A special Saturday morning smorgas-bored…and a trip down memory lane only hurts if you trip…
I cried. Then got drunk. And cried some more.
I don’t recall who bent elbows with me that day. It might have been Ketch. Maybe Swampdog. Could have been the Caveman, Davey Boy, Shakey and Ringo. I can’t say for certain.
What I do know is this: Aug. 27, 1980, was the bleakest 24 hours of my first 30 years on the third rock from the sun. That’s why we called it Black Wednesday. Some of us still do. I’ve experienced darker days since, to be sure, but when Southam pushed the stop button on the Winnipeg Tribune presses for the final time 40 years ago, it also put the brakes on something inside me.
I loved working at the Trib. I loved the people.
My plan was to stay for 50 years, just like Uncle Vince Leah had done, then retire. That would have taken me to 2019. As it turned out, I made it through 11 years, less 14 days, before Southam mucky-muck Gordon Fisher clambered atop a desk in the fifth-floor newsroom and informed those assembled that they were now among the great unemployed. Oh, and we could pick up your parting gifts on the way out.
I wasn’t there when Fisher did us the dirty on Black Wednesday, but I arrived in a funereal newsroom scant minutes later to find Jack Matheson in our sports bunker. His eyes were red, if not damp.
“It was a helluva run,” he said unconvincingly, head bowed and shaking.
I glanced at the final front page, and fidgeted with one corner of the broadsheet.
“It’s been 90 great years!” the headline blared.
“Ya,” I muttered, “maybe the first 89 years were great, but this 90th year isn’t so shit hot.”
Matty managed a weak smile, but my first sports editor was gutted. Totally. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a man so deflated, and I immediately hurt a hell of a lot more for him than I did myself.
Matty was Trib sports, you see. The rest of us? We were the backup singers to his Sinatra, and we all knew it. His coattails stretched from one coast to the other, and we were happy to go along for the ride.
It wasn’t a sports department that Matty put together, it was an assembly line. It produced six sports editors, eight columnists, one newspaper owner/publisher (Jack Gibson), one radio program director (Vic Grant), one hockey play-by-play voice (Lester Lazaruk), and one happily married couple (Shakey Johnson and Rita Mingo).
Matty had no business hiring me, fresh scrubbed and not a lick of experience other than my time running copy in the newsroom and doing rewrites for Gus Collins, but he did. He also didn’t have to sweet-talk me into staying at the Trib after Maurice Smith had offered me more money and better opportunity for advancement at the Winnipeg Free Press. But he did.
Smith, the Freep SE, had wanted me to back up the fabulous Reyn Davis on the Winnipeg Jets beat, and write feature articles. It was very appealing, also tempting.
“We’d love to have you join us,” Smith told me, “and this chance won’t come again.”
Matty caught wind of our tete-a-tete and invited me to a fireside chat. It was very brief. I stayed strictly because of him.
Have I ever regretted not defecting to the other side? No. But I have thought about it many times, knowing my life would have been so much different had I made the move.
Like I said, though, I loved working at the Trib and I loved the people.
The roll call during my tour of duty included Matty, Eddie Dearden, Uncle Vince, Gus Collins, Vic Grant, Larry Tucker, Dave Komosky, John Cherneski, Gregg Drinnan, Jack Gibson, Ian Dutton, Glen Dawkins, Dave Senick, Murray Rauw, Jim Ketcheson, George Johnson, Bob Holliday, Les Lazaruk and Gordon Sinclair Jr. Those were the boys. Our rays of sunshine were Peggy Stewart and the delightful Rita Mingo, who harbored an unreasonable fanaticism for Italian fitba and the Montreal Canadiens. I always thought of photog Jon Thordarson as one of us, too, because he was a great guy and he and Hughie Allan took the best sports pics. And we had regular freelancers like Harold Loster and Ronnie Meyers, a lawyer back then who went on to become a His Honor.
Harold Loster worked for Labatt brewery and, every so often in the swelter of summer, he would stroll into the sports department to drop off his horse racing or bowling copy (yes, bowling copy), and there’d be a large paper bag tucked under one arm. It contained bottles of brown pop, which we would empty after putting the section to bed sometime in the small hours of the morning.
Matty didn’t object to our occasional beer swilling, but he cautioned us to keep the volume down “and don’t leave any dead soldiers lying around.”
