Farewell ”Mr. McGoo”
Longtime Southam columnist Don McGillivray, who died last summer at age 76, worked through the reigns of 10 prime ministers. He was a committed journalist, but a humble one too
It is 1965 and the federal election campaign is nearing an end. Don McGillivray is on a train heading toward Toronto along with other press gallery journalists and prime ministerial candidate John Diefenbaker. A lively discussion about journalism rages in McGillivray’s roomette. Diefenbaker has been saying things in speeches that are untrue and some reporters have started correcting him in their stories. Others, including McGillivray, think this is wrong – a journalist’s job is simply to report what is said. McGillivray and The Globe and Mail’s Anthony Westell argue back and forth until the train approaches Union Station. Westell trudges back to his roomette to pack up, leaving McGillivray silently fuming. As the reporters file off the train and onto a bus heading to the airport, nobody realizes McGillivray is not there. He is so busy mulling over the preceding debate that he hasn’t noticed the train stopping, his colleagues getting off and the train moving into one of the giant rail yards outside Toronto. When McGillivray realizes his situation, he exits the train the only way he can – out the window.
Known as an unusual but lovable character by colleagues, McGillivray was a person of conviction. His feelings for the practice and ethics of journalism ran deeper than anyone realized. The veteran reporter’s argument stemmed from the old world of journalism where reporting did not involve interpreting – a position that had largely been discredited after McCarthyism. This was what was so intriguing about him. He had a passion for the craft that went well beyond the newsroom, and was a pioneer in his approach to economic and political writing, creating a clear, concise style that spoke to people across generations. He cared about the ethics of journalism yet did not seem to have a problem with reporting what was said without questioning its validity. (And even though he simply reported Diefenbaker’s words, he later questioned Brian Mulroney’s.)
McGillivray, affectionately known as Mr. McGoo, believed in the importance of journalism, but never puffed it up as something other than a trade. Although he was from an older generation of journalists, he always related well with younger colleagues. And while he came from an era of hard-drinking, hard-living reporters, he was a teetotaller who preferred collecting books. In short, McGillivray, who died in Victoria, B.C., in June of 2003, was as complex as he was colourful.
Born in 1927, McGillivray grew up in Archive, about 14 kilometers southwest of Moose Jaw. Like many during the Depression, his family was on relief. The tough times made McGillivray skeptical of power, something that came through in his writing. He maintained that the public interest required reporters to be observant of politicians’ actions and his western conservatism compelled him to demand a really good reason when governments made changes. In order to pay for his education – he studied economics and was editor of the University of Saskatchewan’s student newspaper, The Sheaf – McGillivray worked in Moose Jaw at Thatcher’s hardware store, where he met his future wife Julietta Kepner, who he affectionately referred to as Jetty.
In 1951, straight out of university, McGillivray began his career at the Regina Leader-Post. He quickly established himself as a competent and diligent reporter, but he soon faced ethical challenges. Around Christmas, his colleagues at city hall suddenly became increasingly excited. “Well, today we’re going to get the graft,” they explained. And sure enough, the city clerk came around with envelopes holding $50 bills as a reward for positive coverage. A few years later, when McGillivray worked at the provincial legislature in Regina, the graft was $200. McGillivray took the money because he was a young reporter and thought he was doing the right thing, but later used the experience as a cautionary tale for his students.
His ethics were also tested at The Winnipeg Tribune, where he moved in 1955. Home to a talented but hard-drinking group of reporters, it was an odd environment for the abstaining prairie Baptist with thick-rimmed, square glasses, conservative white shirt and dark ties. Although McGillivray rarely dropped by the Winnipeg Press Club, he still managed to impress the members. “His new colleagues at the Tribune expected to spend weeks breaking him in,” remembers Lindsay Crysler, a co-worker and close friend, “and were astounded when in the first days he wrote as many stories as they did, and didn’t have to ask for help.”
Packed into the small press room, sitting shoulder to shoulder, the legislative reporters wrote stories on typewriters using carbon copies. The reporting staff of The Winnipeg Free Press – the Tribune’s main rival – was headed by Ted Byfield, a Christian and a fierce competitor. Other reporters always had to be careful with the copies and even the carbons because Byfield was always working nearby. McGillivray enjoyed the battles, but preferred to rely on more traditional research for his stories.
