TORONTO, Cananda - Peter Worthington, the globe-trotting foreign correspondent who reported on some of the biggest events of the 20th century before co-founding the Toronto Sun, has died after succumbing to a staph infection. He was 86.
News of Worthington's passing sparked a torrent of tributes from former co-workers, politicians and readers who recalled the veteran newspaperman's coverage of events ranging from a civil war in Nigeria to the slaying of Lee Harvey Oswald, accused assassin of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Colleagues remembered him as a man whose preference for solitude masked a fearlessness that brought him into personal contact with some of the last century's most storied figures.
"Here's the man who one day woke up in a jungle in Gabon and was having breakfast with Albert Schweitzer. Who later happened to be in Tibet when the Dalai Lama escaped. Who was in that garage in Dallas on the morning when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald," said Mark Bonokoski, national editorial writer for Sun Media and Worthington's long-time friend.
"Most journalists, if they had one of them, would milk that for their entire career. But Peter had stacks of them. . . . Any journalist today my age or younger who think they've had a distinguished career ought to give their heads a shake."
Worthington's journalistic career began after he had already carried on a distinguished family tradition in Canada's Armed Forces.
Born in an army camp in 1927, Worthington was the son of Maj. Gen. Frederic Franklin (Fighting Frank) Worthington, widely considered the father of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps.
Peter went on to enlist himself, serving as an air gunner during the Second World War. Veterans Affairs Canada said he also undertook a stint as an intelligence officer with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry during the Korean War.
He pursued higher education after his discharge, earning a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia and a journalism degree from Carleton University before joining the staff of the Toronto Telegram in 1956.
He spent the next 15 years covering global conflicts in locales as diverse as Nigeria, Iraq and Moscow, during which time Bonokoski said Worthington's staunch anti-communist views were cemented.
His time as a foreign correspondent also earned him two of the four National Newspaper awards he would amass over his career.
But his travels were abruptly curtailed in 1971 when the Telegram was shut down. Worthington, along with a cadre of other former Telegram employees, quickly mobilized to create the Toronto Sun.
It originally launched as a tabloid. Widely predicted to set as quickly as it rose, the Sun went on to grow into a national media conglomerate, and at least one of Worthington's former coworkers credits him with much of the paper's success.
Sun Media Ontario legislature correspondent Christina Blizzard was one of the original Sun employees who served as Worthington's assistant before making the move to reporting. She said Worthington's devotion to the craft and those who practised it was instrumental to developing a loyal reader base.
"He recognized that if you wanted to get people to read the paper, you had to bring them in and engage them, and he did that," Blizzard said. "He was very loyal to his staff and he always stood by reporters because he understood how hard a job it can be when you're out there."
Worthington's career at the Sun took a variety of turns. He spent 12 years as Editor-In-Chief at the Toronto Sun, helped found the sister publication in Ottawa and eventually became a columnist for Sun Media, Bonokoski said.
But his time at the company was not without interruption or controversy. He took one leave of absence to unsuccessfully pursue political office and was once fired by one of his fellow co-founders for making some disparaging remarks about the Toronto paper.
His outspoken brand of conservatism, which came through most clearly in his columns, earned him a number of vocal detractors. One 1978 column identifying Canadians accused of treason even resulted in charges under Canada's Official Secrets Act. The charges were ultimately dropped.
But those who knew him said the brash writing was the facade of a quiet man who relished his solitude and often preferred to work with animals rather than people.
"There was no braggadocio. He wasn't a guy who sat at a bar and talked about his war stories. He was very much of a loner," Bonokoski said, adding that shyness also concealed a broad streak of irreverent humour.
In a tribute written for U.S.-based website "The Daily Beast," Worthington's son-in-law David Frum said family was the primary focus of his final days.
"He entertained his three children and six grandchildren with his famous gallows humour. A week later, he said his last goodbyes, commanded "no tears," and lost consciousness," Frum wrote.
Many other tributes appeared on social media, including one from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Saddened to hear of the passing of Peter Worthington, a true Canadian patriot. Rest In Peace," Harper wrote.
"We lost a legend and a giant of our industry," tweeted Sun Media photographer Dave Abel.
Even his detractors spoke out in praise of his passion and conviction.
"I never agreed on many things he wrote, but he was a passionate advocate for things he believed. Much respect," wrote one twitter user.
Blizzard said Worthington's relatively sudden death offered some consolation to those who knew him, saying his faculties were sharp and he was contributing characteristically outspoken columns mere weeks before his passing.
"He was active and engaged and writing right up until the last. So in that sense I think he went on his own terms," Blizzard said.
Worthington's byline will appear in the Toronto Sun one last time, Bonokoski confirmed, saying a self-penned obituary is slated for publication on Tuesday.
In addition to his children and grandchildren, Worthington is survived by his wife Yvonne.
Frum said details of a memorial service will be announced in the coming days.
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