The River City Renegade

It’s -30- on Shakey Johnson’s sports writing career…say it ain’t so, Postmedia

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Scant years after the 20th century had arrived at its midway mark, author Truman Capote appeared on the television show Open End, whereupon he lashed out at the Beat Generation of American writers who delivered notable works in the 1950s.

“None of these people have anything interesting to say and none of them can write, not even Jack Kerouac,” he told host David Susskind. “It isn’t writing at all. It’s typing.”

Whether his was an accurate appraisal of the scribblings of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke and others among the Beat wordsmiths is, of course, open to interpretation, but the core of Capote’s critique is unassailable: Some people write, others just type.

I am reminded of the In Cold Blood author’s quote due to the blood-letting that has taken place this week on the sinking ships we know as daily newspapers in Canada.

georgejohnson

George (Shakey) Johnson

Included in the Postmedia carnage that killed competition in four major cities and left approximately 90 people out of work was George (Shakey) Johnson, whose poetic way with words has graced sports sheets across the nation ever since he walked out of a Red River Community College classroom and into the Winnipeg Tribune newsroom in the 1970s.

Shakey Johnson doesn’t type. He writes.

Which makes the Postmedia resolve to deep-six him not simply callous and cold-hearted but mystifying in the extreme.

I mean, it’s one thing to merge the two newsrooms of supposedly competing papers in each of four bergs in the True North, which Postmedia has done in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, but surely the fallout from fiscal folly ought not to include your best and brightest people.

Shakey Johnson is among the best. And brightest. Still.

Shakey is unlike any sports scribe I have known, something I recognized early, when we were both novices learning our trade at the knee of Jack Matheson at the Trib. He would prattle on about his fave jocks like Ali and Jack Nicklaus, with the odd genuflection toward Davey Keon and Italian fitba, but he really got off on the theatre and movies. He was as apt to work Sir Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton or Judy Garland and Streisand into a lede as Wayne Gretzky or Lanny McDonald. And don’t even think about getting him started on Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes was, is and always will be his main man.

That’s what makes Shakey special, at least to my way of thinking. It isn’t all about pucks and pigskins and point guards. He comes at sports writing from a different angle. He’s both high-end and high-brow. And he does it with such elequence and knock-’em-dead dry wit.

It’s why, as sports editor at the Calgary Sun in the early 1980s, I lured him away from our sister paper in Edmonton and installed him as our National Hockey League beat writer, his main focus being the Flames. I knew Shakey would deliver the same sterling stuff I’d read in the Trib and Winnipeg Sun, where he was among the plucky rogues and rebels who brought a newspaper to life out of the Tribune ashes.

That Postmedia cannot see this same talent is mind-boggling.

Sure, go ahead and merge the Calgary Herald and Sun newsrooms. Kill the competition. But do not kill the quality.

Shakey Johnson has been a chronicler of Calgary sports for more than three decades, first at the Sun then the Herald, and he’s done it with unparalleled polish. His choice of wording is as his choice of wardrobe—impeccable. Thus, it is most discouraging and disheartening to think he’s arrived at the end of the ride because some suit doesn’t know a noun from a nincompoop. Shakey still has so much more to share. Surely we haven’t seen the last of Sinatra, Streisand or Sir Laurence in the lede of a sports story.

If it is over for Shakey, I offer another Truman Capote quote: “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

I don’t know what inner music Shakey hears when he writes, but what I’ve always heard in reading his words is a beautiful symphony.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

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