Category Archives: Media

Bob Edwards: Booze-loving newspaper satirist

(This story is one of a series entitled “One Person’s Journey” telling how people from all walks of life, including a few rogues and rebels, have left their marks upon the world. To see a list of others featured in the series, click here.)

Bob Edwards 1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards
1859 – 1922

Bob Edwards was Calgary’s first media celebrity, a genuine pre-television superstar who put the frontier town on the North American map long before the cowboy showman Guy Weadick launched the Calgary Stampede or Mayor Don Mackay gave away his first white hat. “Calgary,” said a New York politician during the early part of the 20th century, “is, I believe, a place in Canada where the Eye Opener comes from.”

The Eye Opener was Edwards’s “newspaper,” a satirical publication that broke all the accepted rules of journalism by running gossip and satirical commentary instead of news, yet enjoyed the largest circulation (35,000) of any paper published west of Winnipeg.

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J. Patrick O’Callaghan: Maverick publisher

J. Pat O'Callaghan 1925 – 1996

J. Pat O’Callaghan
1925 – 1996

I worked for seven publishers during my three decades in Canadian daily journalism. Pat O’Callaghan was my favourite. I liked him best because he supported independent reporting and refused to kowtow to politicians or business leaders. He even refused to be beholden to his own bosses. During his three decades in Canadian journalism, this Irish-born renegade ran chain papers in Red Deer, Windsor, Edmonton and Calgary, all the time “cheerfully overlooking that the newspapers were owned by others.”

We knew him by reputation long before he arrived in Calgary. In Red Deer and Windsor he had written editorials on the front page under his own byline, reminding readers that a member of their community – not an absentee landlord – was running the day-to-day operations of the paper. In Edmonton, he  transformed the Journal into an extension of his professional Irish persona, colouring the masthead shamrock green, promoting the paper on green-painted billboards, and selling it from green street boxes. What would he do in Calgary? We couldn’t wait to see.

He arrived in July 1982 to replace the retiring Frank Swanson, who had overseen the paper’s move from downtown Calgary to a $70 million plant on a hill overlooking the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. We would always refer to this red-brick structure as “the new building,” even after we’d been in there for 20 years. Today the building is up for sale and some of us are still calling it “the new building.” Old habits die hard.

O’Callaghan introduced a succession of changes at the Herald – some whimsical, some farsighted – aimed at making readers (and staff) sit up and take notice.

Among the whimsical was his decision to strike “The” from the masthead of this paper that had been known variously throughout its 100-year existence as The Calgary Herald, The Calgary Daily Herald or, simply, The Herald. O’Callaghan claimed to have a historical justification for his decision to rename it Calgary Herald, but no one could ever find the evidence. The illuminated sign on the west side of the red-brick building kept the design of the old masthead. O’Callaghan couldn’t convince his Southam bosses to spend the money on replacing it.

Among O’Callaghan’s farsighted decisions, applauded by Herald employees with preschool children, was to make the Herald the first paper in Canada with a day-care centre on the premises. O’Callaghan also added Sunday to the paper’s publication schedule (“because we live in a seven-day world”) and switched the Herald from afternoon to morning delivery so that “a minor daily paper in Calgary” would not have the breakfast market all to itself. Herald readers still had the option of saving the paper for afternoon reading, he said.

O’Callaghan banned black-and-white-pictures from the Herald’s front page at a time when the paper’s library of colour photos was much like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. He emboldened his columnists to make their work reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.” He launched a Sunday magazine that came with the Herald for six years, and won a few national and regional awards along the way. And all the time, he worked to make the Herald the voice of Alberta. “Politically, we’ve never had a voice,” he said. “How can we when we only have 21 MPs who are swamped in Parliament, and a Senate that’s a joke at best? The only weapon we have is our voice.”

His independence made O’Callaghan a loner. He got no support from the Herald’s Toronto owners when he thundered in print against the National Energy Program. He alienated the Alberta politicians and business leaders who could have become his closest allies. “In this job, sooner or later, someone wants a favour or special treatment,” he said. “So I’ve avoided terribly close friendships.”