He faced a different ethical challenge when he moved to the Ottawa bureau of Southam News in 1962. The press gallery dinner – which started in the afternoon and often lasted until morning – was an annual Old-Boys’ booze-up for politicians and journalists. By tradition it was completely off the record, and though McGillivray disagreed with the policy, he never broke the embargo. Instead, he interviewed his drunken colleagues as they stumbled out. It caused a major uproar and soon the dinner went on the record. “Don was a solid supporter of the notion that we were here to report on the public lives of public people,” says Patrick Nagle, who worked with McGillivray at the Tribune and Southam News, “so he was always there in the front of any kind of challenge to authority.”
Despite his ethical approach, there were contradictions. McGillivray joined the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) a few years after it started in 1978. A leader of the move to change the CIJ to the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), he was among those who argued the emphasis on investigative journalism made others reluctant to join and that all journalism was investigative in some way. With a new name starting in 1990, the group’s membership ballooned. And in 1993, CAJ board member Brian Brennan surveyed members to see if they were in favour of a code of ethics for the association. But McGillivray always spoke passionately against the idea. For him, journalists should be free and unregulated, not restricted by any code. In a CAJ Bulletin from 1990 under the headline, “The Impossibility of a Media Ethics Code,” McGillivray wrote that journalism was not a profession, like law or medicine, and therefore shouldn’t be regulated like one.
Despite this, McGillivray valued journalism because it gave him a venue to express his views. He had various stints as an editor: in 1970 McGillivray became the associate editor of The Edmonton Journal before moving on in 1972 to be the editor of the Financial Times of Canada in Montreal. Then in 1975 McGillivray returned to Ottawa as Southam’s national economics editor. What he loved best, though, was reporting. His work won him three National Business Writing Awards in 1977, 1979 and 1984.
When McGillivray became the national political and economic columnist for Southam in 1985, he had a corner office crammed full of dictionaries, as well as records of financial statements and budgets. If anybody in the newsroom wanted to know the details of, say, the 1980 budget, McGillivray had it in his office or at home or, more than likely, in his head. Just outside his office door sat a filing cabinet with a bulletin board above it where he stuck Polaroids he snapped of his colleagues. On top of the filing cabinet was McGillivray’s snack bar where he set out doughnuts, cookies and jelly beans for the staff. “I think he was personally responsible for 10 pounds on each and every one of us,” remembers former Southam editor and general manager Jim Travers.
McGillivray came from an era when journalists didn’t serve big business or corporate masters, they served the reader. And, especially in the 1950s, editors and reporters at Southam newspapers had a great deal of freedom. While the newsroom rules increased over the years, McGillivray still enjoyed engaging his readers in subjects of national debate, especially politics. He refused to take the posturing of public figures seriously, and didn’t trust Mulroney at all. McGillivray was against the Free Trade Agreement, believing it camouflaged the government’s real interests. He relentlessly derided the Mulroney campaign, which he called “10 Big Lies of 1988” and regularly accused Mulroney of incompetence. Reflecting on what he called the “Persian Gulf crisis,” McGillivray wrote: “The Prime Minister probably didn’t know what he was talking about.” In 1993, he wrote “The Prime Minister is, in fact, living in an economic dream world as he makes his whining exit from public office.” The Mulroney camp made public complaints and accusations of bad faith. Mulroney’s staff stopped handing out transcriptions of press conferences because McGillivray kept finding inconsistencies. While he seemed to have a bias against Mulroney, Travers and Nagle says it was more his general skepticism towards governments and politicians. This was a big change from the journalist who insisted on quoting politicians verbatim back in 1965. Even before his reporting practices changed McGillivray was always cynical of authority. One cold winter day in early 1960, the McGillivray family was walking down Sparks Street in Ottawa heading towards the Orange Blossom restaurant for lunch, the Parliament Buildings looming beside them. McGillivray’s son Neil asked him, “Dad, are you for the government or against the government?” McGillvray replied, “Well, I guess most of the time I’m against the government.”