We always tried to be gone by the time Matty arrived to proof the sports pages at the crack of dawn, but we weren’t always successful. He’d smile, tell us we were “crazy” or “nuts,” but I doubt he appreciated walking into a work space that smelled like a beer vat. We’d bug out faster than mice when the lights go on, and we’d be gone by the time he returned from the sixth-floor comp room with the page proofs.
Our late-night natters in Matty’s bunker were unremarkable in depth, but Dave Komosky had a knack for livening up the banter with outrageous claims.
“You know something,” he said one night without prompting, “I could hit a home run off Nolan Ryan.”
The rest of us guffawed, of course, and informed him that no sluggo sports scribe could walk off the street and swat a dinger off baseball’s foremost flame-throwing righthander.
“Okay,” he replied, “maybe not a home run, but I could definitely hit a single. For sure I’d get a base hit. Give me enough practice swings and I’d hit .300 against Ryan.”
Another night, Davey boy gazed down at the concrete alley five stories below Matty’s bunker and asked: “What do you think would happen if I jumped out this window right now?”
We told him he would be dead.
“No way,” he yelped. “At worst I’d break my ankles.”
“Not if you landed on your head,” someone said.
One thing that did fly out the window was Eddie Dearden’s copy.
Early on, we wrote on Underwood typewriters and were required to hand in two copies of our work, one for us to edit and send upstairs for typesetting in the comp room, the other to keep for the desker’s reference.
On this occasion, Dave Komosky was laying out the section and he put Eddie’s copy aside, placing it in a metal basket on a ledge behind him. It was also next to an open window. Oops.
A couple of hours later, Davey reached back for Eddie’s copy, only to discover it missing. We searched for those three pieces of paper like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think one of us actually went down to the alley below to hopefully retrieve the scattered pieces of paper. We’d have had better luck finding Jimmy Hoffa. An uneasiness enveloped us, knowing Eddie would not be amused.
That copy (I believe it was a piece on a golf tournament) became the Amelia Earhart/D.B. Cooper of our operation—never found. And Eddie never believed our “the doge ate your homework” story. He was convinced we had pulled a nasty prank.
Computers were introduced to the Trib newsroom in the latter half of the 1970s, and Eddie and Matty warmed to the “green monsters” like sheep to timber wolves. They insisted on filing hard copy, meaning one of us slugs was required to transfer their stuff into the computer, so it served Eddie right that his copy blew out the window. I mean, no wind ever blew a computer out a window. Mind you, I have seen at least one fly out of a press box.
Nicknames were big in the Trib toy department: Ed Dearden was Steady Eddie; Murray Rauw was Swampdog; Ian Dutton was Caveman; George Johnson was Shakey; Glen Dawkins was Otis; Bob Holliday was Doc; Rita Mingo was Ringo; Les Lazaruk was Ronnie (because of his striking resemblance to Ronald McDonald); Dave Komosky was Komo; Gregg Drinnan was Greaser; Dave Senick was Sinch; and Jim Ketcheson, affectionately known as Ketch, decided all newcomers were Snippets. “I’m up to my chin whiskers in Snippets!” he wailed one night, then punctuated his thoughts with a series of crow calls. “Caw! Caw! Caw!” Ketch often would cry into the dark night, although I never understood the reason why, except he knew it made me laugh.
Every so often, legendary Southam columnist Jim Coleman would make a pilgrimage from his home base in the Republic of Tranna to the colonies and grace us with his attendance on the fifth floor. Such a nice man. And always impeccably attired. Between puffs and chomps on his stinky cigar, the esteemed Jeems would use part of his expense account to put us on the feed bag, ordering cheese nips and fries from the Salisbury House across the parking lot from our building at Smith and Graham. Eight months after the Trib folded, we worked the World Hockey Championship together in Sweden for the Toronto Sun. I was disappointed there were no Sals restaurants in Stockholm for late-night takeout. Jim wasn’t.
There were some fine scribes on those Trib staffs. Matty and Shakey Johnson were the best. Matty was sassy and cheeky and witty and irreverent and clever and in your face, and he mentioned Sinatra quite often. Shakey was smooth and painted pictures that usually included a reference to a movie or Broadway play in the lede.
And, finally, to all with whom I worked at the Tribune, my thanks for making it the most enjoyable 11 years of my newspaper career. As Matty would tell us when he approved of our work, “damn good job.”