His eastern bosses eventually tired of his independence, especially when it started costing them money. They recalled him to Toronto at the end of 1988, when Calgary’s auto dealers started pulling their ads from the Herald to protest a series of stories, written by our great consumer reporter Brock Ketcham, listing suggested retail prices of new vehicles. “A typical swan song for a career that has been studded with a certain amount of controversy,” noted O’Callaghan with a certain pride.

He was then 63. Instead of settling into quiet retirement, he took his typewriter with him to Aurora, Ont. where over the next seven years he churned out a steady stream of freelance columns on Canadian unity, freedom of the press, and other subjects.

His last column appeared in the Globe and Mail on Canada Day, 1996, just one month before he succumbed to heart problems at age 70. The stated subject was Southam’s announced decision to establish its own national news service as an alternative to Canadian Press. The real subject, however, was something close to O’Callaghan’s independent heart.

Recalling that the Southam publishers of his time had always been free to back the political party of their choice, O’Callaghan expressed hope the proposed news service would not result in Southam newspapers singing the same political tune across the land:

“One would like to think than an element of such independence has survived the various crises Southam has passed through in recent years.”

I miss him to this day.

Remembering Elvis

(Published in the Calgary Herald on Aug. 16, 1997)

Those who cared will still remember what they were doing when they heard the news, 20 years ago today. I was interviewing Calgary concert promoter Dave Horodezky at his office when he excused himself to take a call. “What a shame,” said Dave, after a moment’s silence. “What a black day for rock ‘n’ roll.”

What a black day indeed. For members of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, Elvis Presley’s death at age 42 brought home to us the sobering reality of our own mortality. I was 33 then, and suddenly felt much older.

Other rockers — Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix — had died before Elvis. But we could rationalize their deaths as avoidable aberrations, caused by plane crashes or drug overdoses. Elvis’s death hit closer to home because he was the first of the original rockers to die from natural causes. Or so we thought at the time. It was only later we would discover that pills and southern-fried cholesterol were contributory factors.

I cared about Elvis because his music, wild, loud, uninhibited, was joyously different from the Mantovani music my parents listened to on Radio Eireann, the national broadcasting service in my native Ireland.

At age 13, it was important for me to have things private and unshareable — things that were exclusive teenage property. The sideburns and ducktail hairdo would come later. In the beginning, it was enough just to have the music, the raw sound, beamed to us from across the Atlantic via the only commercial pop music station, Radio Luxembourg, that could be picked up in Dublin in those unenlightened times. My friends and I listened to it surreptitiously after dark, when the station pointed its signal toward the British Isles.

Elvis didn’t invent white rock ‘n’ roll, of course, but he was unquestionably its first universal hero. Bill Haley, who scored the first huge rock ‘n’ roll hit with Rock Around the Clock, didn’t count because we knew he was just a failed country and western singer who got lucky with a new gimmick.

Elvis was the real thing, an American hillbilly with danger in his voice and rebellion in his soul, who took his surly look from the movie characters of Marlon Brando and James Dean, took his good-rocking music from the black gospel, and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers he heard on the radio as a kid, then synthesized these various borrowings into something original, something distinctively his own.

Competing for our young ears during the same period were other top U.S. rock ‘n’ rollers, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard. But good as they were, they could not compare with Elvis, who commanded from the first day we heard him. First with Heartbreak Hotel, and later with Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog, he ruled the airwaves like never before.

My friends and I would suffer through two hours of hit-parade Perry Como and Dean Martin on Radio Luxembourg every Sunday night just to hear three minutes of Elvis singing Don’t Be Cruel. By the end of that memorable year, 1956, Elvis had racked up half a dozen record hits, and earned the right to be forever called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. No one would ever dethrone him. From that moment onward, Presley would be the once and future king.

The generation that followed, the teenagers who had their life’s soundtrack composed for them by the Beatles, would doubtless disagree. They would say Elvis was nothing more than a brooding singer with an average voice, swivelling hips and limited guitar-playing ability. Heck, he didn’t even write his own songs.

