Gzowski: he had the courage to be scared
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, January 25, 2002)

In 1957, when a five-year-old girl was murdered in a Toronto ravine, the crime brought out the worst instincts of the Toronto Star and the Toronto Telegram, then ferocious competitors. After the police charged a 17-year-old schoolboy, both newspapers prejudiced his chances of a fair trial by running stories that assumed his guilt.

The Varsity, the student paper at the University of Toronto, published an editorial by Peter Gzowski that attacked the newspapers and insisted they be censured in court for undercutting the defendant's rights. To his surprise, Gzowski's words reached far beyond the campus. A lawyer read them out at a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association, The Globe and Mail reported the incident, and the editor of the Telegram was outraged.

Unfortunately, Gzowski was then living on fees the Telegram paid him for writing campus news. He was fired, and couldn't see how to finish university. But luckily a job opened up on the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, and he grabbed it. As a result, he didn't get a piece of paper from the University of Toronto until 1995, when he was given an honorary degree. There was more luck: this incident caught the eye of Ralph Allen, the editor of Maclean's, who later hired Gzowski and became his mentor.

Could a great journalist's triumphant career have a more auspicious beginning? In that incident (described in his last book, A Peter Gzowski Reader), he enacted several themes that later became central to his work. He expressed the decency and fairness that eventually won him the love of a huge national audience. He articulated what many people were thinking but hadn't said out loud. And whether intentionally or by accident, he did it in a way that drew maximum attention to the issue and to himself. One more thing: the editorial by that 22-year-old still reads pretty well.

Gzowski loved journalism (while hating much of it) and loved Canada (while knowing all its drawbacks). He made a career of revealing Canada to itself--in magazine articles, in books, in radio programs, sometimes in TV shows. He was the ultimate pan-Canadian figure of his time, at home in Yellowknife or St. John's or Calgary. And yet (this set him apart from all of his contemporaries) he showed little interest in seeing the world beyond Canada. He made his first visit to Paris in his sixties, visited London hardly at all and Italy never. He couldn't quite explain this, so far as I know. It was as if Canada were more than enough for him.

Gzowski was managing editor of Maclean's in a vintage period and editor, briefly, in a not-so-good period. He edited the Star Weekly in its last year, probably its best. He was a major success in radio and a disaster on TV. In the mid-1970s his last-night talk show, 90 Minutes Live, turned out to be the worst failure of his life, one that he took hard. Years later he called it "the stupidest thing I ever did." It was as if for some reason he was not allowed to have failures like everyone else.

He was a wonderful companion, amusing and amused, yet he could also be irascible as a colleague when he suspected that his team was doing less than its best--or when he suspected the same of himself. In public, he was always casual and professional. On radio he loped without much trouble (so it seemed) through several thousand interviews. In print his style was so clear that it seemed effortless. His radio programs often felt inevitable, as if this was the only way that a certain day's show could have fallen together. He made it look easy. It never was.

His passionate marriage with radio, and the radio audience's passionate devotion to him, stretched over more than a quarter of a century, though there was a long trial separation along the way. He did occasional radio programs in the 1960s, including an early version of As It Happens called Radio Free Friday, but he and radio came together seriously for the first time in 1971 when This Country in the Morning went on the air and immediately established itself as exceptional and compelling.

It lasted for three sparkling years, and then Gzowski was gone from regular radio (writing books, doing TV) until 1982. That year he returned to host Morningside, where he stayed until he retired from regular broadcasting in 1997 and became a freelancer.

If radio provided his most appreciative audience, print remained his real home. As soon as he made his national radio reputation, he began turning his programs (first This Country in the Morning, then Morningside), into a series of books that gathered together everything from transcripts of his most memorable interviews to recipes submitted by listeners. He wrote non-fiction books, like The Game of Our Lives, about hockey and especially Wayne Gretzky, and An Unbroken Line, about the thoroughbred racing he loved.

Because books meant so much to him, he made the literary interview a sub-specialty, and did it better than anyone else in the country. He brought to it a judicious combination of humility and audacity; while respecting the author, he wanted to elicit ideas and impressions that the author hadn't necessarily planned to utter. He also demonstrated his greatest skill, attentiveness, an ability to be totally present in the moment. If attentiveness had been an academic subject, Gzowski would have had a Ph.D.

In the book business "doing Morningside," became the acknowledged key to success. Publishers said that no one else could make the cash registers ring in bookstores like Gzowski. In the unprecedented development of Canadian literature during the last two decades, he played a major role.

That same interest led him to his great personal cause, literacy. Year after year he travelled across the country for Frontier College's reading programs, raising millions of dollars with the Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments. His regard for that charity was rooted in his grateful understanding of what books had done for him. He seems to have enjoyed life most as it was refracted through the prism of good writing, a perspective he may have picked up as a sports fan. The drama of sports was heightened for him when he read about it in the work of A.J. Liebling, the American master, and in Canadian sports writers he came to know, not only Ralph Allen but also notable members of Allen's generation, like Jim Coleman and Trent Frayne. He could be as excited by a new writer on sports as by a new athlete. No one took more pleasure than he in the grace of Jack Batten's sports writing, or in Allen Abel's sports column.

Cigarettes, the emblem of easygoing manhood in his youth, killed him. His heavy smoking was at first a curiosity among his admirers, then a legend, then a cause of deep concern. In the Toronto Star column he wrote for a little while in the 1980s he made his addiction public, appealing to readers for their most successful cures. Whatever they sent didn't work, and he continued smoking until a couple of years ago. Finally he quit, much too late, and found himself suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In an article he described his situation, typically, with merciless frankness: "you have tubes up your nose and are pushing a rollator in front of you, a kind of baby buggy with an oxygen tank instead of a baby." He described his life as a smoker in a poignant and eloquent memoir he wrote for an anthology on addictions. It was the last article of any length that he produced, and the saddest.

As writer or talker, Gzowski never lost his sense of insecurity, and after a lifetime's friendship I decided that was his secret. Journalists become ordinary when they decide that the job isn't hard, that you should never be frightened by it, and that a few good tricks will carry you through. Gzowski never saw his work in that way. He knew it was hard as hell just to be interesting; to be really good was even harder.

Once, nearly four decades ago, Gzowski and I were talking about a young newspaperman who was trying to write magazine articles. I said he was promising, Gzowski said he wasn't. "He doesn't think it's hard," Gzowski explained. He was right. The fellow never did write anything of interest, but he remained supremely self-assured for the rest of his career.

Gzowski knew the difficulty of getting journalism right, and remained terrified by the possibility of getting it wrong. He suffered from doubt before, during, and after even his most remarkable interviews. He understood that, because all events and people are unique, every piece of journalism requires a fresh approach. That was an intimidating thought, but without it, Gzowski's magnificent career would have been impossible. Others retreated into glib predictability and replayed the ancient questions. Gzowski couldn't do that. He was afraid of failing to meet the standards he had set for himself. All his life, he had the courage, and the wisdom, to be scared.

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