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"If You Are Reading This, I Am Dead": Peter Worthington's Self-Penned Obituary

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The following post originally appeared in the Toronto Sun. Mr. Worthing died Sunday evening at the age of 86.

If you are reading this, I am dead.

How's that for a lead?

Guarantees you read on, at least for a bit.

When the Sun's George Gross died suddenly in March 2008, at age 85, there were few of his contemporaries left alive to recall the old days, when he was in his prime and his world was young. I was one of the few who knew him then.

After attending his funeral I half-facetiously remarked to the Toronto Sun's deputy managing editor, Al Parker, that I had been around so long that no one was left who knew me back then, and I had better write my own obituary.

"Good idea!" said Parker with more enthusiasm than I appreciated.

I mentioned it to my wife, Yvonne, who approved.

So here it is, not exactly an obit but a reflection back on a life and a career that I had never planned, but which unfolded in a way that I've never regretted.

Journalism never entered my mind when I was younger. I suppose my father's colourful life before entering the army in the First World War affected my outlook. He had been orphaned at age 10, worked as a water boy in a Mexican silver mine and witnessed his half-brother, superintendent at the mine, killed by the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. My dad went to sea, became a ship's engineer, was in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, fought in Central American wars (Nicaragua, Honduras) before heading off to serve in the First World War. Passing through Montreal, he enlisted in the Black Watch as a private, and returned in 1919 as a captain with a Military Cross and Bar, and a Military Medal and Bar.

As a kid, there was no way I could match that for adventure, and in my teens dreaded anything that was mindful of a staid, inside job. I worked on construction sites during the war and at 15 ran away from home to join the merchant navy, but was rejected. At 17, my mother signed consensual papers for me to enlist in the navy -- Fleet Air Arm, as it turned out. I later got a commission and at 18 was the youngest and least competent sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve.

On discharge in Vancouver, I used veteran credits to attend the University of British Columbia. I hadn't finished high school in Ontario, but, by the time UBC learned that, I had passed the first year, so they let me continue. I spent more time missing classes than I did studying, and by the time the Korean War started in 1950, my only achievement was winning the university's light-heavyweight boxing title and the Golden Gloves.

I joined the army as a lieutenant and went to Korea as a platoon commander, later became battalion intelligence officer, and then went on loan to the U.S. Air Force to join a Mosquito squadron, flying in the rear seat of Harvard planes to direct air strikes onto Chinese targets. It was felt infantry officers could read maps better than pilots, and understood ground defensive positions better.

When the war ended, I had mild depression. What to do now? I still yearned for an adventurous life, but the world had changed since my father's youth.

Rumour was that the French were hiring experienced infantry officers to serve in Indochina at $1,000 a month. I applied through the French embassy in Tokyo, and got a terse "Cher Lieutenant" letter that said the rumour was false, but I could join the Foreign Legion for five years as a private. In time for Dien Bien Phu, perhaps. I returned to Canada, took parachute training, joined the Princess Pats Mobile Strike Force, then quit the army.

What to do? I returned to UBC (on veteran credits), got a Bachelor of Arts degree and applied to the Vancouver Province to be a sports writer. I was considered unqualified for that, but was hired as a news reporter at $35 a month. I spent the summer of 1954 trying to get a byline and failed, until the city editor, Tom Hazlitt, took pity and re-wrote my story with my byline.

I went east to Ottawa's Carleton College for a journalism degree, won a couple of graduation prizes and was hired by the Toronto Telegram as a reporter by the paper's acerbic city editor, Art Cole, who seemed to expect every reporter to have an excuse not to cover an assignment, and was suspicious of those who were eager to work.

Shortly after I joined the Tely, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, and the Suez War erupted. When the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was authorized to go to Gaza, I took courage in hand and asked managing editor J. Douglas MacFarlane to send me.

He refused outright, and said a rookie reporter would never be sent on such an assignment. I replied that I had recently left the army, that I knew many of the soldiers involved, could get exclusive stuff, that I'd go on my holidays, charge no expenses, arrange my own way. Everything free for the Tely.

It was an offer MacFarlane couldn't refuse. I went, and the stories worked out.

It set the pattern for my future at the Tely, and was an argument for enterprise.

Soon after my return, the U.S. Marines landed in Lebanon to prevent a coup.

As the Tely reporter who had most recently been to the Middle East, I was the automatic choice this time, since my UNEF stuff had been acceptable (and cost nothing).

In the middle of the Lebanon crisis, Baghdad erupted with King Faisal and his family being assassinated. With another reporter, I hired a taxi in Damascus and we headed east across the roadless desert to Baghdad. I was first to report from Iraq.

At the same time, British paratroopers had landed in Jordan to protect King Hussein from a coup, supposedly being planned by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

I headed to Amman, after interviewing Brig-Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem who staged the coup in Iraq.

