The White Buffalo Are Gone

Last week, some of his old colleagues and friends gathered to say good-bye to Ron Haggart, one of the few remaining legends of Canadian journalism.

Ron wrote a city hall column for the old Toronto TelegramThe Toronto Star, and The Globe and Mail before going off to become a senior producer at CBC-TV’s The Fifth Estate. Not much was said about his Tely days, but that’s where I remember him best and read him avidly as a kid in a small Eastern Ontario town.

I didn’t know anything about Toronto or its politics, but it didn’t matter. He was such an interesting writer, I devoured his stuff. Ron Haggart was one of the reasons, for good or ill, I got into the newspaper business.

At Ron’s farewell, I sat beside Elsa Franklin, another legend of sorts, having managed Pierre Berton through his long career as a newspaper columnist, author, and broadcaster and helped make him a household word. She remains spry and lovely and quick-witted at the age of (she says proudly) eighty-one.

Talking to Elsa got me thinking about Ron Haggart and Pierre Berton, and the coterie of news men (and a couple of women) who were the shining media stars when I came to Toronto in the early 1970s.

They were the white buffalo on the prairie I inhabited in those days, the big, transcendent names:

Charles Templeton, newspaper and magazine editor, author, broadcaster, and former evangelist; Peter Newman, the newspaper and magazine editor who wrote the definitive book on Canadian politics of the time, Renegade In Power, and in 1970 published The Canadian Establishment, the first book to delve into the way the establishment ran (runs?) things; Peter Gzowski,a  former Toronto Star entertainment editor who had become a national phenomenon hosting CBC radio’s This Country In the Morning; Barbarba Frum, a Toronto Star freelancer who hosted CBC radio’s groundbreaking current affairs show, As It Happens; and June Callwood, freelance journalist, author, broadcaster, and the nicest, most caring person in Canadian journalism.

But the greatest of the great white buffalo was Pierre Berton.

Writing for The Toronto Star, he had become the paper’s most widely-read columnist. He  hosted the internationally syndicated Pierre Berton Show. He was one of the panelists on Front Page Challenge, CBC-TV’s biggest hit.

Along with Charles Templeton, he did a commentary on CFRB radio that was so popular, the station created a studio in his home so he could broadcast from there each morning.

But most importantly, he was also the bestselling author in the country. When The National Dream, his history of the building of the Candian Pacific Railway, was published in 1970, it sold an astronomical one hundred and fifty thousand copies, retailing for the then-unheard-of price of $10.

In a country without stars, he was the biggest star.

I met Berton in 1970 when the Windsor Star sent me to Toronto to do interviews for CBC television’s new fall season. A tall, imposing man with a snowy comb-over that was a marvel of construction, Berton sat me in a chair, settled in beside me, and started talking in that great, rumbling baritone he possessed. For the next twenty minutes he provided a young reporter with a masterclass on how to conduct an interview. I think I got to ask one question. That was all he needed.

Three years later when I came to Toronto to write for the new Sunday Sun, I encountered him many times. You could never say we were friends, but I admired him tremendously. He was usually welcoming, if slightly reserved, a man supremely in control of his world and certain of his place in it. I was in awe.

But I was also ambitious, and even then Berton and the others were getting older.I believed their time was passing, and that the moment was ripe for young Turks like myself  to take over. We would star in TV shows and write books and host radio shows. We would become the new white buffalo.

So with Shakespearian treachery in mind,  I watched Burton and the others carefully, envied their success, wanted to be like them. But of course I couldn’t be; no one could.

Berton and company were not about to move aside for me or anyone else. They were indeed like the white buffalo in that once they were gone, they were gone. No one was going to replace them; they were irreplaceable.

Leukemia took Barbara Frum away too soon in 1992 at the age of only fifty-five. Templeton had Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2001 at the age of eighty-six. Gzowski died of emphysema in 2002 at the age of sixty-seven.June Callwood, also a cancer victim, was eighty-three when she died in 2007.

Burton was eight-four when his heart finally gave out in 2004, after he had churned out fifty books, using two fingers to pound away on a Smith-Corona typewriter. No computers, thank you. Amazing.

Only Peter Newman survives, frail at 82, but still writing.

It is unimaginable today that a radio station would install a studio for one of its commentators. It’s hard to imagine any station even scheduling the sort of running daily commentary Berton and Templeton provided. And when was the last time any non-fiction book in this country sold 150,000 copies, let alone a history book?

The media universe has changed dramatically since those long-ago days. The airwaves and newspapers are crowded with names and faces, but they all seem rather anonymous and interchangeable to me.

Certainly no one simultaneously bestrides the worlds of newspapers, book publishing, television, and radio the way Berton and his ilk did.

So when we  said good-bye to Ron Haggart last week, we also said farewell to a time when great white buffalo roamed a narrow media world.They are gone now, and they will not be coming back.

And the kid who was going to take over from them? Well, he is content to sit beside the grand Elsa Franklin, remembering fondly and smiling ruefully.

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