January 11 marked a special anniversary for me. It was 40 years ago, on January 11, 1974, when I went to work. Forty years. Four decades. No matter how you count it, it was a long time ago. I was 22, almost three years younger than the youngest of my four children. Making the comparison reminds me how young I was.
It was the best of times to be a rookie reporter for CBC Television in Montreal. What an eye opener! You name it and it was happening. All the social and labour unrest, linguistic difficulties, the beginning of the Olympic spending spree; then add to that the criminal underworld in Montreal, which wasn’t so underground in the early-1970s.
I would go to work never knowing where the day would bring me. What the day would teach me.
There are so many memories of that first year. As I think back, I still can’t believe I was fortunate enough to experience so much in that very first year.
After a few brief months on the job, the firemen in Montreal went on strike and suddenly a part of the city went up in flames. The striking firemen were setting fires and, when their supervisors came to fight those fires, I saw the strikers cut water hoses with razor blades.
I remember the time there was labour difficultly with the transit union. The union was planning an illegal walkout and there was a member of the management team who knew about it. I was covering a meeting at city hall and this management person told me there would be no métro and no buses in the morning. He knew I was just staring out. My first scoop was really as innocent and as kind as that!
I interviewed Dr. Henry Morgentaler in those early months before anyone knew who he was. He had just opened his first abortion clinic and the reason for the interview was that a nurse at the clinic had just been arrested. I was there at the very beginning of that epic legal battle that so marked Canadian history.
In early-1974, I was told to meet and interview a visiting Israeli politician. His name was Shimon Peres. Does that put his success and longevity in perspective?
Of all the memories there is one that is most special. It was a Sunday in July, and I was the only reporter working that day. It was one of those days no one expects a major story to break – until there is one. The phone rang. It was the national newsroom in Toronto. Canadian Press was reporting a major prisoner escape from Montreal’s infamous Saint Vincent de Paul Penitentiary.
There I was, all alone, a raw rookie with a major story and the expectations of the national newsroom in Toronto. Worse still, the story involved an inaccessible prison where I did not have a single contact.
There was an old crusty crime reporter in the newsroom whom I was actually afraid of. His name was Frank Roach. I was told he was a religious man, that Sunday was his Lord’s Day, and that he would never work or want to be disturbed on a Sunday. I had no choice. I was smart enough to know I had to phone him and ask him for help. My future with the network really did depend on him.
I phoned quivering. He answered. I told him about the prison break and that the desk in Toronto was waiting on me to produce a story. There was dead silence, which seemed to go on forever. And then he thundered, “Kid, just stay there.” And then he hung up.
I honestly don’t remember how long it was before Frank called back, but it may have seemed like a lifetime.
“Kid, be at gate number four of the prison at 2 o’clock,” he said.
I arrived at 2 pm with a camera crew and was met by a prison guard. It was just like a movie. We were taken to the warden’s office. He gave me an interview and photos of the escapees. I had, or thanks to Frank Roach, was given, my first story for the national news.
Forty years have only increased my gratitude to Frank’s memory as well as my appreciation for human kindness.