An hour after arriving in Amman, I went to the king's palace to apply for an interview and got mixed up with a group of German businessmen who were to meet King Hussein. I joined them, and by the time the king realized I was an interloper, it was too late and he tolerated my presence.

My success started a stampede of other journalists, who had been waiting weeks for an interview, to the palace. For me, it was a realization that for journalists, reconnaissance can be valuable, and that it's better to be lucky than good.

For the next 15 years, I covered every major war, crisis or revolution in the world. I was reluctant to take holidays for fear of missing a foreign crisis. Not in any particular order, I covered the Algerian war of independence, the Congo, Angola insurgency, Jews fleeing Morocco, the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet, the coup in Laos, the Vietnam War, Indonesia's invasion of Dutch New Guinea, India versus Pakistan, China's invasion of India, Israel's 1967 defeat of Egypt, China shelling Taiwan, riots in Belgium, civil disturbance in France, the mutiny of the Foreign Legion in Algeria, and so on.

In the early days, when attending a crisis, my method was to start with a colour story, like getting roughed up by angry crowds, or confronting the police or the army, and gradually learning the politics of what was happening. At the end of each assignment, I liked to do a five-part series on what it all meant, ending with a prediction of what the future would bring -- which I still feel is important, as the reporter learns to analyze.

Those years were enormously stimulating and satisfying -- being at the centre of the hurricane, or most newsworthy story of the moment. I relished being in the centre of action, with adrenalin flowing, and motivated by being able to write about it the same day, and going to another adventure the next day.

All at the publisher's expense. A huge privilege.

The endless travel cost me my first marriage, since the job took precedence -- especially when I went to Moscow to open the bureau for the Toronto Telegram in the mid-1960s. Before that, the Tely wanted to open a bureau in China. The Chinese had indicated approval, and I spent a couple of months in Hong Kong waiting for a visa.

The Chinese eventually rejected me -- not, as I had feared, because I had been a soldier in the Korean War but because I showed too much enthusiasm and had co-operated with the Americans in bombing Chinese troops.

My wife, Helen, understandably didn't want an absentee husband. We divorced and she bettered herself by marrying a judge, and living happily. I later married a Tely reporter, Yvonne Crittenden, whose husband had run off with another Tely staffer (Caligula's court in those days), and we all benefitted accordingly.

When President John Kennedy was assassinated, I was one of a team of Tely reporters dispatched to Washington. I went on to Dallas for the arraignment of Lee Harvey Oswald, accused assassin of JFK.

An hour after arriving in Dallas on the redeye flight from Washington, I checked out the Dallas police station and inadvertently stumbled into the underground garage where the cops (who mistook me for an FBI agent) were ready to transport Lee Harvey Oswald to the jail. I was there when Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and shot Oswald. I appear briefly on TV shots of the killing, but it doesn't stand out in my memory as a watershed moment.

When the Tely folded in 1971 and the Sun started, I was one of the lucky ones who had been offered a job at The Toronto Star. "You'll never like it -- you're not a Star person," said Yvonne, who had worked at The Star and been reamed out by the city editor (Bill Drylie) for using shorthand, which he called "chicken tracks." He'd tolerate no reporter "who did chicken tracks."

Instead of joining the Star, I teamed up with Doug Creighton and Don Hunt in starting the Toronto Sun, with me as executive editor and then editor-in-chief. I nursed no desire to be editor, and always felt reporting was an honourable job. To me, good reporters were more valuable than mediocre editors, and should get paid accordingly. As editor, I had strong views on what editorials should be -- one handed (no on this, that or the other hand), a strong point of view, marshal your arguments, and let others challenge them.

If, later, you change your mind, acknowledge it and inform the reader. I liked irreverence, eccentricity, controversy, cheerfulness, mischief and independent thinking. These could be found in columnists if one knew where to look.

Editorially, the Sun challenged the policies of Pierre Trudeau -- his dislike of the military, his empathy for communism, his admiration of dictators (Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro), his lust for a written constitution and so on. The Sun became a lightning rod for those uneasy about Trudeau, at a time when Trudeaumania was rampant.

Trudeau's dislike of the Sun overflowed when I was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act for revealing 16 cases of Soviet subversion of Canadians at a time when Trudeau insisted the Soviet Union was Canada's friend. After a year of preliminary hearings, the judge dismissed the case.

I had been looking forward to the trial, which I thought was winnable. Publisher Creighton quipped at the time that he was pleased the charges were dismissed "but my co-accused is going to appeal."

During this tense period, the Sun's circulation rose by some 30,000. Hitherto leftist critics evidently felt we couldn't be all bad if the RCMP were taking aim at us.

In 1982, I quit the Sun's board of directors and gave up the editorship when we voted -- with one dissenting voice (mine) -- to sell ourselves to Maclean-Hunter, thus trading our independence for financial security. I stayed at the Sun, writing a column, until my erstwhile partner, Publisher Creighton, fired me because The Star ran a front-page item quoting me on a book tour in Edmonton saying rival papers covered hard news better than the Sun.