But then they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand why Calgary Herald editor Bob Parkins showed up for work on Aug. 17, 1977, wearing a black arm-band. They wouldn’t understand why, for those of us who were teenagers in 1956, even the most mediocre of the first Presley recordings could make the pop music that followed seem as nothing, to be blown away like chaff.

I don’t much understand it either. I don’t understand why Pavarotti appeals to me more than the technically superior Placido Domingo, and I can’t explain why Elvis ruled and Pat Boone didn’t. Boone also released several rock hits in 1956, including Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Presley. Maybe it was because Boone sounded like someone my parents would have approved of.

I almost never listen to Elvis’s recordings nowadays, though I will always play his Blue Christmas in my house at Christmastime while resolutely refusing to listen to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Fats Waller and John Field have taken the place of the popular music I craved as a teenager. The Presley impersonators have ruined his songs for me by reducing them to parody.

But whenever someone suggests, as a 30-year-old friend named Tom did recently, that Elvis was not very good, I put Presley’s July 2, 2021 recording of Hound Dog on the turntable, and listen to it one more time. I hear what you say, Tom, but I have to disagree. Elvis was good. He was very good.


No more Sunday papers

Postmedia Network has scrapped the Sunday editions of the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen, put the National Post’s Monday edition on hiatus for the second summer in a row, and announced plans to stop publishing print editions of the chain’s papers on national holidays. More newsroom jobs will be lost, local news coverage will continue to shrink, and the future of the business will continue to look bleak. Pat O’Callaghan must be turning in his grave.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 1982) that O’Callaghan came to Calgary from Edmonton to become the Herald’s publisher. At the time, the upstart Calgary Sun had a Sunday edition, but not the Herald. “This minor daily paper should not have the Sunday market all to itself,” said O’Callaghan. He announced that the Herald would thenceforth publish its own Sunday edition because “we live in a seven-day world.” Three years later, he added a Sunday magazine to the paper. That supplement appeared for the next six years, and won a few national and regional awards for writing and photography. (Full disclosure: I was one of the magazine’s writers.)

Although the Sunday magazine had its own dedicated staff – two full-time writers, one full-time photographer, two full-time copy editors, and an editor-in-chief – the same did not hold true for the Sunday paper itself. That was a missed opportunity, to my mind. Instead of stretching six days of coverage over seven, Herald management should have put a full-time team of reporters, editors and photographers in place to produce an independent Sunday paper.

Management should also have taken some of those additional Sunday advertising dollars and used them to recruit a rotating roster of guest columnists (Aritha van Herk, Sharon Pollock, Fred Stenson, Sid Marty, Sam Selvon, etc.) to give the Sunday paper its own voice and identity. The resulting publication might not have had the same cachet as the Sunday New York Times, or even the Saturday Globe with its great standalone book review section, now much missed. But at least it would have stood out from the Monday to Saturday editions as a paper with a distinctive style and tone.

By the time Herald management finally got around to remaking the Sunday paper in accordance with reader surveys, it was too little too late. The paper was heavy on cosmetic changes and light on content reimagining. There was little in it for readers who had grown used to living without a local Sunday paper.

What will the Herald lose when the Sunday edition is axed at the end of July? We have yet to hear what sections will move to Saturday and to other days of the week. But I think it’s fair to speculate that books coverage will not be one of them. Book reviews don’t attract advertising and now, more than ever, advertising support is the key to the Herald’s survival. Sad but true.

One section deserves to die. The paper should get rid of the Sunday spreads of photos from the local cocktail party scene that, to my mind, take up an unnecessary amount of valuable space. But Corporate Calgary has to be kept happy, I suppose, so these pretty pictures are undoubtedly here to stay. Atwood will become irrelevant but the Stampede Queen must reign forever.

O’Callaghan was handed a great gig when he became the Herald’s publisher. Not only did he have the freedom to launch a Sunday edition and magazine, but he also had the freedom to make the Herald reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.”

Today, there is plenty of bland, precious little colour, and hardly any gutsiness. That’s what happens when you’re owned by a bunch New York hedge funds that care only about profit.