He questioned their politics, but McGillivray also seemed to hold politicians in awe. At the end of the 1965 federal election campaign, McGillivray’s family met him at the Ottawa train station. He was fond of Diefenbaker and proudly smiled as his children shook the hand of the former prime minister. Later on, Diefenbaker sent him a note saying: “I think you’re the best writer in Ottawa.” McGillivray had it framed and put it on his wall in his office.
In 1980, he began writing a biweekly political column in addition to the five-days-a-week economic column he started in 1975. He continued to write both until he retired from Southam in 1992. And from 1980 until five years past his official retirement, he wrote a column called “Lingo” that delved into the intricacies of the English language. His economics pieces were always tightly and clearly written and educational. In “How govt. gets, spends its cash,” McGillivray discussed the budget with a clarity that even people without an economics background could understand. “Where does the federal government get its money?” he wrote. “More than 50 cents out of every revenue dollar comes from the personal income tax. Ten cents comes from the tax on company profits. Twenty-five cents comes from excise and sales taxes, levied on commodities…The only other important part is the nine cents in the dollar from investments… Nine plus 25 plus 10 plus 50 is 94 cents. The other six cents comes… from various minor sources.” This was the style of writing that impressed his readers and colleagues. “He made his reputation, justifiably, on his knowledge of how the Canadian economic system worked,” says Nagle, “and he took political and economic journalism to a new level by providing that kind of reporting and commentary to a much larger group of people because his column appeared in every Southam newspaper.”
McGillivray took pride in his writing, but never sounded self-important. “A vast amount of the material available to an economic columnist is flim-flam put out to advance the interests, not of ordinary people, but of some organization or other,” he wrote in 1984. “A columnist has the choice of retailing the flim-flam or trying to expose it. I’ve tried to expose it, not always successfully.”
As a teacher though, McGillivray was an unqualified success. In 1980, he went to work at Montreal’s Concordia University as a professor of economic and business writing. Understanding that students learn better when fed, he served coffee and doughnuts. McGillivray rarely ate sweets himself and instead lived by his own words of wisdom: “Man cannot live by bread alone. He needs a bit of cottage cheese, ketchup and HP sauce too.” He also refused to eat any kind of poultry because he’d eaten too much chicken as a child. In 1982, McGillivray started teaching a fourth-year business reporting course at Carleton University and always came to class with food. But fellow professor Peter Johansen would not be outdone: “We were always upping each other so that by the end of the term we were practically bringing whole meals to class – cold cuts, breads, mustard and all the rest of it.
With no driver’s licence, McGillivray rode Voyageur back and forth between Ottawa and Montreal to teach once a week at each university and write columns for Southam. Students frequently chose his classes because he had a reputation for making economics enjoyable. He gave them a hypothetical amount of money to invest in the stock market, which meant researching companies and reading the stock pages. Throughout the year, the students bought and sold shares as they pleased, but had to pay a “brokerage fee” for every trade. At the end of the year, they wrote about their experience. The moral of the exercise: the only person guaranteed to make a buck was the broker, who got paid regardless of what happened to the stock.
Along with teaching, McGillivray nurtured aspiring journalists. In the summer of 1986, Carolyn Adolph landed a summer job at Southam News, an office full of seasoned political reporters – mostly male. They’d never had a student intern before and Adolph turned out wooden stories because she was never able to write a word that was good enough for her inner editor. Eventually, McGillivray came into her office. “Carolyn,” he pleaded, “you have to take the editor in your mind and wring her neck! Shut her up! Just stop her from criticizing you all the time!”
Oh, my God, I can’t believe he knows what’s going on, thought Adolph. He had just understood what was happening by reading her writing – and he solved her problem.
For all his generosity, McGillivray was also, in many ways, a modest man. The Bank of McGillivray, as he was called, occasionally bailed out the CAJ when it was in financial trouble. Over the years he donated about $5,000, though no one knew until then-executive director John Stevens let it slip at a board meeting. But McGillivray’s fondness for collecting was anything but subtle. By the time he went to Southam’s Washington bureau in 1966, he had already collected about 1,000 books that had to be shipped along with him. After receiving a bill from the movers when McGillvray relocated to London a year later, Charles Lynch, then the head of Southam in Ottawa, sent him a letter saying, “If you buy any books in London, for every book you buy you have to throw one away.” So McGillivray started collecting miniature books, including the four-inch high Encyclopedia Britannica. He read and remembered everything he collected. Sitting at home one night, Murray McGillivray answered a call from his father, who asked: “Can you go to the bookshelf beside the window in the dining room, go to the third shelf from the top, four books in, and get the book with the red cover on it. Can you read me from page 36, the second paragraph down?”