What I had said was that the Sun ran opinion columns and had diversity, and let readers decide what they want to read, but if it's only hard news one wants, buy a rival paper. I always felt Doug had acted impetuously, and then couldn't back down. This was 1984. I went to the Financial Post as a columnist -- until Doug was quoted in The Globe and Mail in 1988 saying I'd be the first editor of the new Ottawa Sun that was due to start.

Yvonne and I were in Nova Scotia at the time. More impetuousness from Doug.

I went back to the boy scout stuff -- three times to Angola with the Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement, fighting the Soviet-Cuban Marxist regime; attending Eritrea's war of independence from Ethiopia in 1988, and then returning in 1998 for another border war with Ethiopia.

In short, I'd argue I had a glorious, stimulating and rewarding life -- maybe not the same as my father's, but longer, and in its way, more varied.

I feel a bit as one of the characters in the great movie The Man Who Would Be King who says that he and his friend may not have amounted to much, but think of the things they've seen, and the memories they have. I feel similarly.

Looking back, it was a privilege to have stayed at the jungle hospital of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Gabon and conferred with the great man; also interviewing and visiting the Dalai Lama, first when he escaped from Tibet in 1959, and later at his Indian retreat of Dharamsala in 1962; and interviewed the likes of Nasser, Nehru, Chiang Kai-shek, Lumumba, Jomo Kenyata, Indira Ghandi, Alan Paton, Joe Louis and such.

I treasure being with Heinrich Harrar, author of Seven Years in Tibet, in Dutch New Guinea where the stone-age Dani people had only recently been discovered. They used seashells as money and had not yet invented pottery.

It was nerve-wracking in 1967 to be mistaken for an Israeli prisoner by a Cairo mob and punched and battered until rescued by a brave Egyptian who defied the mob.

There were the lethal streets of Algiers, where daily assassinations took place, and occasionally the French army opened fire on civilians. One afternoon a bullet went through the sleeve of my jacket and I didn't know it until others pointed it out.

Prague, when Soviet tanks invaded, and the great distance runner, Emil Zatopek, ran the streets, preaching resistance to the Soviets, and then racing to the next rallying point, always a pace ahead of the Red Army.

Being jailed in Luanda and deported to Mozambique, at a time when Portuguese reprisals were underway in Angola.

There is the image of Patrice Lumumba being hustled out of the Ghanaian officers mess in Leopoldville, to save him from assassination by a raging mob. And then Lumumba giving a press conference while under house arrest -- and escaping at night to attend rallies in his name.

More memories: Ojukwu, in Biafra, with brand-new shoes and smoking State Express cigarettes, as Ben Wicks was scolded for having his hands in his pocket while in the presence of "His Excellency."

Of Albert Schweitzer whacking a leper not-so-gently on the head for not chipping faster at a huge rock from which he was making gravel.

Of Laos, boasting proportionately the most Mercedes cars in the world in a country with only 24 km of paved roads -- and a dead king being preserved in a tree trunk filled with honey for one year until burial.

Of Dr. Tom Dooley, sick with terminal cancer, wanting me to rent an aircraft for him to fly to his jungle hospital for a farewell visit.

Of meeting the Beatles in Hong Kong -- and not knowing who they were or why the city was going berserk over their presence there.

A fond memory is the RCMP searching my cluttered office for a letter by the head of RCMP security to then-prime minister Trudeau complaining against the PM's dictum that security checks of Quebecers should not include questions about separatism.

Bob Johnstone of the CBC, looking through the glass window with other TV journalists, quipped that the office was so cluttered "the RCMP may not find a letter, but they may lose a Mountie."

After checking under the coffee table, chairs, behind pictures on the wall, rifling through books for the letter, they found it a couple of hours later in the upper left hand drawer of my desk.

These, and more, are the products of a career in journalism, and are part of what made it worthwhile. And I've not even mentioned Olga, the exotic defector from the KGB in Moscow, or the rewarding aberration of running for a seat in parliament and having the distinction of losing in the greatest Tory sweep in Canada's history.

I've never been much afraid of dying -- scared, at times, yes. But I never expected to reach 80, much less 86!!

Of course, there is the Toronto Sun, which was never as good a newspaper as it could have been, but which was always a fun place to work, with good people who seemed to be forever being replaced by other good people.

The Sun was always pretty tolerant of me and, I must say, I was pretty tolerant of it from time to time. We both served each other's purpose.

My greatest regret is causing pain or sorrow for those left behind -- Yvonne, Casey, Guy and Dani and the grandkids -- all of whom made life worthwhile.

I regret, too, the nuisance for them of a funeral which they may hope will be well attended, but which I know won't be, because I tend to be a loner who treated most people decently, but who never encouraged intimacy.

My reservations are meaningless and will be ignored.

Pity I wasn't a drinker, then everyone could feel superior and forgive a weakness.

Readers can find Peter Worthington's past posts here.

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