I see no light at the end of this tunnel. The demise of the Sunday editions is just the beginning of the end for Postmedia as a publisher of printed newspapers. I can only echo the wise words of a first-year journalism student who said to me recently, “I feel like we’re being trained to work for a business that will no longer exist by the time we graduate.”



Calgary heritage endangered

As soon as I read in the paper yesterday morning that the old Calgary Herald building was slated for demolition to make way for a 50-storey office tower, I wanted to have my picture taken in front of the 7th Avenue landmark. A CBC Radio reporter, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, kindly obliged after first interviewing me for a story about the seven years, 1974-81, that I spent working in the building as a reporter and columnist.

I told Mary-Catherine I was saddened to hear about the pending demise of this former workplace of mine because it’s another part of Calgary’s history that’s being sacrificed at the altar of commercial progress. Granted it’s not the most architecturally striking building in the world – a functionalist 1967 makeover took away much of the aesthetic character of the original 1912 structure – but it’s still an important link with our city’s past.

A lot of good journalism was done in that building. A columnist for the competing  Albertan used to dub our paper “The Old Grey Lady of 7th Avenue,” which he intended as an insult but which we accepted as a compliment because of the obvious comparison with The New York Times. Like the Times, we saw ourselves as the trusted newspaper of record for our region, not as a purveyor of cheap thrills or sensationalism.

We earned that trust by dint of hard work and independent reporting. We didn’t pander to politicians and we didn’t pander to advertisers. Of course I can be accused of bias but I always felt we were standing on the shoulders of distinguished predecessors who  believed their fight to preserve the freedom of the press was a fight for democracy itself.

That’s me on the left circa 1980, with a lot more hair than I have now!

During my first week on the job there I was surprised and pleased to discover that back in 1938 the Herald, along with four other Alberta dailies led by Edmonton Journal publisher John Imrie, had been honoured with a special Pulitzer Prize – the first one given outside the United States – for its spirited crusade against the Social Credit government’s attempt to gag the press. I was proud to be part of a news organization that would take a government to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish its right to tell the truth.

The 7th Ave building was the Herald’s headquarters from 1932 to 1981. Located across the street from the Bay, it was connected to the downtown’s beating heart in a way that’s never possible when you live in the suburbs. City hall, the police station, the courts, the library, the school board and the corporate head offices were all within easy walking distance. We did most of our interviews in person, not over the phone. If a freight train had derailed near the Palliser Hotel, the Herald’s reporters and photographers would have gotten to the scene before the fire trucks.

I was disappointed when the Herald moved in 1981 to a new building northeast of downtown near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. Our bosses told us there was a practical reason for this. We had purchased new printing presses that the paper’s 7th Avenue mechanical building was too small to accommodate. But did we have to move the paper’s editorial offices out there as well? I never thought so, but then I was just a reporter. I didn’t have any say in the executive decisions made by senior management.

We did maintain a Herald presence in the 7th Avenue building for a short time after moving out to the Deerfoot and Memorial location. If you wanted to buy a classified ad, you could still do so at the downtown office. But maintaining two separate offices proved impractical during the ensuing economic downturn, and the downtown office was quietly closed in 1982. Removed from the front window were the big clocks announcing the time in Tokyo, Berlin and Los Angeles, and the only remaining visible reminders of the building’s journalistic history were two small “Herald building” signs outside on the southeast corner.

The City of Calgary considers the Herald building to be of significant historical value and has included it in its heritage inventory. It seems baffling to me, therefore, that a developer can simply send out eviction notices to 60 existing tenants and announce this pending demolition without any word of protest from city council or the city’s heritage planning department. This is supposed to be Calgary’s big year for commemorating its cultural heritage, with centennial celebrations planned by the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre (just across the road from the old Herald) and the Pumphouse. Let’s not spoil it by destroying one 100-year-old landmark while remembering the others.

Postscript: The Herald building, unfortunately, has now been demolished. Photographer Paul Saulnier has documented the demolition with an excellent photo essay that you can view by clicking here.