After McGillivray’s wife Jetty died from liver and colon cancer in 1979, he sold the house in Montreal and bought one in Ottawa during the late 1980s. His new home became renowned for its eclectic interior decorating, consisting of items from garage sales, second-hand stores and pieces from previous family homes. Collecting was a passion he picked up from his father, who would spend his Saturdays wandering around thrift shops in Moose Jaw. McGillivray collected anything that caught his eye – the quirkier the better. Mountains of personal effects filled every corner of his house and a stream of political posters plastered the wall leading up the staircase. Leading off the kitchen was McGillivray’s office, with 15 abridged Oxford dictionaries arranged from shortest to tallest. Copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Roget’s Thesaurus abounded, and he owned 20 volumes of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, second edition. A U.S.-Canada border marker rested in the living room fireplace and a collection of hard, plastic, miniature dinosaurs sat on the coffee table. Books such as Folk Songs, Cowboy Songs, and The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years sat on the ledges of the untuned piano. Shelves crammed with books flooded the house: in the hallways, under the stairs, above the stairs, in the dining room. In 1997, McGillivray donated 15,000 dictionaries, indices, bibliographies, yearbooks, biographies, royal commission reports, parliamentary and media commentary, novels, and caricatures to the University of Northern British Columbia.
His house also featured a Pope room, with a plaster bust of the Pope alongside Bibles and other ceramic religious statues. The Mountie room housed a life-sized dummy wearing a red Mountie uniform, hat and boots that stood at the end of the bed. Coasters, books and paper fans all laden with the classic Canadian symbol of an officer atop his horse vied for shelf space with ceramic and stuffed Mounties. His passion for collecting this paraphernalia was in part to mock Canadian attitudes toward their own pretentious culture. “Don had certain favourite antipathies in this country, starting with Canadian movies,” said Tim Creery, close friend and fellow Southam reporter, in the eulogy he gave at McGillivray’s funeral. “At the movies, Don wanted popcorn, escapism and larger-than-life entertainment; never mind these dreary tales of self-pitying Canucks. He could scarcely abide the CBC, couldn’t abide cultural protectionism at all and had a low opinion of the Canadian literati.”
Whatever his rationale, McGillivray amassed an impressive collection and his son Murray has kept it ever since his father sold the house to move to Victoria and live with his daughter Peigi Ann. That was in 1997, after he retired from teaching because of failing vision and several falls on the icy streets of Ottawa. What was initially diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease later turned out to be Progressive Supra-nuclear Palsy, a similar affliction. As his illness got worse, it robbed him of the ability to read. But as McGillivray wrote in a memoir of his wife Jetty: “I realized that the things I treasure about the people I love – and love still, even though apart – are tucked away in my head, not in boxes in the closet.” So all his books were stored mentally along with his career memories.
Back in his Southam days, the bureau decided to hold weekly half-hour story meetings. McGillivray’s response was to take his annual vacation a half an hour at a time every day. It was his way of letting the bureau know he was his own man, and it had the added benefit of meaning he didn’t have to listen to Charles Lynch and Allan Fotheringham argue. It started off as a joke but soon became serious – until his bosses stepped in. Even then, McGillivray never took any vacations. He thought it was a waste of time when he could be doing what he loved: reporting and writing stories. “To him,” says his son Neil, “nature was a blank space between islands of human activity.” Later, as a professor of business and economics reporting, McGillivray gave a lesson titled “The Joys of Journalism.” The joys included: “You get to know stuff before other people know the stuff” and “You get to tell other people about stuff.” It was McGillivray’s way of showing that journalism was something you do because you love it. Which he did.
Malena Ogryzlo-Harbers was the Visual Editor and Director of Advertising for the Summer 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.