The past had been safely housed for over forty years inside the old gray stone monolith that was the Windsor Star on the corner of Pitt and Ferry Street in downtown Windsor.
My misspent youth was spent in the smoky, noisy confines of the second floor newsroom, the sounds of the police radio on the wall (“One down on Beaubien. Units responding”), the clack-clack of teletype machines and Underwood typewriters, editors in white shirts, their sleeves rolled up, yelling “Copy!” Those were the days, my friend. We thought they would never end.
The newsroom in addition to being filled with cigarette and cigar smoke, was populated by a colorful band of misfits and inglorious bastards, larger-than-life characters, rogues–okay, there may have been a few normal people too, but they somehow got lost in the much colorful crowd. They reveled in the common knowledge that no one outside the newspaper business would let them in the door, let alone actually hire them.
I felt right at home.
When I came to the Star I was a nineteen-year-old kid recently dropped out of high school. I had nowhere to go but down. My future was as bleak as the interior of the bus carrying me to Windsor that night in 1968.
As the bus came along Wyandotte Street, Windsor’s main thoroughfare, I was presented with a view of distant towering spires. Like just about every other first time visitor to Windsor, I thought these skyscrapers were part of the city. My heart leapt. This really was the big time.
The spires actually belonged to the Detroit skyline, as I soon learned when the bus deposited me on Windsor’s empty streets, and I wandered down to Dieppe Park, overlooking the Detroit River.
It was still dark when I plunked myself down on a park bench. I wasn’t due to be at the Star until nine o’clock that morning. Dead tired, I stretched out on the bench.
The next thing I was being roused out of a sound sleep by a police officer with a flash light. Around me, the homeless men occupying other benches were also being shaken awake. The cop in charge of me took note of the jacket and tie I wore. “What are you doing down here?” he demanded.
I explained that I was in town to be interviewed for a job as a reporter at the Windsor Star. He shook his head and said, “The Star, eh? Well, good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it.”
I straightened myself around and walked up the street to the paper. The editor, a buck-toothed character named Norm Hull, inspected my resume me, looked me up and down, and said, “You don’t have a drinking problem, do you?”
I sputtered assurances that I most certainly did not. “Okay,” Hull said. “You’re hired.”
It might have been better if Norm Hull had asked if I drank like a fish–just like everyone else at the paper. I had walked into a world that was not quite out of The Front Page, the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play about the wild and wooly days of Chicago newspapers–but it was pretty darned close
Windsor’s proximity to Detroit made the Star unique–an otherwise conservative, mid-size Canadian newspaper next door to a big, troubled American city that in 1968 was very much a reflection of the turmoil roiling the United States.
There were race riots, violent anti-Vietnam demonstrations, a polarizing presidential election (Nixon versus Hubert Humphrey, with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace thrown in for good measure).
What’s more, Detroit was known as Murder City. We were told not to go to downtown Detroit after dark. Naturally, we made a beeline for downtown Detroit after dark.
So a bunch of young reporters who at any other Canadian newspaper would have had to content themselves writing about local courts, nonagenarians celebrating birthdays, the odd traffic mishap, and city council, ended up, thanks to an accident of geography, with a front row seat on the most tumultuous era in post-World War II American history.
For a teenager freshly escaped from high school and the confines of small town Ontario, working at the Star became the unexpected magic carpet ride to adventure–literally. I had never even been on an airplane before the newspaper put me on one (I flew all the way to Ottawa).
I narrowly escaped being clubbed by a cop during one of several riots the paper sent me to cover, watched in amazement as supporters of George Wallace collected campaign donations at a Cobo Hall rally in used Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, and interviewed far too many young Canadian kids who had enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam (they all strongly defended the war).
I shook Teddy Kennedy’s hand, hung around one afternoon with Jimmy Hoffa (not long before he disappeared), lunched with Ray Charles, accidentally tripped Lauren Bacall, got yelled at by Ella Fitzgerald (she didn’t like the questions asked by a young snot of a reporter), and sat out in the backyard with Neil Armstrong’s mother.
Best of all, I made friends and those friendships have endured for a lifetime. We were, to say the least, an unruly rat pack, but what a talented bunch as it turned out. You could look around the newsroom and if you were prescient–which, of course, none of us were–you would see three future newspaper publishers, a platoon of future Toronto newspaper editors, a couple of famous columnists, at least one award-winning television producer, a celebrated Canadian author, and a future London theater critic.
Alas, not everyone turned out so well. One of us ended up, good grief, as a movie critic. I won’t mention any names.
As you might imagine, those times at the Windsor Star are regarded as the stuff of legend–at least they are by those of us who were there. It’s all long gone now, except in fondly held memory. Many of the misfits and inglorious bastards who enlivened my youth have left for good. The newspaper business we all loved is no longer the newspaper business we all loved.
A visit to what’s left of the Star was a stark, sobering reminder of just how much the business has changed, and that nothing is what it was. The lively, chaotic command center from which we were launched on various adventures–and misadventures–currently resembles a bombed-out building in Beirut. Eventually, a corner of the old façade will be part of–as the sign out front says–The University of Windsor’s School of Social Work Centre For Professional Education.
I’m not certain what that means–other than it sure as heck won’t be the Windsor Star. As former Star publisher Jimmy Bruce observed, looking at the broken façade you feel as though part of your soul has been torn out.
Your soul and your beating youthful heart, too.