Thursday, November 24, 2011

My Log 280: Tom Kent, my old boss, bites the dust at age 89: a man of remarkable abilities

In writing about Tom Kent, who died on Nov 15, the man who offered me my first serious job in Canadian journalism back in1955 when he was editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, I cannot pretend to any great degree of objectivity. The reason for that is I have never really liked any boss I ever worked for, and I cannot pretend that I particularly liked him, either.

Nevertheless, I do have to pay tribute to him for his somewhat remarkable abilities. He could write a coherent and often persuasive editorial article quicker than anyone I have ever known. Later, after he left journalism, he became a senior adviser to the Liberal governments of Canada, first headed by Lester Pearson, later by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and in that capacity he is credited with having been the major influence in creation of Medicare as a federal program, and such social programs as the Canadian Pension Plan. In this work he was obviously drawing on his background as, I believe, a working class boy growing up in England, no doubt influenced in his youth by the British Labour Party,

Some obituarists in the last few days have paid him glowing tributes, claiming him to have been passionate, fearless and principled. I wouldn’t know anything about that. I have to judge him as the boss who presided over my real entry into Canadian journalism from 1955 to 1957. (I say “real,” because before that I put in three months as a wage slave for the Thomson organization on a newspaper, if it may be called that, called The Northern Daily News in Kirkland Lake, Ontario.)

The Winnipeg Free Press was a somewhat eccentric outfit when I worked there in the 1950s. I often say it was regarded as a great newspaper by more people who have never read it than any newspaper on earth. In my view it did not merit such accolades. But I enjoyed working there, and my enjoyment probably had something to do with the fact that I had few contacts with Tom Kent while there. The city editor, Albert Boothe, was a prince among men --- really the only boss I ever worked for whom I unreservedly esteemed.

One of my best Winnipeg Free Press stories concerned a man called Diplock, one of those old-time journalists who was living out his final days on the job by sitting at a corner typewriter in the vast newsroom, undertaking the occasional job of rewriting some item from the opposition Winnipeg Tribune that somehow or other the Free Press had failed to cover. One day Diplock disappeared, simply failed to turn up, without a word of explanation to anyone. Eventually it became known he was in Britain, where he apparently remained for two years. Eventually, however, he turned up one day, sat at the same typewriter as before, and waited for someone to notice him. Albert Boothe noticed him, picked up a Tribune item that needed a quick rewrite, walked over to him, placed the item before him, and said, as if he had never disappeared, “Could you give us a few words on that, please?”

The farming magazine run by the Free Press had its typewriters along the back of the newsroom. Every day, a strange little woman known as Jeannie came into the newsroom, took up her place along the back row of typewriters, unwrapped her several layers of clothing, then sat down and typed away for half an hour or an hour before wrapping up again and going off into the Winnipeg streets. Who was she? Was she a staff member? Not at all: she was just a person who was working on some manuscript of her own, and whose use of the newspaper's typewriter had come to be accepted as part of the day’s proceedings.

Tom Kent was editor over the last days of a moribund Liberal provincial government (unless my memory betrays me), and his cogent editorials must have played a considerable part in its overthrow by the Conservative government of Duff Roblin.

My relationship with Kent grew somewhat tenuous after he emerged into the news room one day, found me free of work, told me that James Coyne, governor of the Bank of Canada, was about to get married, and asked me to phone him to confirm it. I phoned, and Coyne hung up in my ear. So --- I was still fairly fresh out of my upbringing in the determinedly egalitarian society of New Zealand --- I phoned Coyne back and told him I objected to his unnecessary rudeness. This, within minutes brought Kent storming out of his office to denounce me in public before the whole staff, a confrontation in which I seem to remember I gave almost as good as I got. But my reaction to the incident was, if this guy can’t even defend his own staff, what the hell use is he as a human being?

I left the Free Press the following summer, and moved to Montreal. I met Kent only once thereafter. I was reporting in London, England on a press conference he gave about immigration to Canada (he was working in that field for the federal government by that time.) I remember we were washing our hands in the washroom side by side, when he looked up and congratulated me on an article I had just written about Harold Wilson. He said I had him off perfectly, which (all modesty aside) was a pretty fair judgment.

Later I often thought it might be nice to approach him in his last years. But I never did it. I had approached him for work when he was appointed head of a Royal Commission on ownership in the Canadian press, but all I received back was a cold letter from a secretary telling me my letter was on file.

Years later, Kent wrote some articles in the Oitawa Citizen or Globe and Mail (I can’t remember which) suggesting changes to Canada’s attitude towards immigrants and citizenship. These followed the kerfuffle that arose when Canadian citizens who were living in Lebanon lined up expecting Canada to get them out of Lebanon during an Israeli invasion.

I thought Kent’s ideas for limiting the use naturalized Canadians could make of their status were tantamount of creating two or more classes of Canadian citizenship. I thought these ideas were berserk, and concluded his powers must be failing in his old age.

Nevertheless, I am ready to pay tribute to his favorable impact on his adopted country. If only everyone were to work as effectively for the general good, we would be a hell of a lot better nation.

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