tool at law schools on the issue of criminal insanity. The book is based on a one night, murderous spree by Kootenay logger Dale Nelson, who violated the bodies of at least two of his eight victims. Nelson’s lawyer, the celebrated Mickey Moran, argued persuasively but ultimately unsuccessfully that his client was not guilty on the basis of insanity. Still, naturally, had covered every moment of the trial. Image (Michael Finlay, Chester Grant and Larry Still, at the wake for Patrick Nagle.)

Alas, his brand of court reporting is long gone. Today, court stories, no matter how critical the trial, are expected to be relatively short, containing only selected highlights of an entire day’s proceedings. That’s fine, but they don’t provide a reader with what Larry Still did. For historians and archivists, his copy is a treasure trove. When Aaron Chapman was compiling his excellent history of the colourful Penthouse cabaret, he relied heavily on Larry Still’s coverage of two famous trials involving the renowned nightclub: owner Joe Philliponi’s prosecution on a charge of living off the avails of prostitution and the murder trial of two men accused of murdering Philliponi at the club in 1983. What kind of record is left behind bythe abbreviated newspaper stories of today?

Larry Still, RIP. No one was better at what they did than you, sir. 11391416_1399793827016260_3900624691454878330_n