The Ghosts At Their Underwoods

The ghosts are always at their Underwoods now, and I seem to be walking around with a constantly heavy heart in memory of them.

Last week, Greg Quill, old neighbour, friend, Star colleague, and erstwhile screenwriting partner made his exit. This week it is the legendary –and for once the word is used properly–Toronto Sun editor and co-founder, Peter Worthington.

I doubt they knew one another, and more’s the pity: they were both gentle men and I think they would have liked one another. I certainly liked them, and in a newspaper world grown increasingly dull, they were both, in their very different ways, larger-than-life characters who will be sorely missed.

GregGreg, sweet, bearlike Greg. It must have been yesterday that I was marveling at his tenacious determination to write for The Toronto Star, amazed at his desire to be part of a place that could be, depending on the day, paradise or living hell–leaning far too often toward the living hell.

But Greg became a part of the Entertainment department for three decades, an imposing presence, intensely focused, taking the job he was doing very seriously. I remember him bursting into the newsroom, on deadline, out of breath, a notebook flopping in his hand, heaving himself into a chair and getting down to work. Most of the rest of us back then were noisily cynical. Greg never raised his voice.

A few years after I left The Star, Greg and I along with his friend, the noted Australian producer David Elfick, decided to write a script. David flew over from his home outside Sydney, and we spent the weeks trying to put a story together.

As with most such projects, the movie never amounted to anything, but I came away from the experience adoring Greg. We spoke for the last time a few months ago, remembering the days with wonderful Elfick, sitting in my apartment, trying–and failing–to make movie magic, having a good, rueful laugh over the whole experience, the craziness of it all, the shattered hopes, the mangled dreams…

The news of Peter Worthington’s death at the age of eighty-six, sent more memories swirling. The news took me back to The Sun newsroom in the Eclipse Building on King Street, overlooking Farb’s Car Wash. The week before I arrived to write for the about-to-be-launched Sunday Sun, Toronto’s first Sunday newspaper, they had gotten rid of the beer machine in the newsroom.Peter Worthington-- Rock-jawed, camera-ready

There was no security on the door, so anyone could and did wander in–from would-be Sunshine girls to architect Jack Diamond (who had offices in the building) to journalism students looking for a job (immediately hired in many cases), young actresses looking to be interviewed (welcome Margot Kidder), angry wives gunning for errant husbands. Everyone yelled into a phone. Teletype machines clattered in time with the Underwood typewriters Chaos reigned.

The calm eye in the midst of this ongoing storm was Peter Worthington. Thanks to his days as a globe-trotting foreign correspondent (as they used to be called) for the Toronto Telegram, his was the best-known face in the newsroom–a face camera-ready for newspaper movies about crusading editors: rock jawed, short-cropped hair shot through with grey, piercing, inquisitive eyes.

Despite the fact he was one of the founders of The Sun (along with Doug Creighton and Don Hunt), Peter was surprisingly disarming, frank, charming, and full of mischievous humor, not at all like a guy who owned a big city newspaper.

If anyone kept this wild west of a newsroom together and provided the professionalism that was sometimes (to say the least) lacking, it was Peter. Not for him the lure of Publisher Creighton’s high-end Italian eatery one flight down from the newsroom. The rest of us could go crazy down there–and we often did (cue the reporter peeing into the potted plants)–but not Peter. He could look impishly amazed at the head-shaking antics, but he was never a participant.

Peter was a conservative through and through, but he always struck me as a usually reasonable and articulate conservative–except when it came to Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His daughter, Danielle Crittenden, married the former Bush White House special assistant and political commentator, David Frum. Every time I read Frum or hear him on CNN, he strikes me as the most perceptive and coherent conservative pundit around, and I wonder if a little bit of Peter didn’t rub off on him.

But, my gawd, Peter could be jaw-dropping in his willingness to say out loud anything that crossed his mind. He did not seem to possess–or perhaps had no need for–any of the self-censorship mechanisms the rest of us must employ.When one of the original Sunday Sun editors died, Peter got up to say a few words about him at the editor’s memorial. He fumbled around a bit and then announced he really couldn’t think of anything good to say about the guy because he never much liked him, anyway.

I ran into Peter for the last time about a year ago at an exhibition of  new paintings by his longtime friends, Andy Donato (the Sun’s brilliant editorial cartoonist) and his wife, Diane Jackson.

Peter, well into his eighties now, hadn’t changed much from the days when I worked for him in the 1970s: the grey hair was white now, but the jaw remained rock hard, the eyes as piercing as ever–he could still star in that newspaper movie about the crusading editor.

I introduced him to my wife, Kathy, and  got him to tell her what I consider one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of Canadian journalism.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963,  Peter remembered, The Telegram dispatched him to Dallas to cover the tragedy. He arrived in town early Sunday morning.

He told us of how, not knowing quite what else to do, he took a cab to the Dallas Police station. He got out, and there was no one around, so he wandered down a ramp into the police station’s parking  garage where a group of reporters and police officers had gathered.

Peter went over to them to find out what was going on. Just then there was a burst of activity, and in came more police officers with a handcuffed Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect in the Kennedy assassination. As they passed Peter, a man in a grey Fedora stepped out in front of him with a gun in his hand, and shot Oswald.

Peter is immortalized in the background of the still photo seen around the world, reeling back at the moment Jack Ruby guns down Oswald–the Canadian reporter not in town for an hour who had ambled into history.

Peter must have had to tell that story a million times, but I never got tired of hearing it, and he retold it to my wife that evening  with the combination of intensity, drama, and offhand charm that he brought to everything.

So I sit here fondly, sadly remembering Greg and Peter and  the remarkable characters with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to cross paths. All gone now. Time stops. The past once more is present. The ghosts are at their Underwoods, more real than ever.

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About

Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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One comment on “The Ghosts At Their Underwoods
  1. Linda Larsen says:

    Thanks for these wonderful thoughts. What a time it was. And We were there to know, learn and be part of such à fun ride. I love you. Hi to kathy. Let’s see each other before too long. Love you long time. Larsen.

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